THANKS FOR NOTHING: a harrowing and not a bit uplifting holiday tale by JOHN SMITH
Steve Henry didn’t always have two first names. It was Steve Jelewski when we roomed together on Aldine. He was the struggling actor and I, the struggling writer. In between auditions and readings, we both worked for a catering company as bartenders for events both big and small. I still work there, while Steve went on to “greater” things.
Steve hosted Thanksgiving dinner this year and what a disaster it was. Some may call what transpired that Thursday a simple act of “miscommunication”, but I say it was an act of premeditated cruelty. l don’t know why Steve turned on me; we used to be so close, but that was before he was named “Hottest Hunk of 2006” by Soap Digest. Success had definitely changed Steve Henry.
In the world of daytime TV, Steve was a big deal, but not to people with actual lives who can’t stand to watch such drivel. When my old roomie was first cast on the show, I watched it just to give Steve notes on his performance which I dutifully mailed to him every week for almost a year.
For ten years he’s been playing the same over-sexed, womanizing Dr. Bruce Conroy. Steve won a daytime Emmy for the role and after watching him make love with the various women on the show, I’d say that Emmy was well-earned. Steve was a handsome guy who looked even better on television. Unfortunately, he’s one of those beautiful people who know they are beautiful. The love affair between Steve Henry and Steve Henry could rival any of the fictional romances depicted on his show.
During those lean years back on Aldine, we had made what I thought was a solemn pact: Whoever made it big first would help out the other one. I’m still waiting.
Oh, sure, l’ve had some success on my own. My play, “Depression”, was produced by a small theater troupe here in Chicago, but few saw it. The non-profit theater company who produced my play was dedicated to bringing culture to the homeless, so unless you were sleeping under a bridge last February, you probably didn’t catch it. I have a review from “Streetwise” which said, “the ending is uplifting when it finally arrives.” The review went on to say plays like mine could reduce the homeless population. This caught the attention of our alderman, who paid us cash for a Command performance in the alley behind his house. I couldn’t have been more proud.
My brief contact with the homeless inspired me to become more socially responsible. The way I see it, a lot of homeless people could get back on their feet if they were only more careful about their appearances. Layering on four dirty overcoats to apply for a job isn’t likely to result in a second interview. With that in mind the charity I founded “Images” installed over 40 full length mirrors all around the cardboard shelters dotting lower Wacker Drive. We tried to expand our operation to include makeovers for the homeless, but our clients were more prone to eat the cosmetics than wear them. Plus one of our volunteer street aestheticians got stabbed, so we stopped that.
After Steve left to find his fortunes in New York City, we stayed in contact for a while. I was one of the first he called after landing his role on that stupid soap opera. He was terribly excited. “Lust in the Afternoon” had been a staple of daytime television for twenty-five years. It’s one of the many soaps that for some reason take place in a hospital setting. It puzzles me why soap writers think hospitals are such hotbeds of sex and romance. Hospitals are gross and smelly, and the patients look more like Walmart shoppers than Abercrombie models. Why not a tire factory?
“Flee at the earliest opportunity!” I advised him when he called to say he got the job. “Don’t sell out.”
“What’s wrong with the show?” he asked, his voice a bit cold.
“Look, I’ve been in a hospital. Nurses ain’t these beautiful anorexic bimbos,” I told him, “a great many of them have serious weight problems.”
“I see.” he replied. “Any other criticisms?”
I was just warming up. “Yeah, in real life, doctors don’t have names like Dr. Bruce Conroy, they’re more like Dr. Shakalakakrishna with accents so thick you’d be better off trying to decipher their handwriting.”
I further suggested that the show needed a reality check. Have a doctor amputate the wrong leg occasionally, or better yet have a patient die because they left a sponge in his chest due to all the flirting. In real life, the only time you hear the words “sex” and “hospital” together is when an orderly rapes a patient.
I never heard from Steve again, despite sending him my dutiful notes on his performances. Then one evening, a week before Thanksgiving, I was having dinner alone at a favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant. Looking up from my copy of The Daily Nihilist, who should I spy across the room, surrounded by fans and showing off, but none other than Steve Henry, Hunk of the Year!
I had read in one of those gossip columns I hate that Steve had bought a condominium in Chicago to be closer to his family who lived in Evanston. This was the first time I’d seen him in one of our old haunts, which was understandable. Steve now had an image to keep, and hanging out at Steamworks was something his publicist would probably frown upon. After finishing my linguini, I walked over to Steve’s table to say hello. It took him a few minutes to notice me and I was apprehensive to interrupt his love-in with his fans, but hell, he was my old roommate! I knew Steve in real life, while these people only know him from his character on television. “Steve!” I raised my voice, “How ya doing!”
Steve didn’t make the connection at first, grabbing my newspaper without looking up and autographing it “Best Wishes”, but as he handed the spoiled paper back, recognition swept across his face. “Oh wow! What’s up?” he asked, grinning just like old times. “Still writing those awful plays?”
