The Pearl Onion
by Kenneth Schalhoub
I’m never prepared. I don’t even know how to prepare. They tried to teach me at Ball State when I was enrolled in their BFA program in Acting. Reading scripts with bloodshot eyes and sticky fast-food covered hands wasn’t good enough. I dropped out and fled to California. I consider myself a refugee from Terra Haute, a kind of lost town in western Indiana just a few miles from the Illinois border. Not that it mattered whether we lived near the pancake-flat Mid-western line of demarcation between one nowhere state and another. I attended the Ball State program because it was in state and affordable. The problem is that a person needs patience and personal commitment to get a college degree, and I possess neither. I acted in a few high school plays, auditioned for local community theatre each summer, and determined in my senior year that I was ready for the big stage. “You can’t just go to California and expect to become an actor,” my father repeated to me after he boringly watched each of my roles. “I’ll pay for Ball State. Your mother wants you to have the right opportunity. Me, I just want you to get your butt in college and make something of yourself.” So Ball State it was. But I only made it to the end of my sophomore year. Lacking the necessary patience, I left to go west and try out my unprepared skills. Every picture of California looked less flat than Terra Haute.
“Yeah…yes, that’s me.” He’s the guy keeping the auditions on schedule. It doesn’t matter how many I go to, these guys are all the same. They’re clones with subtle differences. Some have long stringy hair. Some have shaved heads. Some have greasy pony tails. Some are short and fat. They’re all obnoxious bastards. It’s their job to intimidate as many actors as possible. The more they scare away, the fewer the producers and directors have to screen. I truly believe the assholes are just doing what they’re told. I can’t hate them, and I can’t blame them. But I still wish the process was a little less dehumanizing.
I’ve been doing this gig for over three years, since I escaped from the God-fearing Midwest and I still get nervous enough to make the ink smear on the script from my palm sweat. Each time I ask for a new copy, at every audition, I get the same answer.
“Nope, you only get one.”
The other annoying part of the process is that when you’re a nobody, you never know what part you’re auditioning for. You have to prepare for all of them and wait until you’re called.
“Okay Dillard, you’re reading the Billy Timken part. Straight through that door.”
These ingrates also always assume that you’re a stupid fuck, and can’t figure out where to go. I just nod each time and pretend a “thank you.” The details never change. One of the director’s lackeys reads the opposite part with about as much acting acumen and enthusiasm as a grocery store cashier sliding each bar code over the reader—cracking gum. This particular part is for a live production in a small LA theatre that only produces off-beat dramas. Billy Timken is a slightly retarded—excuse me—mentally challenged, young adult who’s been accused of murdering a precocious sex-pot in a small Midwest town; right up my alley, it would seem. The lackey, a fiftyish lard-ass guy is reading the sex-pot’s part.
I put on my best retard-face, and create a slow, slightly slurred speech. He has the first line. I get to say half of my first line.
“Thank you. Someone will be in touch,” the director shouts.
And that’s that. I leave the stage, hand the wet script back to the clone, and leave. I’m off to work, my real job: a waiter at The Tuscany Bistro.
At least seventy-five percent of the waiters in the greater LA area are acting wannabes. I didn’t say struggling actors, because they make up the other twenty-five percent. They’re the ones who actually land parts and get paid. We wannabes haven’t yet landed a paying part; we just keep trying and getting rejected. We’re a tough lot, though. That’s what my mother says. My father calls us immature naïve jerks who don’t know what it means to get a job. Thankfully he’s back in Terra Haute.
The Tuscany was a good land for me—upscale clientele. The cuisine is mostly Northern Italian, some French, and always with a California twist. The few times I actually had the opportunity to serve French tourists, I noticed whispered comments I couldn’t understand because they were in French. They always gave me polite smiles, left their meals largely untouched. The tips were under ten percent. The untouched meals gave away their dissatisfaction. I knew the tips had nothing to do with the food, Europeans don’t understand the tipping custom in the US, as I suppose we don’t understand theirs. But, if a local leaves anything under twenty percent, that would mean a bad meal, or worst yet, bad service.
I began noticing in the past month or so that business had fallen off. My tips were still in the right range, but the number of meals I served each evening was down by at least twenty-five percent. The owner’s standard line never changed. “My restaurant is recession proof. I cater to the Hollywood elite!” It was true that occasionally a minor actor would grace us, but I have never seen anyone of true fame even drive by, let alone come in to eat or have a drink. If anything, the clientele had become a bit less sophisticated—seedy, at least by Hollywood standards. My supposition was that both trends were due to the killer of all upscale establishments: a new head chef. Since all the wannabe actors I met worked in this business, most off-acting conversations centered around what usually killed the dining traffic. The general consensus was changing the head chef. Patrons would accept a hike in prices as long at the food remained at the quality and style to which they were accustomed. The genius our owner, the man who currently controls my life, changed the head chef, changed the menu, and raised prices. The coffin is not nailed shut, but only a few more spikes are needed to finish the job. I need to land a part that might make up the twenty-five percent and I need good tips from the growing downtrend of customer quality. My finances are on the edge.
