The Empress of Del Mar

by Mark on November 15, 2009

Peering through the camera, Scott whirled his zoom lens, sneaking by the cactus until his client, the Empress of Del Mar, came into focus.  Her highness didn’t look up, but continued studying the script, neatly printed on three-by-five cards.  A short hike behind her, down a winding path, shadows from the salmon colored cliffs pierced the deserted beach.

The video camera seemed like a toy cradled on Scott’s bulky shoulders.  He stepped back, widening the frame, and captured a snarling pine on the left.  Wild flowers sprouted at the base of the canyon walls on the right.  He removed a baseball cap and mopped his scalp with a handkerchief before reaching for the generator and flipping on the lights.

Dropping the cards, her white-gloved hand shielded her eyes from the sudden glare.  “Oh, Mr. Whetstone . . .”

“Please,  Mrs. Kildane, call me, Scott.”

“Very well . . . Scott, are those huge lamps necessary?  This beautiful sky should provide all the lighting we need.”

He wasn’t sure if her raspy voice was natural or the result of her illness.

“Well, we’re racing the sunset behind you.  Without these lights and reflectors, your face will be dark.”

“That suites me fine.”

“Mrs. Kildane, you look lovely.”

“Please, call me Rose.  I look horrible, but your’re a charming liar.”

She was right.  His best make-up artist had spent over two hours filling in those sunken cheeks, dusting over the radiation burns on her neck and fashioning the silver wig to cover the remaining stubble on her scalp.  Her medical team protested this video self-eulogy, but she dismissed their concerns with a wave and asked Scott to chauffeur her to the beach.

“Rose, I’m impressed.  Reserving a state park for this shoot took some clout.”

Her half dozen dimples cracked through the pancake make-up into a grin.  “The boys in Sacramento owe me a few favors.  I’m running out of time to collect them.”

Scott appreciated this woman’s power.  Rose Kincaid was a coastal icon.  For over fifty years she had ruled Del Mar, California’s political and social scene.  Endorsements by the Empress transformed ambulance chasers into judges.  Charities shamelessly groveled for coins from the royal purse.  Every grand pooh-bah between San Diego and LA would attend her funeral.  Scott envisioned video packages — births, weddings, and funerals.  One big fat price for the high rollers.  As his imagination counted the coins, Rose fell into a coughing fit requiring her to inhale deeply from a small oxygen tank.

“Are you all right?”

“That sunset and this cough are God’s way of reminding us not to waste any more minutes.”

He crept over and gently adjusted the mike on her sundress.

“Won’t that camera pick up my voice?”

“Sure it will.  But when I’m editing, this mike will help isolate your voice from the sound of the tide.”  Behind her, cascading swells slammed into the shore, creating a ‘whoosh’ as if they were knocking the wind out of the beach.  “Just some final checks and we’ll be ready.”

“So, how did you get into this business?”

“You mean, video photography?”

“No, the funeral business.”

He nudged a reflector.  “Gave up being the next Speilberg a decade ago.  My next gigs were weddings.  I’ve taped over five hundred beautiful brides . . .”

“All those happy couples!” she interrupted.  “What a joyous profession.”

“Not really.  The only way you survive in this business is by focusing on the shoot.”

Rose’s eyes were her most lively feature, dancing at times or sharpening into a cutting glare, as when she interrogated him.  “Come now!  Can you really ignore all those glorious nerves, laughter and tears?”

While the frail Empress appeared less imperious in her final hours, the persistent questions dulled some of the glitter of his fat fee.  “Absolutely!  I concentrate on the photos, not the fanfare.  There are too many volatile fathers-of-the-bride ready to sue me if the interior of their poorly lit chapel doesn’t turn out like the Sistine Chapel.”

She grinned.  “Been to court much?

“Not even a speeding ticket.”

“Okay, Scott, but why burials over brides?

“The funeral industry is booming.  There are over three hundred-fifty million ‘baby boomers’ out there with graying temples and hardening arteries.  I’m surprised you haven’t invested in it.”

“Don’t worry.  I’m building a substantial portfolio with radiologists, estate lawyers, and morticians.”

Scott smiled sheepishly, and shook his head.  “My clients hope to leave a piece of themselves for posterity.  After watching royal funerals, some want to produce a memorable legacy, like a video tape of their last party.”

Rose’s eyes saddened.  “And you take the same approach as you do at the weddings?  Bury the emotions?  Focus on the shoot?  Avoid getting sued?”

“Big difference with funerals,” he replied with a wink.  “No clients around to litigate.”

She managed a slight smile through her unwavering glare.  “If you mess up my video, I’ll haunt you.”

