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Skin Deep

The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. In Alan Brennert’s “Skin Deep,” we see for the first time the events of September 15, 1946 from the viewpoint of someone living on the West Coast of the United States. Trina Nelson is a pretty, popular sixteen-year-old high school student whose idyllic life took a turn for the tragic because of the Wild Cards virus. Now, she wants nothing more than to live out her days in the shadowy anonymity of the Jokertown on the Santa Monica Pier. But life, it turns out, has still another wild card to deal Trina…

 

 

Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” was playing on the jukebox, filling the Menagerie with its cool syncopation as the clock ticked toward two a.m. Trina, wending her way through tables carrying a tray of drinks, hated working the late shift. Most of the nats were long gone, leaving only the drunkest of jokers, and the drunkest were also the grabbiest—but none grabbier than a cephalopod. She felt a lithe tentacle trying to loop around her waist but managed to wriggle away from it even as she balanced her wobbling tray.

“Bongo, please,” Trina said in exasperation, “stop kidding around?”

Bongo K. was a skinny kid with reddish-brown skin, wearing dungarees and a gray sweatshirt with holes for his eight happy-go-lucky tentacles: one was holding a shot of Jim Beam, another was coiled around a bongo drum, and a third drummed in surprisingly good time with Brubeck’s horn. Bongo was usually rather shy, but after two drinks he became a bit frisky—and loquacious:

“Baby, I dig you, that’s all,” he said imploringly. He used a fourth appendage to snap up some abandoned flowers from a nearby table and waved the bouquet in Trina’s face, forcing her to stop in her tracks. “Just listen to this poem I’ve written in testament to your ever-loving beauty—”

Beauty? Trina wanted to puke. She didn’t know which she hated more: men who were repulsed by her face, or those who found such deformities arousing. She pushed aside the flowers, her exasperation flaring into anger.

“Doug!” she called. “A little help here?”

Doug was the club bouncer. Sprawled on the floor next to the bar, he resembled the top half of a giant jellyfish; unlike Bongo he had no tentacles but a compensatory telekinesis that he was using to scoop beer nuts off the bar and pop them into the orifice that passed for his mouth.

>Gotcha!<

Bongo started to object: “Hey, cool it, man, I—”

Doug wrested Bongo’s tentacle from around Trina’s waist using invisible tendrils of his own. He forced Bongo to put down his Jim Beam gently on the table but let him keep his hold on the bongo drum. Then, as if it had been yanked aloft by a winch, Bongo’s whole body was jerked up into the air with his tentacles pinned against his body, hovering like a helicopter without rotors.

The chromatophores below the surface of Bongo’s skin turned him literally white with fear. “Aw, man—”

>I’ll take him home, Trina. Almost quitting time anyway.<

“Thanks, Doug.”

>Later.<

Doug floated up off the floor and toward the door, with Bongo trailing him like a tethered balloon. Trina went to the door and watched them head up the boardwalk to the building that was once the warehouse and loading dock for Santa Monica Seafood but was now a hotel for most of Los Angeles’ amphibious jokers, with easy access to the ocean and to refrigerator units for those tenants sensitive to heat.

In minutes Trina was off duty herself and outside taking a deep breath of the cool, briny air. It was a beautiful summer night, a full moon floating above the Santa Monica Pier. The food and amusement concessions were all closed, deserted except for the carousel, where one or two desperate joker hookers straddled wooden horses, smoking cigarettes as they waited forlornly for johns. A pair of masked jokers—one wearing a royal-purple cloak and hood, the other a cheap plastic likeness of Marilyn Monroe—staggered tipsily past the merry-go-round, giggling and pawing at each other as they headed, presumably, to one or the other’s accommodations.

During the day Trina sometimes wore a mask herself to hide her face from tourists, but at this hour of the morning the tourists were long gone. Rather than returning to her apartment above the carousel, Trina climbed down a side ladder, onto the sand. Under the pier, she kicked off the three-inch heels the manager made the girls wear along with her tacky cocktail dress. Beneath it she wore her swimsuit; excitedly she padded out from under the wooden crossbeams and pylons that supported the pier and onto the beach. It was empty this time of night and the rippling moonlight beckoned from across Santa Monica Bay. Here there were no nat eyes to gape at her misshapen face in horror or laughter; no screams from children too young to understand what the wild card virus had done to her.

She dove into the water and immediately felt calmer, at ease. She swam toward the distant moon, then flipped onto her back, floating on the night tide. Here she was a child again at play, or a teenager swimming out to meet her boyfriend Woody—after fourteen years his tanned face, bright blue eyes, and blond crewcut still tender in her memory—as he straddled his surfboard waiting for the next set of waves, smiling at her as she swam toward him. He kissed her as she swam up, running his hand along the side of her swimsuit, giving her gooseflesh.

She could barely remember what a kiss felt like.

She swam for the better part of an hour, until, exhausted but happy, she returned to the beach. She retrieved her shoes and clothes, scrambled up the ladder, and headed for the Hippodrome, the castle-like building that housed the carousel. The old Looff Hippodrome dated back to 1916 and was an architectural goulash of Byzantine arches, Moorish windows, and Spanish Colonial turrets, all painted a bright mustard yellow. Trina hurried inside a side door, up two flights of rickety stairs, through narrow corridors to one of the seven small apartments above the merry-go-round.

She opened the door to find her cat, Ace, waiting. He greeted her with a familiar miaow that Trina knew meant both “Where have you been?” and “Feed me!” She went to the kitchen, opened a can of Puss’n Boots, and smiled as he attacked the food. Then she went into the bathroom to take a shower. The room was the same as it was when she moved here fourteen years ago, except for the vanity mirror, which she had taken down soon after moving in.

It was an airy, one-bedroom apartment, and the living room—inside one of the building’s turrets—enjoyed a view of the surf lapping at the beach. She ate a sandwich as Ace finished his dinner, then sat down on the divan next to the windows. Ace jumped into her lap, purring as she stroked his orange fur. She gazed out at the waves rolling to shore, their white crests iridescent in the moonlight, and at the beautiful but forbidden lights of Santa Monica. She was born and raised in this city but was now virtually an exile from it, like a blemished princess hidden away in a high castle.

Trina picked up her subscription copy of Time magazine and grimaced at the lead story about Richard Nixon securing the Republican nomination for president. She didn’t know much about his opponent, Kennedy, but she remembered Nixon’s venal attacks—as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee—on the legendary Four Aces, heroes whose lives and reputations were casually destroyed by HUAC. Trina was willing to don a mask and walk over hot coals, if necessary, to the polls, in order to cast a vote against Nixon.

The other news story that caught her interest told of how the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina—the subject of sit-down protests for the first five months of 1960—had finally capitulated and would allow Negroes to join white patrons at its lunch counter. She was happy for their victory but despaired of any similar civil rights movement for jokers.

Ace rubbed his head against Trina’s chest and purred.

Tears filled her eyes—her human eyes, one of the few human features remaining in her face. Why couldn’t people be more like cats, who didn’t care what you looked like as long as you were kind to them?

When she finally went to bed, Ace curled up against her hip, the two of them sharing each other’s warmth as they slept.

 

Prior to September 15, 1946, Trina Nelson’s world was a quietly ordinary, if privileged, one. She was a pretty, popular sixteen-year-old who lived in a ranch-style home on Ashland Avenue in Santa Monica; was an A student at Santa Monica High School (known as “Samohi” to students and faculty alike) and a cheerleader for the school football team, the Mighty B’s, on which her boyfriend, Woody, played as a halfback. The war was over and no one Trina knew had been killed in combat. Life was good, and everyone was expecting it to get even better.

But on September 15, Trina’s world expanded explosively to include a cosmos of horrors darker than her worst nightmares, delivered to the Nelson home by the big RCA console radio in the living room. Trina and her parents, Harry and Karen Nelson, listened in astonishment to the news bulletins of a battle raging above Manhattan between Jetboy and someone in a weird blimp-like airship that was said to be carrying an atomic bomb. But when the airship blew up, no mushroom cloud blossomed over Manhattan, and briefly there was celebration that Jetboy had saved the city (though tragically died in the effort).