It is a Thursday night—usually a good night for dining out. When I arrive for my shift the dining room is already two thirds full—a very good sign. Sitting at table three, my first party, is one man, reading a trade magazine of some kind. He looks to be in his thirties. He has dark, slightly over-moussed hair and a fashionable day old shadow-beard. Fully half the men in his age group have a shadow. His outfit contains different degrees of white and off-white, all in varying stages of needing dry cleaning and ironing. If this guy were sitting in a Terra Haute steak house, everyone would stare. Here, in SoCal, he fits right in. But he doesn’t look like a twenty percent guy.
“Good evening. May I start you off with something to drink?”
“Got any specials?”
I figured the guy was either very hungry, or in a hurry. “Here is our main menu, and—”
“Yeah, I read the one posted next to the door. What’re your specials?”
“Yes, well we have a Tuscany grilled chicken breast bathed in a—?
“I hate chicken, what else?”
“We have a wonderful Veal Marsala, prepared in the traditional—”
“Forget the sales pitch, I’ll have the veal.”
This guy is making me a little nervous. “And to drink?”
“Get me a Gin Gi—”
A table close by has a fat patron that guffaws just as my guy says the drink name. I miss it. But he is so intimidating that I decide not to ask him to repeat the order. “I’ll be back shortly with your drink.”
“The guy wants a what?” my buddy, Josh, the bartender asks. He is about the same age as me, and is used to making frou-frou martinis. He is not a wannabe, he’s a struggling actor. He graduated from UCLA Acting School last year, and has already landed a few roles.
“It’s called a Gin Gibson. Just make a standard dry martini and drop in one of those pearl onions.”
“Well, that’s what the guy wants, and I need a good tip so I can’t piss him off.”
“Where did you learn about such a weird drink?” Josh asks.
“It’s not weird, just old fashioned. My mother drinks them. When I was a kid she let me drop the onion into her martini glass. It was our ritual. She would pour the gin, stick her index finger into the bottle of vermouth and slowly run it around the rim of the glass. Then I held one pearl onion just above the surface of the gin and released the little white sphere. The trick was to try to get the onion to hit exactly in the center bottom of the inverted glass cone.”
“Okay, man, whatever you say. I’ll make the drink and you can drop in the fucking onion.”
“You’re a good bartender, Josh, but just a little too Hollywood.”
“And you’re just way to Midwest clueless. Here, drop in your onion.”
I do, and it hits right in the center bottom. I still have the touch.
He is still reading his magazine when I place his drink with cocktail napkin on his right. He looks up from his reading just enough to determine the position of the glass and grabs it with his left hand. I make note of that: left-handed.
He spills a gulp into his mouth. “Agh! What the fuck is this drink? And what’s that white thing sitting at the bottom?”
“The drink is what you ordered, and that white thing is a pearl onion.”
“What I ordered does not have an onion in it. Usually it has a lime wedge.”
“I have never seen what you ordered contain a lime wedge,” I said. I could sense the tip dropping below twenty percent.
“Just bring me another drink with a lime wedge this time, okay?”
“Yes sir. Would you care for a salad while you wait for your veal? We have a wonderful mixed greens and—”
“Rabbit food! Just bring the drink and the veal when it’s ready. I need to be out of here some time before midnight, got it?”
The shit I have to put up with. I have to let ill-informed customers bully me just so I can survive. Back to see Josh.
“This guy wants the same thing, only with a lime wedge? You sure?” Josh asks.
“That’s what he said. Just make it, please.”
“Are you sure he didn’t order a Gin Gimlet?”
“No, I’m not sure, but this guy is not real approachable, so make me a Gibson with a lime.”
“He’s your tip,” Josh says.
Back at the table, I place the Gibson with a lime on his left. He reaches and grabs the glass with his right hand (ambidextrous?) and takes a gulp, exactly as before.
“Still doesn’t taste right, but I’ll drink it. Oh, and keep an eye on the glass—bring me another one as soon as I empty this one. I’m not driving.”
“Sir, there is one thing. I will have to charge you for the first drink since there was nothing wrong with it.”
