Since I'm the cook of the house, if the phone should ring around dinner time my wife Jane answers it — unless there's a Padres game on TV and we've broken for a commercial message. That's when I'm next to the phone and free to talk, so I'll answer it. Our daughters, who are two years old, pick up our phone whenever they feel like it, being bored with their toy telephones; a princess to match Julie's personality, and for Jeanne a business model. Those girls love phones as much as their mother does. Jane is panting to get Sprint, though I've held her off so far, but I expect in two years the vote will be three-to-one I lose. Sometimes I wonder where those Mouseketeers of mine absorb so much commercialism.
One night in August while Lollar was pitching behind no offense, I got a call from the girls' talent agency in Los Angeles. The caller, whose name I didn't catch, rattled off something about the girls being wanted at an audition for a television commercial in Venice the following morning. The agency had telephoned with the same message the night before. I'd expected Jane to be ecstatic — it was the only time the agency had called in the year since she'd listed the kids — but afterward she'd hung up and said, "Forget it. We're not going to schlep the kids up to Los Angeles on one day's notice for a cattle call. If they really want to see them, they'll call back."
When the front door clacked open and Jane was home from work, I looked up from the game and said, "Guess who just called."
"During a game? Come on. Guess who called back."
She was all eyes, mouth — you could see all the way to her molars. "Joe Dan! They really want them!"
"I don't know, Jane. This guy was reading the message for the millionth time: 'Be at such-and-such studio on Pacific Avenue in Venice at ten o'clock tomorrow...'"
"I wrote it down."
She took the message and read it letter by letter, looking for clues. Meanwhile we returned to the action in Houston, and I unmuted the play-by-play with my emote Commander.
"Do you think it's too late to call?"
"Throw strikes, it's only the pitcher," I said. "Jane, he's walking the leadoff hitter."
There was no answer when she called, but she noticed that the telephone number ended in two zeros, so Jane, implacable reporter that she is, added a one at the end and redialed, hoping that someone working late at the studio would pick up the inside line. Bingo. She commenced asking pointed questions in her soft voice.
"It's not just for twins," she said after hanging up, "which is perfect."
"Did you feed the girls dinner?" she asked.
"I really think Julie would have a chance."
"Ha." Julie does look at a camera with clear, relaxed eyes, whereas Jeanne give the impression that just being there she'd done something wrong. Any agent who handles children will tell you that he has to take on every kid in a family to sign the singular talent, since parent don't want to hurt feelings. And so it was with us.
"Is this crazy?" said Jane. "I mean I cant take them tomorrow. Can you?"
"If they need to go. Buy why are we doing this if it's crazy?"
"It'd be fun. I'd love to see our kids in a national commerical. And who knows? That kid on the Pampers box made 300,000 smackolas."
I lay an arm over the back of the sofa, a niche for Jane to settle into, which she acceptingly did. "Trucking them up there and back in the Exxonmobile — we're talking 50 bucks in gas."
"You can deduct it," she said.
"And you know what kind of mood they'll be in after driving for three hours."
She wriggled, thinking about it. Lollar struck out Dickie Thon to the inning. "Unless," she said, "you drove them up tonight and slept at my sister's."
"Who lives in Venice."
"That way," said Jane, regaining her momentum, "the girls would be rested for the audition, and you wouldn't have to drive both ways tomorrow. See?"
"Well — I see this as a way to get this out of our system. Do it once and finish it off."
She relaxed her head against my shoulder. "Who's winning?" she said.
That night Jane called her friend Francine to ask if she could meet the girls and me at the audition. Jane and Francine had known each other long before I'd come along. Francine had been an actress here at the San Diego Rep as well as at the Magic Theatre in her hometown, San Francisco, and had lately moved to Hollywood to siege the industry. She promised Jane to be in Venice by 10:00 the next morning, but would only have an hour before leaving for an audition of her own in Santa Monica. I took the phone to thank her for her trouble and said I looked forward to seeing her, which indeed I did.