“Oh God, no.” Trina had Jetboy’s picture, from Life magazine, taped up on her wall alongside one of Frank Sinatra.

Then came the other deaths. Massive, widespread deaths radiating like shock waves across the city and the whole Northeast.

And not just ordinary deaths. People were dying in the most horrifying ways, ways never before seen on Earth. They burst into flame and were incinerated instantly. They dissolved into puddles of protoplasm or died screaming as blood poured from every cavity in their bodies. It sounded so outlandish that Trina’s father doubted at first that it was really happening—thought it a hoax, like Orson Welles’s invasion from Mars. But it was on every channel: CBS, NBC, Mutual, ABC.

And then the news that we had been invaded, not from Mars but definitely from outer space, and what had been released over Manhattan was some kind of alien germ that was killing thousands of people—and even worse, transforming others into monsters.

Chaos erupted in New York and all that people on the West Coast could do was listen helplessly, disbelievingly.

“This is impossible,” Harry said. “Things like this just don’t happen.”

“All those people,” Karen said softly. “Those poor people…”

Soon there were scientists on the news talking about this virus—they called it the “wild card” virus—and how it had likely been swept up into the jet stream and was by now on its way eastward, across the Atlantic. They could not rule out the possibility that some of the viral particles might circle the earth on winds of up to 250 miles an hour, eventually arriving on the West Coast in perhaps three or four days.

That was all it took to spark panic and chaos up and down the coast. In Los Angeles there was a run on grocery stores as people bought up, then stole, food against the coming apocalypse. Military surplus stores were quickly stripped of their supplies of gas masks. Fires and looting broke out across the city. Doomsayers and kooky cultists—of which L.A. had a ready supply chain—declared that the end was nigh, and it was the doing of either God or fugitive Nazis planning a comeback.

Some families piled their belongings into station wagons, slapped a MOVED sign on their houses, and headed south for Mexico—with no guarantee the virus wouldn’t find its way there too. Others flooded into air raid shelters or began duct-taping shut the doors and windows of their homes so that the virus could not get in. Trina’s family was one of the latter: she helped her parents tape the smallest crack in the house even as she wondered whether they would die of suffocation before the virus could even get to them.

And then all that was to be done—was to wait.

One, two, three days of waiting for the end of the world, or something like it, to arrive. Listening to reports of the virus infecting the passengers and crew of the ocean liner Queen Mary in the mid-Atlantic, turning it into a literal death ship. Then sporadic reports of outbreaks in Europe—followed by a day’s silence that raised Trina’s hopes that perhaps the virus had blown out to sea, might never arrive here…

Until, on the fourth day, the sirens began screaming.

Air raid sirens, police sirens, fire and ambulance sirens…a rising chorus of wails both near and far.

Her parents were upstairs; Trina ran to the living room window and pulled back the drape to look outside. Ashland Avenue was deserted and peaceful, at odds with the blare of sirens in the distance. But within moments she could hear people screaming up the block, and as Trina looked up the street, she saw what they were screaming at.

Running down the street was a coal-black wolf—but it was enormous. At least ten feet long by four feet high, with legs longer than Trina’s arms. And yet that was not its most salient characteristic.

The wolf had two heads.

Two identical heads, both with wide jaws open to expose long razor-sharp teeth…and it was howling. Not a snarl of aggression but a howl of confusion, of pain, as if it was trying to communicate with anyone who could hear it—

A police car, siren blaring, came speeding down the street and screeched to a halt only about ten feet away from the wolf, which came to a sudden stop. SMPD officers jumped out of the car, weapons drawn.

The wolf seemed to understand. It did not advance on the car.

Trina’s heart pounded in her chest, but she couldn’t look away.

Now a second police cruiser careened around the corner of Ashland and 21st Street and stopped on the other side of the creature. Two officers burst out of the car and leveled rifles at the beast.

The wolf’s two heads took in both cars at the same time, and Trina was certain she saw an almost human fear and helplessness in its eyes.

It howled, crying out in terrible knowledge of its own fate.

The police fired. Dozens of rounds of bullets ripped into the wolf, blood spouting from its wounds; the animal staggered, fell to the ground.

Tears filled Trina’s eyes as she listened to the creature’s death howl.

“No! No!”

A woman came screaming up the street, running toward the fallen animal, then collapsed at its side. With no fear she put her arms as far around the wolf’s torso as she could, and Trina heard her sob:

“Henry…Henry…

Trina’s heart seemed to stop as she took in the words and what they implied. The woman’s tears fell on the soft fur of the wolf’s body.

By now Trina’s parents had come pounding down the stairs and were standing in the vestibule.

“Trina, get away from the window!” her father shouted.

Trina closed the drape. She couldn’t bear to look anymore.

Then, behind her, her mother screamed.

Trina turned—and was horrified to see that her mother’s arms were dissolving into some kind of blue vapor.

“Karen!” Harry cried in horror. “Jesus Christ!”

“Mom!” Trina ran across the living room toward her.

It only took seconds for Karen’s arms to dissipate into plumes of blue mist, and then her feet and legs began to evaporate. With nothing but smoke to support them, her head and torso fell to the floor.

No, no, Trina thought, this can’t be, it isn’t real! She and her father fell to their knees beside what remained of Karen’s body.

“Karen! Honey!” Harry grabbed onto his wife’s torso as if to halt the spread of whatever was consuming her. Through tears he said, “Hon—”

As her torso was dissolving into wisps, Karen had only seconds to look at her family and gasp, “Harry…Trina…love you both…so mu—”

The last of her dissolved before she could finish—leaving only a blue mist behind.

Trina was in shock. Harry sobbed helplessly, taking in deep breaths of the blue vapor, all that was left of his wife of twenty-two years.

Harry started coughing…then choking.

His hands went to his throat as he struggled to take in air.

“Daddy, no! No!” Trina screamed, slapping him on the back as if he had something caught in his esophagus. But it was no use. The blue toxin that was once his wife was poisoning him, and in seconds he collapsed. He was no longer breathing.

Unlike what it had done to his wife, the wild card virus had not vaporized him, but had killed him just as quickly.

Mama…Daddy…” Trina held on to her father’s limp hand and sobbed, weeping and calling out for the parents she loved. This isn’t happening, please God, let me wake up, please God please!

She wept unconsolably for fifteen minutes, torn between grief and disbelief…until, unable to bear the sight of her father’s body or the absence of her vanished mother, she stripped off the duct-taping around the front door, flung it open, and ran out.

She ran to the home of their next-door neighbors. Emma and Lou Boylan, both in their fifties, were standing on their lawn (as were other neighbors) gaping at the dead two-headed monster in the street being loaded into a police truck.

Trina embraced Emma and wailed, “They’re gone! Mom and Dad—Mom is gone, there’s nothing left, and Dad—Daddy—”

Emma enfolded Trina in her arms. “Oh Lord, Trina, what—”

“They’re gone. They’re dead!” And she broke down sobbing again.

Lou Boylan said to his wife, “Bring her inside. I’ll get her a shot of Jack Daniel’s to calm her down.”

“She’s only sixteen, Lou!”

“I think she just aged a couple of years, hon,” he said, and went ahead to get them all drinks.

“We’re so sorry, honey,” Emma told Trina as she led her into their home and toward a couch. “My God, this is all so terrible.”

Lou came over with three shot glasses. “You’ve had a shock, Trina, take this. It might seem strong at first if you’re not used to it.”

Trina didn’t bother to tell them that this was not her first glass of whisky. She drank it down, and though it calmed her nerves a little, it took away none of her grief. Then—remembering suddenly that this madness was happening all over—she asked, “Have you heard from Judy and Gary?”

Yes, Lou assured her, their two married children were fine in their homes in San Diego and Mill Valley—at least for the moment.

“What did you mean,” Emma asked with trepidation, “that your mother—that there was nothing left?”

Trina explained what had happened and the Boylans’ eyes went wide. If there hadn’t been a giant, two-headed wolf in the middle of Ashland Avenue, they might even have doubted her. But as the radio droned on about the alien virus, the world seemed much larger—and much more terrifying—than it had three days ago.

