When former Hollywood starlet Madeline Pensky wins a life-changing jackpot, a local real estate agent wants to know why she won't sell her battered old trailer home; by Nancy Cole Silverman.
Allow me to introduce myself. I am your stage director, God, he who wields almighty power. So, if you're ready, settle back and allow me to present, Shake and Bake, a reality play, happening before our very eyes.
It's four o'clock in the afternoon. The California sun is setting low in the afternoon sky and Madeline Pensky, our protagonist, toddles with a wine glass in hand and her loyal four-footed companion Alfred to her mailbox. Behind her, a trailer sits on a bare desert mountaintop. Madeline's visit to the mailbox is the highlight of her day. The only communication she has with an outside world that has passed her by, an aged star whose light has long since gone out. Her mail usually consists of nothing more than brochures from the Neptune Society, advertisements for medical alert bracelets and invitations to luncheons on retirement planning, offering nothing of any personal interest. But today, there is a large, legal-sized envelope that causes her heart to quicken.
Splashed across the front, in bold red letters, are the words: Urgent! Important Information Regarding Your Sweepstakes Entry. Open Immediately.
Like a presenting actress at the Oscars, Madeline tears into the envelope and stares at the letter inside.
Congratulations! You have won the Big Readers Sweepstakes. Ten Million Dollars.
Madeline slaps her hand to her chest. Her heart beats so fast she feels it is about to leap from her body. She holds her breath. At last, she has won!
Arrangements are to be made for a special camera crew to film the presentation of the check to Miss Pensky, the lucky winner of the Big Readers Ten Million Dollar Sweepstakes! Until then, the letter warns, she mustn't say anything or she'll forfeit her winnings.
Tonight, Madeline will barely sleep. She'll spend the night with Alfred, a dog of indeterminate breed and years, at the foot of her bed, counting her fortune, planning how she is going to spend her winnings. No more will anyone laugh when she states that her financial planning included a lottery card and a receipt from the Big Readers Sweepstakes. Her luck has changed. She, Madeline Pensky, the former runner-up for Miss Hollywood, is about to reclaim her rightful position in the limelight. Dignity, fame, and fortune will be hers.
Madeline Pensky hasn't been a particularly lucky woman. Forty years ago, she moved from her hometown outside of Topeka, Kansas, to find herself in Hollywood. She likes to tell people she earned her living as an actress. Albeit not a particularly successful one. Her one big break came years ago when she landed a role as Det. Borowski, a sexy young investigator, sidekick to a bigger Hollywood name, in a television series called Bay City Patrol. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after the third season when her co-star was arrested for smuggling drugs. After that, Madeline picked up bit parts here and there - nothing ever quite as exciting as that of Det. Borowski - and subsidized her income, like many actors, as a waitress. She had been married three times; the first for love, the second for security, the third for companionship. Husband three had swindled her out of her life savings, and up until she visited her mailbox that afternoon she had been living on her social security, less than seven hundred dollars a month, and royalties, a petty sum she received each month for work she'd done as an actress. But with her sudden winnings she was, as the police would later say, a target; the type of woman for whom fortune seekers might be hunting.
And now, if you'll allow me, a little stage direction. Let's cue the camera. Day two. A long shot of a lone trailer, sitting on top a dry, dusty desert mountaintop. The awards crew approaches, the camera follows. The presenter, a young man, turns to the camera crew and knocks on Madeline's front door, then places his index finger on his lips.
"Shsssh. We're here today to present -"
You know the rest, but all the same, let me describe the scene.
Madeline answers the door. This morning she's looking more like a reincarnated Jayne Mansfield than the untidy, gray-haired lady who less than twenty-four hours earlier we watched as she ambled from her trailer to her mailbox with her dog, dressed in her housecoat and pink slippers. Her mousey gray hair is covered with a platinum blonde wig, bouffant style. Her cheeks are rouged rosy red and her eyes are accented with lashes the length of spider legs. Around her body, tied firmly like a corset, is a frilly white apron. All things she has pulled from a stage trunk of old memorabilia. Madeline, like Norma Desmond from the movie Sunset Boulevard, is ready for her close-up.