Jane washed the girls' best outfits and laid them to dry on the front seat of the car while I loaded their gear and finally them. We pulled out at eight, an hour of daylight left. The girls sat up like fresh-cut flowers, wondering at the luster of Mission Valley at an hour when they were usually in their cribs, and stayed upright all the way past Oceanside, where darkness and the monotony of hills did them in.
The traffic slowed and widened as we penetrated Los Angeles, the way a river descends from headwaters to a still delta. Venice, I remembered, was at the end of the Santa Monica Freeway, then left. As a kid I'd been a few times in the area, first to visit Pacific Ocean Park and later the Dewey Weber surf shop on Lincoln Boulevard. Venice is like South Mission, mostly alleys and No Parking signs and houses standing tiptoe over sidewalks, but on the whole it's more dense and battered — a place were sailors might have lived.
We found the house with no trouble and bedded on a sheet and mattress in the warm upper bedroom, our hosts, Jane's sister and her boyfriend, having already tuned in. Jeanne slept like the dead, but Julie like a patient wallowing, and grump. I gave her a drink and a cooling wet cloth, and lay listening to the traffic on Pacific Avenue, picking out the trucks from the buses, the sedans from the sports cars.
In the morning the traffic was a steady hiss. Our hosts were in their cars somewhere, heading for dressy jobs in Irvine and Beverly Hills. I heard the girls behind me pushing aside the sliding door of the closet. Jeanne, who commands such missions of search and destroy, was babbling to her sister — a good sign, for it's when they fall silent that they've found something really delicious. I grazed sleep again and woke to the hiss of traffic, nothing more. They had pulled a topographical map from its tube and were examining its torn corner.
The stairs from the hallway to the kitchen were so steep I had to arrange some chairs in front of them once I'd got the girls changed and dressed and carried them down. I started to poke for breakfast but decided to be a good guest and wash the sticky mound of dishes on one side of the double sink, until I realized that this was the clean pile. Without marriage and the kids, I thought, I'd still be living in a place like this, in some apartment where you smell the ocean in the morning and where every day you find some reminder of friends' having been there the day or night before; a place without pretension, even shabby in spots that have nothing to do with comfort or cordiality.
There was nothing for breakfast but granola and carob milk, which the babies rejected with slow, deliberate tongues, so I packed them back to the car and drove to the McDonald's I'd spotted at the end of the freeway in Santa Monica. Then it was on to the parking lot behind the brick-and-ivy studio to wait for Francine.
She came around the corner in her new blue Volvo a few minutes late and greeted me with a wide-eyed look of exasperation. "I couldn't find it," she said when she'd parked, putting her hands down to meet the girls' embraces at her knees. "Are we late? Have you gone in? Oh, these girls look nice."
"So do you."
She was wearing a silk blouse in a leopard-skin pattern and khaki slacks and sandals. She has a lovely face, which wasn't very pretty just now, scowling at the parking meter, but that is why it's lovely other times, for being so perishable. Her beauty comes and goes almost by the minute, beautiful when seen for the first time, but glorious when it's gone and come again.
"I'll give you change," I said.
"Oh good. I hope they haven't started. If we're not at the top of the list, we'll be here all day."
I asked if we should change Jeanne's outfit, which was splotched with McDonald's mcmilk and mcsyrup. "Naw," she said. "Casting people don't really care about clothes. Besides, it's okay if Jeanne's clothes are messed up, because that's what she's like. For auditions you can't let things get in the way of what you are. Come on."
We carried the girls around to the front of the building and up the green carpeted stairs. On the walls were bright paper kites in shapes of dragonflies, which the girls reached out for greedily. Francine and I said nothing on the way up, but I could hear her earrings and the bangles on her wrists make music, and for the first time I started to feel excited at the prospect of fees and residual money, and felt also a surge of affection for this stately friend who apparently knew the ropes.
The stairs landed on a wide, short hallway with offices on either side. On a bench to our right was a mother with two daughters in her lap, all of them rather husky, I thought. Francine went directly to the receptionist and said, "We called in earlier because these girls have another appointment, and they said we could be seen right away."
"All set," the receptionist said. "We haven't started yet, but you'll be first. Who's going to fill out the casting sheet?"