The Boylans did the necessary business of calling for an ambulance for Harry’s body, but it would be seven hours before one arrived; there were simply too many bodies, scattered from Santa Monica to El Monte, from Castaic to Long Beach, for the authorities to handle all at once. There was widespread rioting, and looters breaking into closed-up stores and abandoned homes. Radio reports estimated that at least fifteen hundred people had died across Los Angeles County and perhaps a hundred more had been—transformed. Some into monsters, some only slightly deformed, and a few into something…more than human. No one would ever know how many “aces,” as these super-powered individuals would come to be called, were birthed that day—if people had special powers, they were keeping it a secret for now.

With one exception: in West L.A., a young man could be seen rocketing into the air, crying out, “I can fly! I can fly!” as he rose straight into the stratosphere and out of sight—until his frozen, lifeless body came plummeting back to earth, crashing into the fountain at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards. Newspapers were quick to name him Icarus, as there was not enough left of him to identify.

Trina numbly listened to the radio reports, barely ate any of the dinner Emma prepared, and felt drained and exhausted by six p.m. She gratefully accepted the Boylans’ offer to stay in what was once their daughter’s room.

It took more than an hour for her to fall asleep, and her dreams were tense and frightening, but she slept past dawn. When she got up, she padded into the small attached bathroom. Inside she passed the bathroom mirror, saw something not right, and turned to look into it.

There was a monster in the mirror.

She screamed.

It was a swollen, bestial face with a thick brow, sunken eyes, a pig-like snout of a nose, ridged cheekbones, and a twisting slash of an upper lip…all of it grotesquely framed by a stylish crop of bobbed brunette hair.

Her hair, she realized with a jolt.

Instinctively her hands went up to her face, and now she could feel the same deformities she saw in the mirror.

She screamed again. She kept on screaming until the Boylans rushed in to see what was wrong. When she turned to face them, their confusion and concern had become shock…and revulsion.

She looked back into the mirror, hoping to see something different, but when the monster continued to stare back at her, she fainted, falling into Lou’s arms as her body went limp.

She woke a few minutes later in bed and as her eyes fluttered open, she saw Emma and Lou staring down at her, the same mix of pity and revulsion in their eyes. She couldn’t blame them, she felt it herself, but it was still unbearable to see.

She jumped out of bed and ran past them, down the stairs.

“Trina! Trina, we only want to help you!” Emma called after her.

But Trina ran out of the house, without even a thought that she was still wearing her pajamas. She ran next door to her own house; its door was unlocked but after entering she locked it behind her. She saw the empty floor where her parents had died so horribly, and she ran from that too, rushing up the stairs and into the one safe place remaining to her: her room. She fell onto her bed, sobbing, anguished, overwhelmed—grieving for her parents, for herself, and for the life she had loved, a life she knew would never, ever be the same again.

 

Trina kept the window curtains drawn and took down every mirror in the house. There was enough food in the kitchen to last at least a month. Whenever the phone rang that day—relatives or friends, probably, checking in to see if the family was okay—she let it ring. In the middle of the night, as the neighborhood slept, she cracked open the front door, taped a MOVED sign on it, then quickly shut and locked it again. Over the next several days people came by and rang the doorbell, and through a crack in the upstairs curtains she recognized her cousins from Covina and the school truant officer—but they all went away, eventually. The hardest one to watch was her boyfriend, Woody, who showed up one day, rang the bell, called her name: “Trina! Trina!” He went all the way around the house, searching for signs of life, and Trina wanted so much to let him in. She wanted him to hold her, to tell her everything was all right, tell her he still loved her—but she knew that would not happen. And she couldn’t bear to see the look of revulsion and horror in his eyes when he saw her face.

The only ones she let in were the Boylans, who, bless them, continued to look in on her despite her grotesque appearance. Emma Boylan brought home-cooked meals to Trina’s back porch and talked with her when she needed someone to talk to.

During the next several days she listened to the radio reports about people like her, who were now being called “jokers.” That was rich—this was a joke, a cosmic joke, and she was the butt of it. Worse, public fear of the transformed was hardening into prejudice. Stories of jokers being driven out of their houses, neighborhoods, and towns, terrified Trina. Experts talked about isolating all the jokers in asylums, but the hundred-odd jokers in Los Angeles County either left with no forwarding address or quickly went into hiding. Like Trina.

The Boylans tried to give her hope: “That spaceman in New York, Dr. Tachyon, has been treating people like you,” Emma told her. “In a lot of cases he can cure them. Maybe he can cure you, honey.”

“And how do I get to New York?” Trina asked. “Take the bus? A plane? You think anybody is going to be willing to sit next to me—even have me on a bus with them at all?”

“We could drive you,” Lou offered, and Trina was touched by that.

“Thank you,” she said gently, “that’s very sweet of you to offer. But people like me are dangerous to be around. I couldn’t ask that of you.”

By the following week, the authorities had succeeded in quelling most of the panic and rioting and were doing their best to assure the public that there would be no further disruptions from the wild card virus. Trina sat listening to these assurances on the radio one evening—the radio on low, the living room dark, the window curtains drawn—

When she heard a crash of breaking glass from the kitchen.

She jumped to her feet. She stood stock still, listening to the unmistakable sound of a window being raised, followed by two thumps…and the sound of voices:

“Fuck. I got cut by the goddamn glass.”

“Stop whining, it’s just a scratch. There’s silverware in that hutch, get moving.”

Looters, Trina realized. The MOVED sign had worked too well. She listened to the chiming of silverware being thrown into a bag. Paralyzed with fear, she didn’t know what to do. Run outside to the Boylans’ house? No, she couldn’t endanger them too. Run upstairs and lock the bedroom door behind her? No. What if they broke the door down?

She was looking around for something she could use as a weapon when one of the men suddenly entered the living room. “What the fuck?” he blurted out, swinging his flashlight in her direction.

Trina winced as the beam struck her directly in her face.

The burglar saw clearly her deformed, horrible features and yelled, “Jesus H. Christ!”

The second looter, carrying the bag full of silverware, came in behind his accomplice and said, “She’s one of them jokers!”

Instantly the men abandoned all further interest in looting, turned tail, and ran the hell away, out the back door.

Trina was relieved, though it depressed her that she was so repulsive she caused two hardened criminals to flee in terror…and afraid that this would not be the end of it. They were hardly likely to call the police, but what if they told someone she was there—anyone?

For a week or more it seemed as if they had not. Then she woke up one morning to find that someone had painted the words GET OUT JOKER! on the front of the Nelson house.

 

She immediately began to make plans if the worst should happen, packing every perishable food item she could find into the trunk of the family Buick in the garage, along with water, blankets, a pillow, and extra clothes. Emma and Lou gave her what canned food they had.

Three nights later, someone threw a rock, wrapped in a burning rag, through the living room window. The drapes instantly caught fire. Rather than try to save the house, Trina ran to the garage and backed the Buick into the driveway as flames crackled and consumed the living room.

“Goodbye, house,” she whispered, with tears in her eyes for the only home she had ever known.

She drove through side streets until she reached the California Incline, then down the sloping road to Pacific Coast Highway. There was a stoplight at PCH and another car in the lane next to her, so Trina took her mother’s big floppy sunbathing hat and put it on, slanting it so the man in the car next to her couldn’t make out her face. The red light seemed to last for years, but finally it turned green and Trina headed up the coast highway toward Malibu.

She and Woody had spent enough time at Malibu’s beaches that she knew that despite its reputation as a mecca for Hollywood celebrities, much of Malibu was still quite rural. There were enough sparsely populated canyons and secluded side streets to provide some degree of concealment from prying eyes. For each of the next ten days she would find a deserted spot off Trancas or Latigo Canyons, eat cold canned food, sleep during the day with a blanket hiding her face, then at night drive to a deserted beach and swim alone, relieving some of her stress and grief in the rocking cradle of the waves.

One evening she was parked along a deserted road in Solstice Canyon, eating canned tuna, when she heard:

“Miss?”

Trina heard a man’s voice and saw the sweep of a flashlight beam across the front seat. She grabbed her floppy hat, hiding her face.

“Leave me alone,” she begged. “I’m not bothering anyone!”

“I know you’re not,” the man said gently. “And there’s no need to hide your face. I know what you look like.”