The filming of Madeline's mock surprise and the acceptance of the monstrously large check - a four-foot long, two-foot high prop - with the words ten-million-dollars boldly emblazoned upon it, not only made the nightly news but also the front page of the LA Times. Talk of Madeline, a one-time actress and single, older woman, winning that much money was everywhere. On TV talk shows, on the radio, in supermarket aisles. Madeline was back in the limelight.
Now you may be thinking Madeline was planning on moving from her home. Taking her winnings and investing in a much more upscale location than the remote trailer site where she, Alfred, and her menagerie of small animals had been living. And if you were, you wouldn't be alone.
Enter stage right: one Samuel Peterson, former farrier, horse trader and recently turned struggling real estate agent. There is a knock on the door.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Madeline opens the door and stares through the screen at the stranger on her doorstep. An older man, neatly dressed in blue jeans and boots, stands humbly with a cowboy hat in his hand.
The cowboy speaks with kind of a down-home Texas drawl.
Madeline opens the door wide enough to get a better view of the man. He is slim, with thinning blond hair and nicotine-stained teeth. A small cat races out from between her legs.
"Now look what you've done. You've let Precious out! What is it you want?"
"Sorry to disturb you, ma'am. I uh... uh... I recognized you from TV. Not just the news about your recent Big Readers win either, but your face. Could never forget that face."
Madeline touches the platinum blonde wig, grateful she'd thought to put it on again this morning.
"I was a fan, or I guess, to be honest, still am."
Madeline exhales. It's been years since anyone has come up to her on the street and asked for her autograph and she doubts that's what he's here for now.
"What can I do for you?"
"Actually, I was hoping I might be able to help you. I'm a realtor. Allow me to introduce myself, Sam Peterson's my name. People round here call me Sammy."
Sam reaches into his pocket and pulls out a business card, then waits for her to open the screen and passes it through.
"I was wonderin', considering your recent win - not that I was being nosey, ma'am, but, you never know - I thought you might be interested in sellin' the place. Got a few clients who might want a spread like this. What ya got here? 'Bout an acre, maybe more? Place like this on a hilltop like it is, not too far from the city, why I bet you can almost touch the stars at night. Probably get you a really good -"
"You can stop right there, Mr... What did you say your name was?"
Madeline pauses and glances down at the card.
"Peterson. Samuel Peterson."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Peterson, I'm not interested."
She starts to hand his business card back to him but Peterson backs up and puts his hat back on his head and his other hand in his pocket.
"Well, I'm sure it's a bit too soon. You're probably overwhelmed with all the opportunity you have. Why don't you keep my card? Just in case, and if you think you might be interested, give me a call. Happy to help."
Samuel tips his hat and backs away from the door, determined he'll try again.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, that we've reached the end of Act One, I would like to share with you a little Madeline History. I don't expect Madeline would want you to know that in addition to her trunk of wigs, costumes, and Hollywood makeup hidden inside her trailer, that our Madeline had another little secret she's hiding. But why should I spoil it for you? You'll find out soon enough. Because, like you, Samuel Peterson's interest has been piqued by Madeline's refusal to sell her dumpy double-wide in the middle of nowheresville. And, as a new realtor in the area, it is to his benefit to get her listing. After all, that's all realtors really want. Or is it?
Welcome to Act Two.
It's mid-morning, two weeks later, and Samuel is again on Madeline's doorstep, hat in hand. But this time, our determined realtor has brought a gift, a bouquet of Southern California Poppies, wildflowers, he hides behind his back.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Samuel knocks boldly on the door, then steps back and waits. In the background, we hear what sounds like slippers shuffling across a linoleum floor. The door opens.
Samuel shifts his weight nervously in his cowboy boots. As the door opens wider, he sees Madeline standing before him. But this is not the Madeline he'd seen the other day with her platinum bouffant hair and a frilly apron. The woman standing before him today is dressed in her housecoat, and carrying a large box. On her head, covering wisps of her gray hair is a bandana.
"Well, now, if it isn't Mr. Peterson. I see you don't give up easily. So, I'll tell you again. I'm not interested in selling. Good day."
Madeline shifts the uncomfortably large box to her hip and starts to close the door.
"Sorry to disturb you, Ms. Pensky, but I was in the area and I thought I'd stop by and bring you these."
Samuel takes the flowers from behind his back and holds them out like a peace offering.
"Please, Ms. Pensky. These won't last the day without water and it looks like you could use some help. At least, let me leave them and maybe help you with that box? It looks heavy and it'd be a shame to let these beautiful flowers just wither and die here all alone on the mountain."