Francine took the paperwork and handed it to me and said, "This is just to keep track of who they've seen," and led the girls away to find seats while I bent over the receptionist's desk with the papers and a fresh, sharp pencil. One paper was labeled "Audition Roll" and the other "Exhibit E." They asked for information on height, weight, color of hair, and on work permits and social security numbers. I heard someone call my name, and a woman with a young face and white hair came from the furthermost office and was met by Francine. They exchanged a word and Francine turned to collect the girls.
"Is this the audition?" I asked. "Is this it?"
Walking away, she turned a blank face over her shoulder and nodded. "I'll be there in a sec," I called, and concentrated again on the papers, trying for the life of me to remember how tall my daughters were. And who was their agent? I looked away and cleared a place in memory for the name to drop in. Should I call Jane? A woman and her very pretty daughter, who looked about six years old and had paper-white skin and red hair, appeared beside me and took sheets from the receptionist. I began to ask them who their agent was, and the receptionist said, "Just leave that blank. You're all form the same one anyway."
I finished the papers and headed for the far doorway, where Francine was leaning with folded arms and her back turned. I asked if they had started.
"It's over," she said, not turning around.
"Hush. They're finishing."
Beyond her I saw some video gear — a three-quarter-inch recorder and a camera on a low tripod — and in a patch of light on the carpet my girls were kneeling inertly by some toys. Then the lights shut down and faded quickly as Francine stepped forward to take the girls' hands and lead them away while accepting the thanks of the white-haired woman. I stood in the doorway, for a short, befuddled moment, then met Francine at the receptionist's desk. For some reason, the girl with the paperlike skin was in tears.
We carried Julie and Jeanne mutely down the stairs until we reached the street. "I don't know," Francine said. "I don't have good feelings about this."
"Is something wrong?" I said, but she didn't seem to hear.
"Nobody cares at these things," she said. "All they look for is a certain type..." She whisked her hand past her head. "You know?"
"I've never been to one."
"I can't stand auditions," she said angrily. "I don't know why you put your own daughters through them. I'd never do that to mine."
I couldn't think of anything to say until we'd reached the car. "You put in a hard morning for a couple of two-year-olds," I said to Julie and Jeanne, who knew that tone of voice, and grinned. "You get the rest of the day off."
"Yeah," said Francine. "I have some time. Let's walk on the beach."
I deployed the strollers from my trunk and soon we were wheeling along the esplanade between the sand and the beachfront buildings. In the shadows the concrete was still wet with dew and smelled like rain. Francine talked about her own audition coming up, and more excitedly about the movie in which she'd just been cast. "I have six lines," she said. "I play a reporter who asks a couple of questions. I was really happy to get it, you know, but when I told my brother" — she laughed — "All he said was, 'You're not gonna be on the whole time? I'm not gonna watch it.'"
The farther we got from our cars, it seemed, the less she talked about her work, and the closer we returned, the more her work came up. In the parking lot the pale girl and her mother strode past us. Francine nodded and smiled as if they were old friends.
"The agency screwed them up," she said when they were out of earshot. "It's so typical. They wait till the girl is in the office and say, 'Oh sorry, we don't want you. We wanted your sister.'"
"Is that what happened?"
"I overheard," she said. "And the thing is, until you have a name..." Her voice fell off as she stared at something across the street. Two people were coming out of a low, white restaurant. Francine said gravely, "That's the West Beach Cafe. I know where it is now. That's good."
I looked at the people again. "They don't look so important."
"Oh well. They're not. Not like you!" she said to the babies, plucking Jeanne out of her stroller and pressing a kiss to her head while the kid screamed. "Don't!"
From the parking lot we drove in opposite directions. I wished her luck on her audition, and she sent her love to Jane. The streets around Marina del Rey were unfamiliar to me, but once I found the San Diego Freeway I was okay. We stopped for a frozen yogurt at the Oceanside harbor, where Jeanne nearly nabbed a young gull. Jane was working late that night, but there was another Padres game on, so it was no problem for me to stay home by the phone.