He harbored no doubts about that.  Her perceptions were already starting to spook him.  “I’m ready, Rose, and that sun is slipping away.  Got your speech memorized?”

“You just focus.  I’ve rehearsed these thoughts in my mind for quite some time.”

“Okay, go as far as you can.  Don’t be afraid to stop.  I’m a great editor, especially knowing your spirit will be actively assisting me.”

“Count on it.  Are you married, Scott?”

“Married?”  He flipped open the light meter and frowned.  “Rose, if that sun drops behind your shoulder, we’ll miss the shot.”

“It’s a simple question.  I’ll pay you double, if we need another session.”

“I’m divorced.”

“Where did you meet her?”

“I captained the San Diego State wrestling team.  Carol was the trainer.  Soon we were grappling day and night.”

“What happened?”

“Things got chilly a few years back.  Been divorced five years.”

She dipped her chin, talking softly into the mike.  “Any children?”

“Well . . . uh . . . there was one . . . a little girl.”

“Was?”

“Rose, I’ve got another appointment tomorrow night.”

Putting down the camera, Scott’s muscular arms clung to his sides, as if he was trying to hold back the dread he felt seeping through his ribs.  “Laura was born with a weak heart.  You’d forget about it watching her bounce around and squeal.  By her third birthday we thought we were home free of it.  No symptoms.  Turns out, there’s nothing free in this world.”

The Empress sighed and said, “Is that why you focus out all these emotions?”

“You’re beginning to sound like my ‘ex’!  I can always use your fee to see a shrink.  We’ve got about thirty minutes left to tape your eulogy.”

Before she could respond, a hacking fit overcame her.  Scott rushed over and helped her find the oxygen.  “Rose, you okay?

“Let’s get on with it?”

Scott squinted into the camera, stretched his right arm toward the side with his hand clenched into a fist.  “Remember the signals.  On three — thumb is one, index finger is two.  I won’t say, ‘three’.  You begin when my middle finger appears.”

She smiled wryly.  “An appropriate gesture.”

“Ready!  One . . . two . . .”

“Hello all my loved ones and friends.  Sorry to disappoint those of you who thought the large screened TV’s in this church were going to replay last night’s Lakers game.  I wanted to say ‘farewell.’  By the way, that very focused young gentleman with the baldhead near all the electronics is Scott Whetstone, my secret video photographer.  I highly recommend him for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs . . . whatever . . .”

“Cut!  Cut!  Please Rose, we’re striving for some dignity, here.”

She laughed.  “You’re the great editor.  Cut it, if you wish.”

“On three . . . One . . . two . . .”

“I’m sitting at my favorite place on earth.  It would be dreadful to think that my body, entangled in tubes and a respirator, will be your last impression of me.  Now, I trust my dusty remains are snug in some trendy urn.  You’ll spread them across these canyons, trails and beaches at Torrey Pines, not bury them in some cold marble park.  When you visit me here, enjoy yourself.  My very favorite activity was walking barefoot on the beach through the cool water at sunset.  Hike, swim, make love or just ponder.  I’ve done all of these things and more here.”

Scott tried to imagine a younger Empress splashing through the surf.

“My dear Maggie.  A deal with the devil wouldn’t have given me a more beautiful and loving daughter.  By now I’m with Jay.  Now you have your older brother and me watching over you.  Shove aside those law books from time to time and enjoy life.  Sand in your hour glass is sifting more rapidly than you think.  I love you.  Hug my grandchildren for me.”  Rose began coughing.  More oxygen.  She looked back a few moments at the sinking orange and crimson fireball before wiping away a tear.

He paused the video.  “You’re doing great, Rose.”

“I envy you.  Emotions are painful curses at times.  The ability to squelch them must be a godsend.”

“You mentioned a son . . . Jay?”

“Careful, Scott.  Your stepping off the I-only-focus-on-the-shoot path.”

The Empress charmed him, but something stronger pulled at his curiosity.  “Who was Jay?”

“John Harold Kildane, Jr.  Jay for short.  The most beautiful, bustling little boy.  We played at this beach.  He loved collecting starfish.”

“How did he . . .”

“Oddest thing.  Jay was a tiny ‘terrible two,’ like most toddlers, always running around and getting into things.  Someone left a large wash bucket in the pantry.”  Rose paused and sucked in some oxygen.  “We found him, head first in that dirty water.  Too small to push himself out.  Just a minute or two, but that’s all it took.  Jay is always with me, Scott.  The pain, the joy . . . every day.  Being able to tuck all your emotion away must be a blessing.”

He didn’t feel blessed, maybe claustrophobic.  To contain Laura’s loss, Scott spent years erecting a fortress around his soul.  The Empress just stepped inside its gates.