“You—you do?” Hesitantly she lowered the hat. A tall man in a police uniform stood outside the car. He saw her hideous face but didn’t flinch or even look surprised. “How?”

The policeman raised the palm of his hand. At first it looked perfectly ordinary, but then a fold appeared in the flesh of the palm and, to Trina’s astonishment, opened to reveal a human eye staring at her.

Trina sat bolt upright. “What the hell is that?” she blurted.

“My third eye. It sees more, and farther, than the other two—it showed me that you were hiding here, and what you looked like.”

“You’re like Icarus,” Trina said softly. “The virus gave you—powers.” The randomness of the virus suddenly hit home: if things had gone only a little differently, she might be able to fly, or turn invisible, instead of…

“I may have powers,” the policeman said, “but believe me, if anyone on the force saw this, I’d be just another joker on the run, like you. But I use it to help out where I can.”

She felt a pang of hope. “How can you help me?”

“About a week ago, the eye showed me that there’s a refuge, of sorts, for our kind. On the amusement pier in Santa Monica. Go there tonight and ask for Dr. Pink.”

“Dr. Pink,” she repeated. “At the—Santa Monica Pier?”

“That’s right. You’ll be safe there. Here, take this.”

He handed her a cheap plastic Hollywood mask of Betty Grable. “These are all the rage among jokers in New York—so they can hide their faces from ‘nats,’ naturals. They may catch on here, too.” She took the mask and he added urgently, “Now go, before the pier closes for the night. If you stay here, someone will eventually discover you and it won’t end well.”

“Thank you so much, Officer—what do I call you?”

“You don’t,” he said with a smile. “But I’ll keep an eye on you.”

The eye in his palm winked at her.

He closed his hand and moved away into the shadows.

Trina put on the mask but was still terrified at the thought of driving all the way to Santa Monica at nine in the evening, when there would be plenty of other cars on the road—but thirty minutes later she made it, without incident, to the famous arched sign at the pier that read SANTA MONICA in bright red letters, and below that, YACHT HARBOR * SPORT FISHING * BOATING * CAFES.

She parked in the nearby beach lot and, mask on, made her way up to the pier. No one gave a second glance to “Betty Grable” because she wasn’t the only one here wearing a mask of some kind. She heard the Wurlitzer organ in the carousel building playing “The Blue Danube Waltz,” which brought back comforting childhood memories of the pier—merry-go-round rides and cotton candy—and slowly made her way past the cafes, bait and tackle shops, seafood retailers, concession booths, “palm reader and adviser” Doreena, and a building that announced itself as—

DR. PINK’S SHOW OF FREAKS.

Oh my God, thought Trina.

Posters advertised a frog-faced man, a human torso, a bearded lady, a weightlifter with biceps bigger than his head, and other acts.

This was her “refuge”? To work in a freak show?

“Step right up,” cried the tall, ruddy-faced man at the barker’s stand, “see the most amazing collection of human oddities this side of—New York City!” That brought a laugh from the large crowd. It made Trina sick, but it drove people up to the ticket stand with their dollars.

Trina was embarrassed, afraid, angry. She waited until the crowd was on their way inside, then went up to the barker and said in a tone edged with resentment and sarcasm: “Are you—Dr. Pink?”

She raised up her mask, exposing her face to him, and he took in her features with—not horror, not revulsion, but actual sympathy.

“Oh, you poor girl,” he said softly, and the pity in his voice was not what she had expected. “Come with me, dear. Come inside.”

“Why? Just to be another ‘human oddity’ to be gawked at?”

“No no, of course not,” he said. “Please, come into my office, we can talk there.” He turned to the ticket taker. “Jack, take over the pitch, will you? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He took Trina around the building that housed the freak show to the rear, where he led her into a small office and shut the door behind them. “May I get you something? Water? Food? A shot of tequila?”

She wasn’t sure if that was a joke but replied, “I’ll take the tequila.”

He smiled, took out a bottle from a desk drawer, poured two shots. “I’m Irving Pinkoff. And your name is…?”

“Trina. Trina Nelson.” The warmth of the tequila took a little of the edge off her anger. “I was told to come here for—‘refuge.’”

“Yes, my dear, that is what we offer. But let me explain.

“My show has been on this pier for five years, and I assure you, I don’t really think of my employees as ‘oddities.’ They’re all human beings, all friends. This is the only way most of them can make a living and they know what I have to do to sell them to the public. It’s all show business.”

He downed his shot glass. “The owner of this pier, Walter Newcomb, came to me a few days after the virus hit L.A. A relative of his had been—changed—and was hounded out of his neighborhood. He asked me if I would take the young man in to protect him and I said yes, of course. He’s the frog-faced lad, Robby, on the poster.

“Word somehow got out that there was a real joker in the show—and business actually increased. People may not want jokers living next door, but apparently, they’re happy to pay money to see them as entertainment.

“Next thing I knew, more jokers were coming out of the woodwork, begging me to take them in. What could I say? Mr. Newcomb provides living quarters for them—some above the Hippodrome, some downstairs where the lifeguards used to stay until they became ‘uncomfortable’ with their new neighbors. A lot of the vendors here were uncomfortable, too, and abandoned the pier…and jokers with money took over the leases. Why, there’s even talk of opening a joker nightclub next to the carousel.”

“And the owner is fine with all this?” Trina asked skeptically.

“As long as the pier turns a profit, yes. Walter’s met my performers; he knows they’re just people who have been dealt a bad hand.”

“Why are you doing this, Mr. Pinkoff? Someone set my house on fire. This is risky for you, too.”

“I had family who died at Dachau,” he said, and didn’t need to say more. Trina nodded. “Now, let’s get you some living quarters, all right?”

He showed her to her new home, an apartment above the carousel building with a turret room overlooking the surf lapping up Santa Monica Beach. The sight of the beach and the city beyond greeted her like an old friend thought forever lost. And for the first time in weeks, she began to feel—safe. Protected. Tears welled in her eyes, unbidden.

“Thank you,” she told him. “Oh God, thank you, Mr. Pinkoff.”

As the tears turned into sobs, Dr. Pinkoff wrapped his arms around her and let her cry. “Call me Irv.”

Being in the freak show was hard at first, but the other performers—both jokers and non-jokers—made her feel welcome. She put up with the gawks and catcalls (“Oink! Oink!” the kids liked to shout at her) for three months until the Menagerie nightclub opened, and she quickly secured a job as a cocktail waitress. The skimpy costume was straight out of Frederick’s of Hollywood, but it was a small price to pay; the clientele was both jokers and nats (naturals) and the gawking was somewhat more tolerable here.

Her friend with the third eye had been right about something else: within weeks a new store opened on the pier, opened by a once-famous French character actor, now known only as Anonyme (Anonymous) and constantly masked to hide his presumably deformed features. La Jetée de Masques carried everything from plush hooded cloaks, dark veils, Halloween fright masks, Hollywood movie star masks, even macabre replicas of actual plaster “death masks” of Hollywood celebrities, the latter starting at a hundred bucks a pop. La Jetée de Masques was an instant success with jokers who wanted a respite from the gawkers who came to the pier, or who simply ached to go out to a movie or take a walk without being shunned or taunted.

Trina tried going out wearing her Betty Grable mask a few times, but the mask itself practically announced she was a joker and she could still feel people’s apprehension and fear as they passed her with a sideways glance. And when HUAC (and later, Joseph McCarthy) began attacking the aces—genuine American heroes, for God’s sake—she realized that none of them, aces or jokers, was truly safe, and she only donned a mask and left the pier to buy groceries or visit doctors.

Fourteen years after she arrived, she was still at the Menagerie, and the pier had evolved into a full-blown Jokertown, reviled by the bluenoses in L.A. but self-supporting and profitable. Walter Newcomb died in 1955, but his family remained committed to the pier’s independence even in the face of the vitriol of anti-joker columnists like Hedda Hopper.

These days she worked the late shift on weekends and first shift—afternoons—during the week. This made it easier for her to avoid Bongo’s ardent tentacles (in the heat of day he was cooling his heels in one of the refrigerated hotel units up the pier). In the afternoon, the customers were less drunk and more intent on watching joker dancers like Iris, whose invisible epidermis allowed her blood, skeleton, and internal organs to be seen twirling around the stripper’s pole. Her billing was “Iris, the Human X-Ray.”