"Umph. Well, I could use the help, but if you're here to talk to me about selling, I promise you, you'd be wastin' your time. I'm not interested. Plain and simple. I like it here."
Madeline backs away from the door and Samuel takes the box from her. Entering the trailer his eyes scan the living area, trying to get an idea of the condition and size of the trailer. He places the box on the coffee table, a cat scurries from beneath it. Across the room, three more cats sit in a cat tree, beside it are two more boxes like that he has just put on the table.
"Doing a little spring cleaning, are you?"
"Don't get your hopes up, Mr. Peterson. I'm not planning on moving. Just sorting through a few of my old theater things. Thought I might throw some it out."
"Mind if I take a look? I was a big fan, you know."
"Suit yourself. I was about to make myself a cup of coffee. You care for one?"
Without waiting for an answer, Madeline heads to the kitchen, a small utility affair at the far end of the living room. The trailer's living area is as bare bones as it gets. Aged whitewashed wood paneled walls with cheap vinyl flooring and accented with mid-century furnishings.
Sammy looks inside the box. It is full of wigs, scarves, eyeglasses and memorabilia from Madeline's theater days. He lifts a red wig from inside the box.
"You're not planning to throw this out? It was your signature look, Det. Borowski, from Bay City Patrol. My favorite."
"Well, you're hardly alone. My Ex loved me in that role. It was my big break."
Madeline joins him on the couch and places a tray on the table with two cups of coffee, a plate of cookies and a small vase with the wildflowers he had brought her.
"He was a lot like you. A salesman, but not a particularly good one. Poor man was driven crazy by my good fortune. Unfortunately, it ruined my marriage."
Madeline takes the wig from him and stuffs it back in the box.
"I'm afraid things ended badly between us."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I loved that show. But certainly, you must have some good memories from then."
Madeline leans forward and takes a silver scarf from the box and wraps it dramatically around her neck.
"This. I wore it on the set with my second husband. He was a wonderful man. Not a terribly good actor and a bit controlling. But loyal as the day is long, until..."
"Until he passed."
Samuel picks up his coffee cup up and sits back on the couch.
"It was rather untimely. But then there was Roger. And I can assure you, I've no mementos in that box to remind me of him. Roger, damn his soul, cleaned me out, took me for everything I had, and now, far as I care, it's good riddance."
Samuel sips his coffee, furrows his brow and considers what to say next.
"You do have a lot of memories here, Ms. Pensky. Not that I'm pushing, but perhaps you should consider selling, getting a fresh start, somewhere else."
"Ah! There you go. You're exactly like my ex-husband. Always trying to tell me what to do. But I'm not selling. Besides, I have my menagerie of animals here. This is their home. How could I sell this place out from under them? Just because of my good fortune. Now that wouldn't be fair, would it?"
Samuel smiles and puts his cup back on the table, then crosses his arms and looks her directly in the eye.
"Not to be rude, Ms. Pensky, but have you given any thought to what you will do with all that money you've won?"
"I've been thinking I might travel. I've always wanted to but never could when my husbands were alive. Such stick in the muds."
"Well then, there's no stopping you now then, is there?"
"I suppose not, Mr. Peterson, but I've never fancied traveling alone. I'm more of a together person."
"You could advertise for a traveling companion."
"A companion? With one those awful matchmaker services?"
"Well, you might give it a try. You never know. Lady like you, retired actress, moneyed. I'm sure the men would be lined up 'round your door for such an opportunity."
"With their walkers maybe. Most men my age are looking for a nurse with a purse. Not my interest, thank you."
"I'm sure there's someone out there, in plenty good shape, who would be delighted."
"And just where do think I should go, Mr. Peterson? If you could do anything you want, go anywhere in the world, where would it be?"
"I've never had the opportunity to think seriously 'bout that. But if I could, why I'd do one of those fancy river trips you see advertised on TV all the time. Maybe go to some exotic place like Budapest or the Taj Mahal."
"You surprise me, Mr. Peterson. You're much more of a dreamer than I'd given you credit for. You sure you're not pitching yourself?"
"Yes, you, Mr. Peterson."
"Are you suggesting, Ms. Pensky, that you might consider me as a traveling companion?"
"Goodness, Mr. Peterson, I think your assumptions are a bit quick."