When I walk away from his table, I realize that all my tables are occupied by impatient looking customers. I haul ass to make up for the time I had wasted trying to keep that one guy happy. As the evening slides into night, he polished off five bastardized Gibsons, and damn near licked his plate. Although he had indicated he was in a hurry, it is less than an hour from closing and he is still reading his magazine and now drinking a double espresso. He is my last occupied table. Time for me to settle down at a back table, have dinner, and count my tips. The last veal sat for the taking, and I take it. Eating leftover specials is the norm in the business for a waiter. And it seems that I couldn’t separate myself from the Gibson guy—I am eating the same entrée he had eaten four hours ago. It tastes a bit salty to me, but it is still better than most Marsalas in the LA upscale bistro market.
The night’s take turns out to be okay, not great, but okay. I count the last tip, the one from table three. He must have made a mistake, it is barely five percent. Normally I would let it go, but I’ve been one bad tip away from pushing a shopping cart. I walk confidently, but non-confrontationally, to his table.
“Excuse me sir, did you make a mistake with the tip?” Always give the customer the benefit of the doubt.
“No, I don’t think so,” he says.
“By my calculation, you only left me five percent. Custom is twenty. I apologize for the problem with the drink. I had to charge you, owner’s policy.”
“Forget the drink thing. It was the veal. Way too salty. You may want to let the chef know.”
And at that he picks up his magazine, finishes the last drop of cold espresso, and leaves. The guy is a first class asshole, and the last thing I need after dealing with the audition clone is getting a bad tip from an asshole. Bad fucking day.
I wake up Friday morning hungry and confused. The entire sequence of events last night doesn’t make sense, or maybe it makes perfect sense. Did I not hear his drink order? Or did I change it in my mind? Josh thought I was daft (I heard a Brit use that word once) when I told him about my mother and me making the Gibsons together. No time to think about it now, I have another audition in two hours. I toast my last slice of white bread, smear it with some artificial cheese dip that I had purchased way too long ago. I locate edible sections around the growing mold and eat it in three bites while washing it down with milk that is becoming pre-sour-sweet.
I have to take the bus to the theatre; I use the asshole’s tip. Twenty minutes later I am soaking another script with my palm sweat. I have to land something—anything for some supplemental money. As usual, more people than I could count are vying for two roles. And this play is way, way off the main theatre circuit. Even if the pay is low for this role, in this production, I can put the role on my resume. My “struggling” friends have assured me that once you land the first role, people find out about you. I’m not sure if that is really true; they are still struggling.
The clone shouts my name. “Yeah…yes, that’s me.”
I ask for a new copy of the script and I get the same cloned answer as always.
“Nope, you only get one. You’re reading the Eddie LaDue part. Straight through that door.”
This time I don’t even get a chance to read. The director tells me I’m not right for the part. I’m not sure how he knows that since I never opened my mouth. I leave the audition with nothing but the walk home.
As I walk home, not wanting to spend any more money on public transportation, I pass the occasional cart-pusher and make mental notes about how to use the limited space in the main basket, and how to easily push so as to not wear out the wheels. It takes me two excruciating hours to get back to my apartment all the time thinking: I don’t want to be pushing a cart.
My shift is at five. I am filling in for a wannabe who has a late audition. I decide while I am hoofing it home that I am going to grovel and ask my father for some money, just to bridge the fall-off at the restaurant. Before I leave for my shift I get up the nerve to make the call. My parents are always home on Saturday evenings—not much to do in Terra Haute. But even if there were things to do, they preferred home. Mom likes her cocktail hour that turns into cocktail evening and Dad likes his scotch too much to bother going out. He prefers business lunches when he wants to socialize—with other men.
Mom answers and I barely get the first sentence out before she shuffles me off.
“You’re going to have to talk with your father,” she says, after she swallows. I pictured the onion dancing at the bottom of the glass.
These phone calls always make me feel like a school kid again. I know my mother still thinks of me as her little boy. My father is a different story. He views me as a failed adult.
“Your mother tells me you need money—again.”
“Yes Dad. I’m sorry, but customer traffic has been down at work.”
“Have you had any auditions?”
“Two recently. No roles landed yet.”
“Not surprising, you’re not ready. Should’ve finished at Ball State. But that’s in the past now. Still working at that fancy eye-talian place?”
I needed to garner some sympathy, so I tell my sad story about the customer last night and how I got stiffed over a drink or a salty meal—whichever. He says nothing as I talk, but I could hear him pushing his cigar smoke down the phone line. I could almost smell it. I remember smelling it every night when I lived at home. The smoke battled with the towel I placed at the bottom of my bedroom door. The smoke always won.
“Bad tips, wrong drink, salty meals, all just excuses. I could get you a job here in Billy’s State Line Steak House. You’d make a fortune there in tips, because of me. They all know and respect me in this humble community.”