On Trina’s first late shift of the next weekend, Bongo was back—but quick to apologize for his behavior the previous weekend. “I’m, like, on the wagon, I promise,” he said. She accepted the apology and was impressed when Bongo ordered club soda instead of Jim Beam—and did so for the rest of the evening. He still gazed at her like a lovelorn calf, but he kept his arms to himself, and that was just fine with her.

 

Celebrities were nothing new to the pier, whether it was actors with a casual curiosity about what went on here, or those like the late Brant Brewer, star of the Captain Cathode TV show, whose sexual proclivities for jokers had been well known here. But the short, dark-haired man who strode up the pier today was someone new.

It was a hot August day and he was comfortably wearing slacks and a polo shirt and not the suit and tie most of America was used to seeing him in—but there was no mistaking his face, his voice, or the lit cigarette he held clenched in one hand. Bob Louden—once the frog-faced boy at Pink’s freak show, now the concessionaire who ran the shooting gallery—saw him and quipped, “Hey, man, you’re too late. We’re already in the Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling laughed a warm, hearty laugh, approached the frog-faced man, and extended a hand without hesitation. “Call me Rod.”

“I’m Bob.”

“Let me try my hand at your game. See if my shooting has improved any since the war.”

Word quickly spread that the man behind The Twilight Zone was here, shaking hands with everyone he met—jokers or nats—chatting, laughing, signing autographs. Irv Pinkoff gave Serling a guided tour of the freak show, and he greeted everyone in it as the professional performers they were and, most importantly of all, as people. He seemed absolutely genuine and totally unlike the usual Hollywood assholes who visited Jokertown.

By the time he walked into the Menagerie, Trina had heard he was here and thought maybe he was too good to be true. When he sat down at one of her tables and lit a cigarette, she duly approached him with her standard question: “Hi, I’m Trina. Get you something to drink?”

He took in her face and just smiled warmly. Not even a flicker of disgust. “Nice to meet you, Trina, I’m Rod. I’ll have a scotch.”

She nodded, got his scotch at the bar, and when she returned, he had already smoked his cigarette down to a nub. He stubbed it out in an ashtray, thanked her for the drink, then downed it in one swallow.

She studied him a moment, then couldn’t help but noting, “You don’t…sound like you do on your show.”

He laughed, a warm infectious laugh. “You mean my ‘television voice’? That’s what my daughters call it.”

She smiled. “Can I ask you something?”

He lit another cigarette. “Sure.”

“Why are you here? At the pier?”

He took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled a plume of smoke. “Ah. Short question, long answer. Set me up again and I’ll tell you.”

She obliged, but when she brought him another shot, he didn’t down it right away. “As you obviously know,” he said, “I produce a show called The Twilight Zone.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it, when I’m not on shift here.” She hesitated, then added, “I think my favorite is the one about the man who…walks back in time. To his childhood. I…I really liked that one.”

Serling seemed to take in the wistfulness in her tone and nodded. “Yes. I think we all yearn to return to our youth, for one reason or another. I know I do.” He took a swallow of scotch. “The Twilight Zone has been extremely fortunate. It’s been a Top Ten show ever since its debut. And I think that has a lot to do with the world we’ve all been living in since September of 1946. If people hadn’t already seen the reality of spacemen and people with strange abilities, Twilight Zone might be languishing in the ratings right now, instead of being at the top.”

“So?”

“So…I’d like to acknowledge that. I’d like to do something for those of you who have been most adversely affected by the wild card virus. I want to break the blacklist against jokers appearing on TV.”

Trina was taken aback by that. “Wow. Really? What about Hedda Hopper?”

Serling grinned. “Fuck Hedda Hopper.”

Trina laughed. Serling went on, “Our ratings give me a certain amount of capital with the network, and this is how I choose to spend it.”

Another customer came in, Trina apologized and went to take the man’s order. When she came back, Serling startled the hell out of her by asking, “Trina, have you ever done any acting?”

“Uh…I played Patty in Junior Miss in high school. But there is no way in hell I’d show this face on television!”

Serling said gently, “It’s not your features that got my attention. You have kind eyes and a sweet voice. That’s what I need in this particular story. It’s a parable about the dangers of conformity…it’s called ‘The Eye of the Beholder.’ I wrote it specifically with the joker situation in mind. I hope you won’t be offended by it—it’s meant to shock, but then to play against viewers’ expectations.

“I can have the script messengered to you tomorrow, and if you’re interested, I’d like to bring you in to audition for the director, Doug Heyes.”

Audition? Her? For a TV show? Was this real? But this man wasn’t like the usual producer who came to the club, promising stardom to joker women (or men), then inviting them back to his place to talk it over. Rod Serling was all business.

“You don’t understand. I—we—we’re all safe here. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.”

“I do understand that, Trina. But wouldn’t you like more out of life than you can have on this pier? This—pardon my expression—ghetto?”

Trina had never described the Jokertown on the pier with that word, but hearing it come from Serling it sounded…sadly appropriate.

She hesitated before replying, “Well…it couldn’t hurt to read the script.”

“That’s great. Thank you, Trina. Write down your address and it’ll be delivered tomorrow morning.”

Trina scribbled down her name and address on his bar chit. He took the chit and paid for his six dollars of scotch with a fifty-dollar bill. “Keep the change. I’ll write my office number on the script…call me if you have any questions.”

He left, leaving Trina shocked, bewildered, and a little terrified.

The next morning a messenger rapped on the door to her apartment. The young man had obviously been warned about her appearance, but she still saw a glint of fear in his eyes as he stared at her. “Uh, delivery from MGM Studios,” he said, handing her a manila envelope, then beating it out of there as quickly as he could.

She had three hours before her shift began at the club, so she sat down and opened the envelope. She slid out the twenty-six-page script, and there was a note attached to it:

 

Trina, I hope you’ll be intrigued by this story. The role you’d be auditioning for is the Room Nurse. Also enclosed are the “sides,” the scene that will be used for your audition.

Best Wishes,

Rod Serling

 

Trina started reading. The story was set in a hospital in what appeared to be some sort of future society that prizes “glorious conformity” and condemns “diversification.” The main character, Janet Tyler, is a woman whose face is wrapped in bandages. We never see her face, nor, according to the script, do we get a clear view of the nurses and doctors around her. Apparently, Janet is horribly deformed, and the other characters talk about her behind her back with a mix of pity and disgust. But her doctor and the room nurse are kind and sensitive when dealing with her. As Janet waits for the day when the bandages are removed to see if her treatment was successful, we learn that in this society only eleven such treatments are allowed—after that the patient must be sent to “a special area where others of your kind have been congregated.” The parallels were clear: the “special area” is a ghetto, not unlike the one in which Trina was living.

But then Janet’s bandages are removed, and contrary to expectations she is a “startlingly beautiful” woman—and when we finally see the doctors and nurses, they are the deformed ones: “Each face is more grotesque than the other.”

Trina felt a flash of anger that she had been offered this role because of her own “grotesque” appearance. But who was she kidding? That’s what she was. And by the end of the script—after Janet tries to run away, only to be gently captured by the doctor and nurse—Serling’s intent became crystal clear. Janet is introduced to a handsome man from the “special” area where her kind are segregated. At first, because she shares the same cultural standards of her society, she is repulsed by his appearance. But he gently reminds her of an old saying: “A very, very old saying…beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Trina put the script down. She was buzzing with nervous apprehension at the idea of showing her face on network television after hiding here on the pier for fourteen years. But maybe, she thought, America needed to see her face. Needed to see themselves as the monsters and to see jokers like her as real people and not freaks. It seemed to her that this script—this show—could be the equivalent of those sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, for Negro civil rights. Not a solution, but a necessary first step.

When she looked at it that way…she could hardly say no.

 

Even so, she asked permission from her fellow residents on the pier: “This could affect you too,” she said. The majority of them told her to do it: “What more can they do to us?” Iris the dancer asked. “Screw ’em if they can’t take the heat.” Trina called Serling and said she’d audition; his secretary told her to come in at one p.m. the next day, and a car would be sent to pick her up at noon.