From behind them, there is a scratching at the back door. Madeline gets up to let the dog in, then stops him abruptly. Quickly taking something his mouth, she shoves it in her pocket and returns to the couch.
"I'm afraid it's getting late, Mr. Peterson. Perhaps we should continue this conversation another time."
Sam's stands up, the dog approaches him and he pets him on the head.
"I'd love to Ms. Pensky, but please, if I come back, call me Sammy or Samuel."
"Alright, then, Samuel. Until next time. And you can call me Maddy."
Nice isn't it. Two older people making a connection? Our poor little millionairess Maddy, stuck up on that hill all by herself, too stubborn to move. And Samuel, a hapless bachelor who's beginning to think his life is about to take a turn for the better. Or is it?
Welcome, my friends to Act Three. And now, if you'll allow me, a little divine intervention.
It's dawn. The sun is beginning to break through the clouds after a long wet night of torrential downpours. A specialty of mine, followed by another of my favorites, earthquakes. There's a violent convulsive shaking of the earth. The hillside behind Maddy's home begins to slip, trees are felled to the ground and a portion of her backyard begins to crack open. But the trailer remains miraculously steadfast on its mounting.
Inside Maddy is thrown from her bed. She grabs her robe and races to the window. The damage the earthquake has done to her backyard is overwhelming. The shed had collapsed. There are several sinkholes, three to be exact, that have opened up to reveal their contents. Like the past climbing from beneath the earth's surface, the bones of her former husbands lie exposed.
Without bothering to dress, Maddy rushes to the backyard, Alfred at her heels, barking. From what remains of the shed, she pulls a shovel from beneath the ruins and starts to fill the exposed graves with the loose earth. From behind her, Sam appears on the back steps of the mobile home. He looks frazzled.
"Maddy, Maddy. Are you okay?"
Maddy straightens herself and stares at Samuel. Clearly she was not expecting him. The look of disbelief, her eyes wide, mouth open, written on her face.
"What are you doing here, Samuel?"
"I came to check on you. I was worried."
Sam jumps off the porch and comes to her, grabbing the shovel from her hands.
"Maddy, what are you doing?"
Even now staring at the three open sinkholes, it hasn't hit him. Before him are plots, crude graves and within those earthen walls are the bones of her -
"Maddy! Maddy! What is this?"
Maddy's heart is racing, her breath like panting, coming in big heavy waves.
"Oh, I wish you hadn't seen that."
She grabs the shovel back from him.
"I'm afraid this complicates things between us, Samuel."
"Maddy, what are you talking about?"
She laughs, the sound of her laughter like that of a mad woman.
"All you wanted was a listing, you stupid fool. Why couldn't you just leave it alone? Stay out of my business? You're just like the others. Always trying to tell me what to do. And look what it got them. Go ahead, look. What do you think this is?"
Samuel stares at the plots before him and shakes his head.
"No. No, this can't be. You're not trying to tell me these are the bones of your -"
"My ex-husbands, Samuel. That's Thomas, he and I bought this place together. There's Michael, Mr. Boring, and that over there is that bastard, Donald, who ripped me off."
Maddy points to each of the graves and stands defiantly before him. Her hands wrap slowly tighter around the handle of the shovel.
"I'm sorry you had to see this. But I suppose it's for the best. Sooner or later, you'd have figured it out. But it doesn't have to end this way. The decision's yours, Samuel."
Sammy stands frozen, unable to move, his eyes fixed on the open graves.
"We could have a good time together, Samuel. Think about it. What was it you wanted to see? Budapest? The Taj Mahal? With my money, together we could do it all."
Without a word, Sammy stares into her eyes. The eyes of Det. Borowski, the woman he had fantasized about for years, the woman who was asking him to join her.
"I need your answer, Samuel. I don't have a lot of time."
Sammy reaches for the shovel. Determined to take it from her. To stop her.
They struggle with their hands on the handle, pushing each other back and forth.Then Maddy, being shorter and of a stout frame, the center of gravity to her advantage, twists and leans her hip into him, like she'd been taught to do when playing Det. Borowski on TV. Caught off guard, Sammy's hands break free of the shovel and he topples over her, hitting his head on a rock, knocking himself unconscious.