She dabbed her eyes with a hanky and forced a smile.  “Ready when you are, maestro.”

“On three . . . one . . . two . . .”

“Oh Harold, my loyal, loving mate.  Always patient, despite my sharp tongue. You warned me to stop smoking.  I remember you threatening me.”  Rose exaggerated her voice into a deep base.  “Rose, if you die from those cigarettes, I’ll never forgive you.”  Her normal voice returned.  “Forgive me, my love.  You have many good years left with our grandchildren.  I’ll be waiting for you, love, on the beach, near the point.”  Rose put up her hand to cut before taking a long pull of oxygen.

“Scott, did your wife remarry?”

“No.  She teaches elementary school in Mission Hills.”

“Interesting!  Do you video children’s birthday parties?”

“No market in it.  Every Dad has a video camera.”

“Every Dad could also video his daughter’s wedding, Scott.  Does avoiding children help you hide all those difficult emotions.

“It’s a low margin gig.”  He checked the light meter again.  They were rapidly losing the battle with the night.

“Tell me the truth.  At least be honest with yourself.”

Scott removed a bottle of water from a backpack and took a long sip, sloshing it around his teeth before he turned away and spit it into the sand. “Okay!  Once I shot a kid’s party at the San Diego Zoo.  One of the little girls looked like my Laura.  The client became concerned about my tears.  I blamed them on an allergic reaction to the animals.  No more birthdays after that.”

“It took me years to be in the house while someone was cleaning.  Yet, if I had remained in a sorrowful funk, my daughter, her children . . . those wonderful sparks in my life wouldn’t exist.”

“C’mon Rose, let’s finish this thing.”

She replied, “On three.”  He signaled and she spoke.  “There are not enough breaths in me to individually acknowledge all my dearest friends and associates.  Let me make a collective wish.  I wish all of you will enjoy the final years as much as I have.  Don’t mourn me.  Mourn the time you don’t take to appreciate the special little aspects of living.”

“The pharaohs used to hoard their gold and jewels to be stuffed in a tomb along with their taped remains, hoping for an after-life shopping spree.  Absurd, wasn’t it?  All my bonds and mutual funds belong to heirs, charities and lawyers.  I’m sure my preaching seems hypocritical, especially as I shift around in a five thousand dollar urn, but my most priceless treasures truly are free.”

Rose’s voice cracked as she continued.  “I’d trade everything for another cup of coffee with Maggie, another hug from Harold, one more minute with Jay   . . . another walk on this lovely beach.”

The roar of the surf seemed to grow louder as Scott zoomed in with just the sun and Rose’s head in the final frames.

“I will take with me the loving memories of some very special inexpensive moments.  I urge you to begin investing heavily into your own, today.”

Scott zoomed in on the greenish blue surf, backlit by the sunset, before returning to her.

“Take many walks with those you love on different shores.  I’ll be close by.  God bless all of you and good bye.”

“Cut,” he almost whispered.  “That’s a wrap.”

The Empress smiled.  “Well, we made it.  Just one take with some sunlight to spare.”

“Look, I’ll begin editing tonight.  You can preview it in a couple days.”

“An artist shouldn’t rush.  Don’t worry.  I’ll see it at the premiere.”

He gazed at the sunset, a kaleidoscope of flaming reds and blazing oranges, and said, “Funny, how the day burns brightest at its end.”

Scott laid down the camera.  It represented one of many burdens lifted from his shoulders that evening.  What would be his eulogy?  “I produced great funerals?” He studied the Empress as she stared at the horizon.  Only a flicker of light reflected from her eyes, but like a beacon it pierced through the cracks in his fortress, pulling him from the shadows.

He sloshed through the sand over to her.  After removing the microphone, he leaned over and began lifting her.  Rose’s eyes widened, but her lips curled into a satisfying smile, as if she had anticipated his intentions.  She grabbed her bag and oxygen as he tenderly picked her up.  The sun was just beginning to stroke the sea, leaving enough light for a little hike.

While her emaciated body was a feather cradled in his muscular arms, he stumbled at times, dodging cactus shadows and rocks along the descending trail.  She patted his forearm.  Her touch tingled his nerves, like a robin’s fluttering wing.

On the beach he sat her down on a smooth boulder, where he removed her sandals.  Scott kicked off his sneakers before offering her his crooked arm.  “Madame, it will be my honor to escort you.”

She stood up and grabbed his arm, pulling him tightly to her.  “The pleasure is all mine, kind sir.”  And so, as the sinking fireball peeked at them over the horizon, the Empress of Del Mar and her artist began their stroll along a spectacular cliff lined beach.  Cool waves raced across the sand, swirled around their ankles, and gently kissed their feet.

The End

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