The following day, Trina put on a Doris Day mask—Que sera, sera!—as she waited at the foot of the pier. At noon, a big black limousine picked her up, the driver studiously betraying no reaction when she took the mask off once inside. He drove her through downtown Santa Monica on their way to the MGM Studios, where Twilight Zone was filmed, in Culver City. The car windows were tinted so no one could see in, but Trina could look out without fear of being seen. She felt a thrill, tinged with melancholy, as she gazed out at the familiar streets of her childhood. Even more thrilling was when the limo approached the entrance gate to MGM, a grand mock-Greek colonnade with a sign proclaiming it as METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER. All at once it was 1939 again and she was nine years old, sitting in Loews Theatre as the MGM lion roared at the start of The Wizard of Oz. But this part was far from Oz, just a collection of drab, nondescript office buildings and sound stages; it was here the limo driver dropped her off, at the production offices for Twilight Zone.

Trina took a deep breath and entered. Inside it looked like an ordinary business office with secretaries sitting at desks typing or answering phones. She stopped at the first desk, cleared her throat, and said, “Excuse me. I’m Trina Nelson, I’m here to see Mr. Heyes?”

Clearly the staff had been prepared for her and the secretary just smiled at her. “Of course, they’re waiting for you. Follow me.” She led Trina to Mr. Heyes’s office and opened the door.

“Miss Nelson is here.”

Serling got up from a chair and clasped her hand in welcome. “Trina, thanks for coming in. We’re all excited to hear you read.”

There were a lot more people here than she had expected. “You mean I’m supposed to do this out loud?” she joked. Everyone laughed.

Serling introduced her to the producer, Buck Houghton, a distinguished-looking man with silver gray hair; the casting director, Ethel Winant, who wore black spectacles and had conservatively cropped brown hair; and the episode’s director, Douglas Heyes, a handsome man with a high forehead. “Thank you for coming in, Trina,” Heyes said, shaking her hand. “I know this couldn’t have been an easy decision for you.”

They all sat in chairs opposite one for Trina.

“It’s a really good script,” Trina said nervously. “I hope my reading won’t embarrass you, Mr. Serling.”

“Please—Rod. And I’m sure it won’t.”

Ethel Winant explained, “I’ll be reading the part of Janet Tyler in the scene with you, Miss Nelson.”

Trina nodded and took out her “sides.” This was it—showtime.

Heyes noted, “Rod’s description of the room nurse is ‘firm first, kindly second.’ Firm, not hard—we want to hear that kindness, that sympathy in her voice. And since we don’t see her face for much of the story…”

Surprisingly, he got up, turned his chair around, and sat facing away from Trina. “I’m doing this with all the actors. I want to hear their voices only, as if we were casting a radio play.”

Trina, startled, looked to Serling, who saw her unease, smiled, and said, “I started in radio and now I seem to be back in it.” He laughed that infectious laugh of his, which eased Trina’s nervousness.

She and Ethel Winant ran through the scene together:

Ethel said, “Nurse?”

Trina fought back a flurry of anxiety and read the line: “Brought you your sleeping medicine, honey.”

“Is it night already?”

The dialogue was mostly chitchat for the next page, until they came to Janet’s line, “When…when will they take the bandages off? How long?”

Trina put hesitation, awkwardness, and yet a gentleness in her reply: “Until…until they decide whether they can fix up your face or not.”

“Janet” talked about how bad she knew she looked, remembering how people had always turned away from her and how the first thing she remembered was a little child “screaming when she looked at me.”

Tears welled in Trina’s eyes as Ethel read Janet’s speech about never wanting to be beautiful, or even loved—she just wanted people not to scream when they looked at her. Trina struggled to keep her emotions in check. Then “Janet” asked again when the bandages would come off, and that was Trina’s cue.

The sympathy, the kindness, in Trina’s voice was more than just acting. “Maybe tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe the next day. You’ve been waiting so long now…it really doesn’t make too much difference whether it’s two days or weeks now, does it?”

And that was the end of the scene. Trina exhaled in relief. She looked up to see Serling and Miss Winant gazing raptly at her. Did that mean she did well or did terribly?

Doug Heyes got up, turned around, and said quietly, “That was very nice, Trina. Would you excuse us a moment as we compare notes?”

Oh God, Trina thought as she stepped out of the office. They hated me! Will they give me a second chance?

She waited by the secretary’s desk for thirty long seconds, and then the office door burst open and Doug Heyes, a big smile on his face, extended a hand to her and said, “Welcome to the Twilight Zone, Trina.”

Serling smiled and quipped, “He stole my line.” Everyone laughed. “Congratulations, Trina.”

There was barely time for her to feel her elation before business matters took over. Ethel produced a contract and explained, “You’ll be paid $600 for a three-day shoot. Is that acceptable, Miss Nelson?”

This sounded like a fortune compared to what Trina made at the Menagerie. “Yes. Fine.”

“We built an extra day into the schedule,” Heyes said, “so I can give you a crash course in acting for television. I’ll be blocking out the actors’ moves more than usual, to avoid tipping the ending to the audience.” He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Now we’ve got to get you to makeup so we can cast a mold of your face.”

“A mold? Why?”

“Because we’ll be basing the makeup on your features, and from the mold we’ll be making rubber appliances for the other actors…”

He took her to the makeup department and introduced her to the makeup artist, William Tuttle, a friendly man with dark hair, a mustache, and glasses. She sat in a chair as plaster was applied to the top half of her face—everything but her mouth and eyes—and then sat there as the plaster hardened. To keep her relaxed, Tuttle told her about some of the movies he’d worked on: Singin’ in the Rain, The Time Machine, North by Northwest, Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley…

“You worked with Elvis?” she gasped, and Tuttle regaled her with Elvis stories until the plaster mold had hardened and was removed.

By the end of the day Trina was exhausted but exhilarated. The limo got her home at seven o’clock; she fed Ace and was putting a Banquet chicken dinner in the oven when there was a knock on her door.

She opened it to find Irving Pinkoff standing there, looking at her expectantly. “Well?”

“I got the part!” she nearly shouted. “I’m going to be on television!”

He embraced her proudly. “Good girl, I knew you would!”

“I didn’t! I was terrified.”

“Trina, this is so important what you’re doing,” he said, smiling. “For everyone on this pier, and…everywhere else.”

“I wouldn’t be here—literally—if not for you, Irv. All of us.”

“I’m the one whose life has been the richer for that,” he said, and hugged her again. Then, with a wink: “Break a leg, my dear.”

 

In that extra day of pre-production, Heyes coached Trina in the craft of acting for the camera—how to hit your marks and “not bump into the furniture”; how, in close-ups, to ignore the sound of the camera as film runs through the sprockets—and she quickly grew to trust this smart, talented, nice man. On a coffee break she asked what other shows he had worked on, and she was delighted to discover that he had written and directed some of the best episodes of her favorite show, Maverick.

Trina now also had more time to memorize the script. It had been a long time since that class production of Junior Miss and even though “Eye of the Beholder” was shorter, it was a long way from a supporting role in a high school play. She sat at her dining table overlooking the beach and read—and re-read, and read again—not only her lines but those of the other actors, so she knew her cues.

There was a standard day of rehearsal, at which Trina met her fellow actors—Maxine Stuart, playing the role of the bandaged Janet Tyler, and Donna Douglas, who would play Janet after the bandages came off; William Gordon, who played Janet’s doctor; George Keymas, who portrayed (on TV screens) the Leader of this conformist society; Edson Stroll, the handsome outcast; and Joanna Heyes, Doug’s wife, who had a small part as the reception nurse. They all seemed like lovely people and treated Trina like one of them—that is, a nat.

The blocking was complicated, and Trina tried not to show her anxiety as she watched, listened, and followed instructions. Heyes’s plan was to not show the faces of any of the doctors and nurses, without making it seem as if that information was being deliberately withheld: “The way I see it is this is Janet Tyler’s viewpoint; she can’t see anyone around her, so the viewers can’t either. Here’s hoping they buy into that, however subconsciously.” This involved some fancy camerawork and cinematography: the set was shadowed, reflecting Janet’s “inner darkness,” and in certain scenes those shadows would obscure characters’ faces. Overhead shots would show only the top of their heads; in others, only the back of their heads, which looked perfectly normal, especially in shadowy rooms. Actors would also pass in front of one another, obscuring each other’s faces, or walk behind screens that revealed only a silhouette. She was relieved to see that even the seasoned cast found the blocking challenging to memorize.