Maddy stops, stares at the body, then rolls it into the grave on top of husband number three and covers them. Then stepping back, she exhales. The sweat drips from her brow. Tomorrow she tells herself, tomorrow is another day, and she'll plant flowers.
Such a sad state of affairs. Particularly for Samuel Peterson. Oh, I suppose one might say he has ended up with the property, just perhaps not as he intended. And Maddy, poor Madeline, all alone again and without a traveling companion.
But this would hardly be the end of the story. We're barely through Act Three and I so hate to end things on such a dour note. Let's flash forward.
Two weeks later. A Monday morning. Maddy's trailer.
There is a knock on the door.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Maddy answers. She is dressed in a pair of tight-fitting jeans and wearing the red wig. An older, slightly bedraggled looking fellow dressed in a Columbo-style trench coat, identifies himself as an LAPD detective. He is there to inquire about a missing person. It seems a local realtor, Mr. Samuel Peterson, has disappeared. The detective hands her his card.
"His appointment book shows he may have been canvassing the area for listings last month. Right before the earthquake. I thought I'd stop by and see if you remember seeing him."
Madeline stares at the card, shakes her head and tries to hand it back.
"Keep it. And if you think of anything, give us a call."
The detective takes a step off the porch then stops. He looks a bit befuddled, then pointing a finger at her, he says:
"Excuse me, aren't you the woman who won all that money?"
"The Big Readers Sweepstakes. Ten million dollars. Yes. That's me."
Madeline fans herself with the detective's card. The detective smiles, his hands in his overcoat.
"So then, you must be that actress. Madeline -"
"Madeline Pensky. I played Detective Borowski on Bay City Patrol."
The detective takes his hands out of his pockets, and raises them, shoulder height, upward to the sky. A huge smile on his round face.
"They'll never believe this back at headquarters."
Maddy winks and points her index finger, her hand like a gun, in his direction.
"Wow. I could sure use a Detective Borowski on this case with me now. She always got her man."
"Yes, well, I'm afraid I don't know anything about any realtor. After the news broke about my winnings, I found realtor cards in my mailbox and up and down the drive like desert locusts. Of course, I trashed them all. I'm not about to sell. So, if this Peterson's card was among them, I wouldn't know."
"Just my luck."
Madeline pushes a few of the red hairs back behind her ear.
"Perhaps, Detective, your Mr. Peterson was just swallowed up by the quake."
The detective turns and looks out at the view in front of the trailer.
"Think so, huh?"
"It was just a joke, Detective. Just a joke."
The detective shakes his head and starts to leave again, then stops and turns back to her.
"So, what's it like?"
"What's what like, Detective?"
"Winning all that money. I can't imagine how that must feel. Bet you get a lot of gentlemen callers up here, hoping to woo you away with all your winnings."
Madeline drops her head and smiles, her eyes staring directly into his.
"Men, Detective, have never been much of a problem, money or no money. The right one always seems to come along."
"I imagine so. Lots of lonely hearts. Well then, good day, ma'am."
The detective nods and starts to back off the porch. Madeline hollers after him.
"Detective, there's a bit of a chill in the air. I was just about to make myself a cup of coffee. Perhaps you'd like to come in and join me."
"I could use some coffee. That is if you're not too busy?"
"Nonsense. I was just playing around on the computer. Make yourself at home. I won't be a minute."
The detective takes a seat on the couch, his eyes scanning the room, as detectives do. Maddy's computer sits on the coffee table in front of him and is open to an online site, Seniors Seeking Seniors.
Maddy returns and places a silver tray, coffee for two and vase with wildflowers, on the coffee table.
"Do you prefer milk or cream with your coffee, Detective?"
He ignores her, pulls the computer closer to him and studies the page. Maddy stirs a pack of sugar into her coffee, studying him, her hands shaking.
"Interesting website. Always wondered how those worked. You've used it before?"
"Oh, that silly thing? Of course not. I was just entertaining myself. A friend of mine suggested I might try it. I really should put this computer away, before we spill coffee all over it."
Maddy reaches for her laptop. The detective puts his hand on top of hers. There's a moment. Remember, I did warn you this was a play of divine intervention. The two smile awkwardly at one another. And then the detective says:
"Please, don't. I find it interesting."
His eyes meet hers, holding them steady. He glances back at the computer.
"Is this your ad? Wealthy retired actress seeks mature traveling companion?"
"It could be, Detective. Are you volunteering?"