Humble community? A nowhere community is what it was.
“I’ll pay for one trip back, but I will not send you a damn penny to stay out there. Your choice.”
I hear the rattle of ice cubes and another exhale. I thank him and say I would let him and Mom know.
The Tuscany is dead that night. I get home at eleven and call them back.
It is as I expect. Mom takes the call, I can hear Dad’s booming snores in the background and I picture an elephant seal sleeping on a beach with its bulbous nose resonating. Not much is said other than she is happy I’m coming home to her and she knows Dad will also be happy.
“I’ll make sure he talks with Billy tomorrow,” she assures me.
The next day, Sunday, I pack. It is pitiful how little I have to take with me. My entire life fits into two medium size suitcases and one backpack. I work my last night at The Tuscany on that Monday. I think the owner is happy I quit—one less salary to worry about, and one more meal each night that he can serve to a customer. Josh is a different story. Although I never considered him a close friend, we did have some good times working together. I think I represented camaraderie-in-struggle to him. But he is on his way, and I am not.
“Don’t forget about the pearl onion,” I tell him.
“Right, Gin Gibson, onion dropped right in the middle—sinks to the bottom of the inverted cone,” he says with a sad grin. “Listen man, you have talent. You just need to focus. Maybe this plastic environment doesn’t work for you right now. I was born in this stuff. Maybe you need to regroup, do some local theater back in Indiana. I’ll be here if you come back.”
“You got it. I’ll Keep in touch,” I say and leave him wiping the bar. “Keep in touch” is just a way of saying goodbye without finality. But things are final. There is no local theater in Terra Haute—a sad joke. My life is about to go backward; from being on my own, to being a child again; from working upscale, to serving slabs of overcooked beef to baseball-capped, tee-shirted, heartlanders. I wait like a lost child for the ticket to arrive, and three days after the call, it does—by Priority Mail. The ticket represents turning my back on everything I thought I wanted, still want, but cannot have.
Mom picks me up in Indianapolis, thankfully Dad is working. The hour and a half drive home is negotiated mostly in silence. I can tell that she is a little uncomfortable and careful to not make me feel worse than I already do. That is why Dad’s other obligations are a good thing. He would’ve immediately begun booming orders and criticisms, while further stinking up the already stinking car with his blue cloud of cheap smoke. When we pull into the driveway, I feel as if I have never left. Everything is exactly the same: trees, shrubs, lawn, chipped house paint, worn shingled roof—a true personal time warp.
“You remember where your room is, don’t you honey?” she asks.
“I know, just kidding. Get settled. Tonight’s your father’s bowling night. He won’t be home for dinner, so we can catch up together. He’ll be fine as soon as you start work at Billy’s. He set up an interview for tomorrow morning.”
Jeez, I didn’t even have a car.
“You can use my car,” she says, reading my mind as she always had and still could. I’ve made no progress; I’m still just her little boy.
My room is exactly as I had left it, single bed against the far wall, knotty pine dresser, Humphrey Bogart poster from Casablanca on the wall at the foot of the bed, and a poster of my most successful high school play, West Side Story. I played Tony. That was my defining point; that role is why I went to Ball State, and why I thought I could make it past being a wannabe. The room feels as if I’m caught in the past. I drop my bags in front of the closet door and sit on the foot of the bed. I cannot stop thinking about serving steaks at a could-be-anywhere steak house in the Midwest. Mom calls me downstairs.
“I’m so glad you’re here again,” she says.
“Sorry Mom, but I’m not sure I can agree with you. I just wanted to make it to struggling. That would’ve been an achievement—something I could brag about.”
“You will someday. But now let’s remember our past times. Do you remember our little game?”
She has everything ready on the counter: gin, vermouth, martini glass, pearl onions. She pours the gin to her exacting level, pushes her right index finger into the open vermouth bottle, just enough to wet it up to the first knuckle, and tickles the entire rim of the glass.
“Your turn,” she says while giving me a mother’s wink.
I unscrew the lid from the pearl onion jar, remove just one, and drop it, without a splash, directly into the center of the circle. We both watch as it makes its journey through the clarity of the gin to its proper position in the bottom of the inverted cone.
Bio: Kenneth Schalhoub is from Keene, NH and has been writing short stories and novel manuscripts for about four years. He is in his early sixties and is using the experiences of his earlier years to fuel his stories. His work is character driven and his protagonists are usually people who have made bad decisions in life and are trying to reconcile their mistakes - with varying degrees of success. This story focuses on a struggling actor from the Midwest lost in Los Angeles. To date he has had one story accepted by the online magazine "Down in the Dirt."