She had a seven o’clock call the next morning and when she showed up on the sound stage, she found the rest of the cast already there—they had been there for hours, having the makeup protheses applied. Trina stopped short when she saw seven people—nine, if you counted a couple of background extras—all of whom looked exactly like her. It was shocking, disorienting—and somehow highly amusing.

“We look like a family reunion!” she cried out, and everyone, including crew, broke into laughter.

Trina was in the first scene, playing opposite poor Maxine Stuart, her head wrapped in bandages. But it got off to a bumpy start when Trina flubbed her line in the first take, then missed her mark a few camera set-ups later, during a tracking shot. Feeling (or imagining) the eyes of everyone on the set on her, she quipped, “Who’s the joker that screwed up that shot?”—a familiar kind of joker self-deprecation around nats, but it got the laugh she sought, dissipating the tension.

“Back to one!” the assistant director called out, and all the actors went back to their starting positions. And Trina made damn sure not to miss her mark again.

During the next set-up, one of the extras—a young woman in her twenties whose makeup made her almost a twin of Trina’s—came up to her: “It’s no big deal, honey, everybody flubs a line now and then.”

“Thanks,” Trina said, “but I just feel like such an amateur.”

“They knew you were inexperienced when they hired you, but they wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t think you could deliver the goods.” This made Trina smile gratefully. The woman held out a hand. “I’m Suzie. Suzie Ludwick.”

“Trina Nelson.”

“This your first time on a movie lot?”

“This is my first time anywhere, almost.”

“Well you picked a good place for your first job. Listen, when we break for lunch, I’ll show you around the lot, okay?”

None of the actors in “joker” makeup could eat a normal lunch, only milkshakes or chocolate malts they could sip through straws. (Maxine’s “bandages” had a zipper in back and she could remove it as needed.) Trina, of course, could eat anything she wanted—she took a sandwich off the craft services table as Suzie, sipping her milkshake, led her out of the soundstage and onto the MGM backlot. Trina felt self-conscious at first, but she quickly realized that everyone they passed—actors, crew carrying equipment, people driving golf carts to and from sound stages—none of them was paying Trina and Suzie the slightest attention, though they both looked as if they’d dropped in from Jupiter.

“This is Hollywood,” Suzie said with a shrug. “Nothing’s real.”

Trina basked in her newfound anonymity.

Suzie took her over to Lot 2, one of six backlots that MGM owned, and into a genuine wonderland. First Trina marveled at a partial recreation of New York City’s waterfront docks and a ship’s gangway that led up to a convincing replica of the midsection of an ocean liner. Next, they walked down ersatz New England streets—a filling station, a malt shop, a treelined village square—that Trina recognized from old Andy Hardy movies. She passed the empty shells of typical American houses that achingly reminded Trina of her old neighborhood on Ashland Avenue, and stood there a moment, wishing this could be real, wishing one of the front doors would open and her parents would come out and wave to her. She quickened her pace as they passed a faux but depressing cemetery, to a delightfully French courtyard used in The Three Musketeers.

They continued past a small-town railroad depot to an amazing mock-up of Grand Central Station (where a film crew was shooting in the working interior set). A few steps later Trina was on a Chinese street lined with pagodas, palaces, docks, even sampans floating on the manmade waterfront. Just beyond the Chinese street was a horseshoe-shaped space that at one end was a stunning re-creation of a street in Verona, Italy—fountains, ornate colonnades, mosaics—and at the other, the Moorish architecture of a street in Spain, which made Trina think of the Hippodrome, which itself was kind of a set.

Trina was amazed at the sheer size, the vastness of these lots—and they only had time to see half of what was here on Lot 2!

“Well,” Trina joked, “I always did want to travel the world.”

Suzie smiled a little sadly at that. “There’s lots more on this lot and the others. We can do this tomorrow at lunchtime too if you want.”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

Suzie glanced at her watch. “We’d better be getting back.”

The rest of the day’s shoot proceeded smoothy, but before they broke for the day new script pages were distributed—and Trina quailed to see that it was a new scene between herself and Bill Gordon, who played the doctor. “Rod felt we needed someone who, in private at least, challenges the rules of conformity,” Doug Heyes explained to her, “and who better to do that than you?”

Trina gulped but managed a thin smile. Oh God, more lines to memorize!

The studio limo picked her up and whisked her home to the pier. A crowd of friends gathered around her, curious as to how the day had gone; she answered their questions as quickly as she could before hurrying into her apartment, feeding Ace, and studying her new lines over a pastrami sandwich. And as she read the lines, she understood what Doug had meant, and why she had to say them. She only hoped she could do justice to Rod’s dialogue.

 

The next day she arrived palpably nervous, even more so when she saw that her new scene with Bill Gordon was first up to shoot. Maxine Stuart tried to calm Trina’s jitters by telling her about her own acting debut, at the age of nineteen, in a short-lived (“We closed after a week!”) Broadway play called Western Waters. “I was so nervous the first night, I thought I was going to throw up on Van Heflin,” she admitted. “Today is your second day, you’re practically an old veteran.”

Trina laughed along with her, grateful for her kindness.

The new scene was set in a hospital “break room” where Trina’s nurse spoke sympathetically of her patient:

“I’ve seen her face, Doctor, under those bandages…I’ve seen deeper than that pitiful, twisted lump of flesh.”

Trina was glad the camera couldn’t see the tears in her eyes as she delivered this line.

“I’ve seen her real face,” she went on. “It’s a good face. It’s a human face. What’s the dimensional visual difference between beauty and something we see as repellent? Skin deep? No, it’s more than that.”

Then, with a righteous anger she didn’t need to fake, she implored, “Why, Doctor? Why shouldn’t people be allowed to be different?”

When the Doctor warns that such talk is considered treason, the nurse backs off. “Don’t be concerned, Doctor, I—I’ll be all right.”

A short scene, but for Trina it was as if Serling had seen inside her mind and put into words all of her pain, rage, and resentment.

She had occasion to tell him this in person when Serling dropped by the set unannounced at the end of the day and said to her, “I hope you don’t have plans for lunch tomorrow. I’ve made reservations for us at the MGM commissary.” She looked startled and he explained, “It’s your last day. We need to commemorate it in appropriate style.”

“But—I’m a joker,” she said.

“So? Besides, when you walk in with Rod Serling, the kook who writes that kooky Twilight Zone, everyone will assume you’re in makeup and not give you a second thought. What do you say, are you up for it?”

Though still nervous at the idea, Trina assured him she was.

 

Trina was expecting to be taken to a small studio cafeteria and was shocked to be ushered instead into a palatial dining room with high ceilings and arched doorways, the décor a resplendent chrome and green. The maître d’ widened his eyes when he saw Trina’s face but, as predicted, he then looked at Rod and smiled. “Ah, Mr. Serling. We have your table waiting for you and your guest.” He led them to a small table in the center of the packed crowd; on the way Trina was astonished to see sitting at tables such luminaries as Shirley MacLaine, Laurence Harvey, Lana Turner, and—oh my God, she thought, is that Bob Hope?

A few of them stared back with evident revulsion at her face, but then, seeing Serling, they simply turned back to their lunches.

She was so starstruck that Serling had to take her by the elbow and guide her into her chair. The maître d’ handed them both menus. Trina smiled at Serling and said, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here with all these stars. It’s like a fairy tale.”

“I felt that way too, at first. I still like walking around the lot, seeing sets from movies I watched when I was a boy growing up in Binghamton, New York.” He opened up his menu. “I highly recommend the chicken soup, it’s the best this side of the Carnegie Deli.”

Trina was even starstruck by the menu, featuring items like the “Elizabeth Taylor Salad” and the “Cyd Charisse Salad.” Though she was tempted by the “Barbecued Alaska Black Cod,” she knew this would be the only time in her life she would be able to utter the words “I’ll have the Elizabeth Taylor Salad,” and so she did. Serling ordered the corned beef sandwich on rye and a bottle of champagne.