“Sure, sure,” I answered, happy to hear the familiar gentle ribbing that marked our friendship.
“And let me guess, you’re still tending bar as a result?”
“Gotta pay the bills, you know.” I chuckled, remembering how often we quarreled about artistic integrity and his willingness to deep throat Satan for fame.
“Hey, what are you doing on Thanksgiving?” He inquired.
“Uh, nothing,” I replied, which wasn’t quite true. I was co-hosting dinner with my best friend, but fuck him, I thought.
“I’m having about twenty friends over for dinner.” Steve said, handing me a napkin with the address and time scribbled, “You think you can make it?”
“Sure!”, I was surprised and pleased by my celebrity friend’s invitation, and I only barely heard him mention it would be black tie.
“How fancy!” I thought.
Thanksgiving was only a week away. Thinking this could be my lucky break, I got to work typing out a spec script which I planned to ask Steve to submit to his producers on “Lust in the Afternoon”. I was ready to sell out like Steve, but with limits.
My concept for “Lust in the Afternoon” was to bring those snooty playboy doctors and slutty nurses down a notch. Rich-people problems are boring. How can Mrs. Joe Six-pack really, truly, identify with the snob characters who dominate these awful daytime shows – where even the lowest hospital nurse lives in Barbie’s Dream House? I mentioned this incongruous fact to a friend once who was a fan of this genre. “It helps if you don’t ask too many questions,” was her advice.
In my script, the banks have all failed and everyone immediately loses their money and has to live in a trailer park. I thought it was a brilliant concept and pushed myself to complete my script in time to present it to Steve at his intimate black tie dinner party to which I was now invited.
Thanksgiving day arrived and l stumbled out of bed around noon, bleary-eyed from yet another all nighter spent editing and revising my script. I shot some Visine in my red eyes, showered and pulled on my tux, which I luckily possessed for my catering gigs.
Cocktails were at four o’clock, but I didn’t want to arrive too early and appear too eager. So, I meandered in fashionably at four-thirty.
“You’re late!” Steve snapped as he opened the door. “The bar is in there.” He pointed to the living room as he took my coat. “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”
“Well, ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ to you, too,” I said laughing at his rude greeting. Steve used to always stress out when we hosted parties on Aldine, so this was all too familiar. I mixed my drink from the un-staffed, but well stocked bar. There were only about ten or so people milling about the room, none of whom were wearing tuxes. “How gauche!” I thought.
One gentleman sat alone on a plush white couch. I sat down next to him and introduced myself. “I’ve known Steve for years,” I told him. “We used to be roommates. Success hasn’t changed him a bit.”
“Are you in show business as well?” The gentleman asked who I guessed to be one of Steve’s uncles.
“Oh, yes, I’m a writer,” I replied, a feeling of excitement enveloped me as I realized that this was my element. Success, glamour, money. It was all within reach.
“I’m actually working on a story idea for Steve’s show.” I incautiously let slip out.
“Oh?” he asked, leaning closer, his interest peaked.
“Yeah, I have a bigger vision for Steve’s character on the show. The writers he has now, well I’ve seen better writing on ‘The Love Boat’.”
“Is that so?”
Then I suddenly realized I was dominating this conversation. “And what do you do?” I asked. “Are you related to Steve?”
“I’m one of those hack writers on ‘Lust in the Afternoon’.” The man replied curtly, “I didn’t know Steve was unsatisfied with my work.” he said, excusing himself abruptly.
I felt horrible, insulting this poor man, even if I was just being honest. I had to apologize before he told Steve. I found him in the dining room, which was being busily set up by the caterers in tuxedos, who, I noticed were the only ones besides myself who had bothered to obey the dress code.
I was too late, the old geezer was spilling his guts to Steve. I approached the two, and cleared my throat. “There’s your new head writer now.” he said before storming off.
“You know, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know he -“
Steve cut me off his voiced filled contempt, “First you show up late and now you’re insulting my guests?”
“I’m really sorry, l had no idea,” I tried to explain.
Steve placed his arm on my shoulders and led me back to the living room, Just tend bar and keep your mouth shut.”
“That’s right. Just pour the drinks and smile and don’t insult my show or my guests.”
“Pour drinks?” I wasn’t quite comprehending things in this very awkward moment.
“That’s what I’m paying you for,” Steve said, pulling a money clip from his pocket and handing me two crisp one hundred dollar bills.
With one hand l took the money, with the other grabbed a full bottle of Absolut off the bar and swung it hard. I guess I’ve seen too many movies, because the bottle didn’t break like it does on TV. Instead of shattering like crystal, there was a sickening ‘thud’ when the bottle made contact with Steve’s gorgeous head. “Here’s your fucking drink!” I screamed, as Steve fell unconscious to the floor.
Later that evening, I finally had something to be thankful for when Steve declined to press charges. Steve said he didn’t want the publicity, which really meant he was afraid I’d “out him” to the Enquirer.
Success sure had changed Steve Henry.
Next Thanksgiving, I think I’ll just stay home and eat a low-fat turkey burger.