February 04, 2016
Curiosity #84: Aztec volcanic rock sculpture, circa fifteenth century A.D., probably made for the temple of Tenochtitlan. An example of a traditional demon princess, or Cihuateteo, who escorts the sun from the underworld each morning, she wears a simple skirt, breasts bared, hair long and over her shoulders.
The truth about Set is the truth about all ghosts: there is a weightlessness that keeps them fluttering, light as leaves—and in turn they are drawn down to instability, to the volatile, to cracks that open and can split whole mountains. To the volcanoes. Specifically, in Set’s case, to Lana Volcana.
That wasn’t her real name, of course, or even her screen name. But it was what they all called her after her breakout picture, Vera and the Volcano—a two-reeler about an island girl that sent her star up and up. LANA VOLCANA! the picture magazines screeched, with accompanying photographs of a dark-haired vamp in a grass skirt and clamshell top. The IT GIRL, the papers called her, a new kind of girl for these daring times. Filmstar Rag said she was the girl you don’t bring home to mama.
In Hollywood, Set found that alone among the beautiful people, his hollow place itched, emptier than ever. He had love affairs, of course, but he could find no way to feel love for the pretty young women he admired. Up close he found people attractive but flawed; there was an eagerness for closeness that repelled even as it attracted him. He worried that perhaps he could not love, and so he chose the fire that burned the brightest and he jumped in headfirst. Worry about scars later, he told himself. He needed to see if he could ever be warmed, if others could be warmed by him. Never mind his own emotions; was it possible to love a dead man?
Lana and Set first collided when Set was desperately searching for a leopard for a reshoot of a scene from his latest nature documentary, In the Jungle. Lana kept a pet leopard, Leopold, and she brought him in and ensnared Set in the first five minutes. Set had never seen a woman with a leopard on a leash, though he’d heard the stories. He’d heard, and soon discovered it was true, that her chauffeur drove her about in a black Rolls with white velvet interiors while her two Russian wolfhounds hung their heads out the windows in a most undignified fashion. Set supposed she must love animals. But she loved one thing only: spectacle, and anything that helped her to make it. She was drawn to Set because he was pretty, and putty in her hands. That was all she ever needed of men. (It was whispered that her real fire was reserved for women, but it would not be until her lonely later years, doing film rag interviews for cash in her motel room, that she would admit the truth of this.)
Lana Volcana believed in self-improvement. She encouraged Set to quit the studio and set up his own production company. You need to be with the brightest stars, she would say, and he would think first not of Greta Garbo or John Barrymore, but of Cassiopeia, of Orion, of the gods and demigods of the prominent constellations. Lana herself was briefly the brightest star of them all, burning with a fierce intensity, given to passionate histrionics and an outsize sense of drama. She was famous for her fame even in a town where that was quickly becoming the rule, rather than the exception.
That winter, Lana bundled Set off to New York City and made him dance till 4 a.m. at the Stork Club’s big bash. She was fried on gin when she introduced him to Carl Akley Jr., but he and Carl liked each other just the same. Carl had met Cedric years ago, and he made Set promise to come by the American Museum of Natural History, where he’d introduce him to the people who helped set up the expeditions. They needed a good director.
That year, Set surprised himself and everyone around him by moving forward, something he’d never done by himself before; he took Lana’s advice and started his own company. The company lived and shot in Kenya that first year, and made four pictures for the AMNH: African Adventures, On Safari, Big Cats!, and Welcome to the Wild. Set thought back to that nickelodeon theater and wished Oliver were still living and able to see what he’d done. Sometimes he dreamed of Oliver. He dreamed a great tall tree with a multitude of branches, growing far into the heavens. He dreamed he watched Oliver climbing, climbing, small and smaller still until he disappeared altogether into the city of the gods.
When he returned, Lana begged him to take her on his next trip to Africa. I want to see the apes, she told him. Are they really like giant, hairy men?
Nothing like, Set assured her, but she purred as if he had never spoken. Set always felt he was talking to a moving picture screen instead of a live human woman. Set, Set, Set, she would scold, her voice thick with her hidden New Jersey accent and gin. Don’t you ever wanna be somebody? Don’t you ever wanna have a passion for something? She loved his beauty, but she despised his placid solemnity, and what was worse, his lack of interest in his own advancement. She was a fiercely smart, self-made woman. She’d escaped a typically broken home, mother on the bottle, stepfather slaphappy, sisters stupid and stuck. Dirty faces and everybody dull, dull, dull. She’d washed her own face and sewed a dress for herself from scraps she begged at the Macy’s department store where her sister Maureen worked, and she’d shipped herself out at sixteen to Hollywood. The pictures were barely in their infancy, but she was smart enough to recognize a sure thing when she saw it. Sometimes, when she got too unbearable and he didn’t mind the eggshells, he’d slip and call her Dottie. That was her real name: Dorothea DeRosa, though her mentor renamed her Svetlana, and her publicity people put it about that she was a Russian princess who came to Hollywood for refuge during the Revolution. Of course, alone with Set and a few too many martinis, she slipped back into her flat native tongue and her Dottie DeRosa manners.
You have no passion, she’d repeat.
You’re drunk, Dottie, go to sleep, Set would amiably say, and arrange her on the bed in a way that wouldn’t hurt when she woke. He would never tell her, but he was disappointed by the lack of fire behind the flame. Lana was just another Hollywood hustler. And so, he supposed, was he.
We’re all just illusions here, aren’t we, he said, and turned her face to the side so she wouldn’t choke in her sleep.
AMBER SPARKS is the author of the short story collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which has received praise from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Paris Review, among others. She is also the author of a previous short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, as well as the co-author of a hybrid novella with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish, titled The Desert Places. She’s written numerous short stories and essays which have been featured in various publications and across the web – find them here at ambernoellesparks.com, and say hi on Twitter @ambernoelle. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, infant daughter, and two cats.
From The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks. Copyright © 2016 by Amber Sparks. Reprinted by permission of Liveright.