“We have ample reason to celebrate,” Rod said, lighting the latest in a succession of cigarettes. “The dailies are looking terrific and your performance is everything I’d hoped it would be. I think this will be a—”

“Rod Serling!”

A woman’s angry voice cut through the din of conversations around them. Trina looked up to see an elegantly dressed woman in her seventies, wearing a flamboyant hat and a mink stole wrapped around her shoulders like a game trophy, with bleached blonde hair.

“How dare you disgrace this venerable old studio like this!” she accused.

Serling looked surprised but said dryly, “Lovely to see you too, Hedda. Is that the pelt of one of your victims you’re wearing?”

“Hedda”? Jesus, Trina thought, it was Hedda Hopper! A shiver of fear ran through Trina at this woman who destroyed careers and people with words like poison darts.

Hedda ignored the insult and snapped, “So it’s true—you are employing a ‘joker’ in one of your trash television shows!”

“Which one of your little spies ferreted out that information for you, Hedda?” Serling asked.

“I have my sources, and they’re all good Americans. But this—it’s bad enough you’re breaking the blacklist by employing a joker, but to actually bring this revolting creature in here, while people are eating—”

Trina’s hackles went up, her fear forgotten.

“She’s an actress working for my company and MGM,” Serling shot back, “and she has every right to be here. And ‘revolting creature’ is an appellation that more aptly suits you, dear Hedda.”

Hedda’s eyes popped: she was clearly not used to being talked back to with such amiable contempt. “Get this disgusting freak out of here now,” she demanded, “or I’ll call Sol Siegel so fast it will make your head spin!”

Trina, enraged, found herself jumping to her feet and saying: “Oh, I see. No jokers allowed. Just like those Negroes in Greensboro, North Carolina, who were refused service at the lunch counter—is that it?”

Hedda certainly didn’t expect the target of her venom to fight back and was momentarily at a loss for words.

Trina was not. “Well I’ve got news for you, Miss Hopper,” Trina said evenly. “Right now, there are Negroes sitting at that lunch counter in Greensboro, as is their legal right. Just as I have a legal right to be sitting here with Mr. Serling. And I have no intention of leaving until I’ve had my lunch—and maybe dessert, too!”

Unexpectedly, Trina heard—applause.

She looked around and saw at least a dozen people—among them Shirley MacLaine and Lana Turner—on their feet and applauding in solidarity with her.

Trina was stunned—and touched. She nodded at the people applauding her, then slowly sat back down.

Serling was grinning at this turn of events. “Now, Hedda,” he said, “if you don’t mind, as you yourself noted—people are eating.”

Hedda, fuming, stared daggers at him but said nothing, just turned and stalked away, out of the commissary.

Serling, still grinning, said, “Trina, that was brilliant. And it took extraordinary courage.”

Trina shook her head. “No, I was just pissed off.”

Serling laughed. “That’s what courage is sometimes—being pissed off at what’s not right.”

“Now I’m worrying, though. Rod, the whole country reads what that woman writes. She could do real damage to you and your show.”

“I doubt it. Her rants against Dalton Trumbo and Spartacus haven’t stopped the filming. In any event, it’s worth the risk if it breaks the joker blacklist as Spartacus has broken the Red Scare blacklist.”

Trina smiled. “You’re the brave one, I think.”

Serling shook his head and took a draw off his cigarette. “I’m not doing this for altogether altruistic reasons, Trina. Yes, I want the blacklist to end, but also—” He thought a moment and went on, “Look, we all like to think that writers write because they have something to say that is truthful and honest and pointed and important. And I suppose I subscribe to that, too. But God knows when I look back over my career thus far, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything that’s important. Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important.

“You—what we’re doing together—this may be important. I hope it helps you and others like you. Someday, at the end of my time on this earth, that would be a fine comfort, to have been a part of this.”

Trina, moved, picked up her champagne glass and held it aloft. Serling took his shot glass of scotch—and they toasted to that.

 

At the end of the shoot, the cast and crew surprised Trina with a goodbye cake prepared by craft services and broke open yet another bottle of champagne. Maxine Stuart told her it was an honor to have worked with her, which touched Trina deeply. Everyone wished her well and Suzie promised to drop by the pier between gigs—and she made good on her promise several times, she and Trina eating fish and chips in one of the little cafes. She even came to the viewing party the night in November that “Eye of the Beholder” aired. The Menagerie’s manager closed the club for a “private party” and most of the pier’s residents, many, like Anonyme, clad in festive masks, jammed inside to watch the episode. It was a powerful story and Trina was relieved that she hadn’t embarrassed herself—she’d held her own with more seasoned actors. And she was proud to be the first joker in a network television series.

Hedda Hopper tried to sabotage the episode by writing venomous screeds about it and how it was another attempt by jokers and Communists to undermine American values—but it backfired, and “Eye of the Beholder” got the highest rating of any Twilight Zone that season. Rod gave her this news himself when he, his wife, and two daughters visited the pier that weekend. “The mail has been largely positive,” he said, “except for the ones that sound as if Hedda had dictated them personally. But contrary to her dire warnings, the world as we know it has not ended.”

The episode did what was intended of it: it broke the joker blacklist. The following year Reginald Rose and Herbert Brodkin cast a joker in their law series The Defenders, in an episode that openly discussed jokers’ rights. Floodgates did not open; there wasn’t so much a rush of jokers onto TV as a slow trickle. But it was a start.

The show had two unforeseen impacts on Trina’s personal life. One evening after her afternoon shift, Trina looked out at an empty beach—this was November, after all—and decided to chance going for a short (if bracing) swim. When she got out of the water, she was startled to see a woman and an eight-year-old boy standing on the beach, having just come from the pier. The boy stared wide-eyed at Trina’s face and she braced herself for a scream—

But instead he burst into a big smile and asked breathlessly, “Are you the Twilight Zone lady?”

Trina felt relief wash over her like a wave—relief and an unexpected pleasure. “Yes,” she told him, “I am.”

“He loves that show,” the mother said. “Would you mind having your picture taken with him?”

Where am I, Trina thought, what world is this? But she just smiled and said, “Of course.”

The little boy came running over, wrapped his left arm around Trina’s legs, and smiled into the camera. A flashbulb popped, and Trina’s life changed forever.

After that, whenever she was outside on the pier, tourists would stop her—“Are you the girl from The Twilight Zone?”then ask for an autograph or a photo, and Trina was happy to oblige. She became popular enough that Irv Pinkoff—now getting on in years—asked her if she would come back to work for him, not inside the building but outside, helping him sell tickets. He thought her presence might boost sales, and he was right. Trina could live her life in the sun again and not inside the dark confines of the Menagerie.

The other change came at the viewing party for “Eye of the Beholder.” When the episode was over, everyone applauded and congratulated Trina on her performance…including Bongo, who came up and said in the sincerest voice, “You were beautiful, Trina. You were the most beautiful one on the show.”

Trina smiled at hearing this again. “Bongo, what is it about me you think is so beautiful?”

He didn’t hesitate. “You have kind eyes and a sweet voice. They’re, like, windows to your soul.”

The words were an echo, and they shamed her into looking, really looking, at Bongo for the first time. She’d always found his  attraction to her so off-putting that she never really examined his face—but now that she did, she saw that he was really kind of a sweet-looking kid, with a shy, endearing smile.

Had she been the one all along who had something to learn from “Eye of the Beholder”?

“Bongo,” she asked, “do you have a real name?”

Hesitantly he admitted, “It’s Harold.”

“That’s a nice name, Harold.” She smiled. “Would you like to get some coffee later at that little espresso shack up the pier?”

Harold’s eyes lit with surprise—and a happiness that made Trina awfully glad she’d asked. “I would dig that the most, Trina,” he said.

What was that line of Rod’s dialogue she had spoken?

“Skin deep? No, it’s more than that.”

She was embarrassed that she, of all people, needed to be told this. A lesson to be learned, she thought…in the Twilight Zone.

 

“Skin Deep” copyright © 2021 by Alan Brennert
Art copyright © 2021 Micah Epstein

citation

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