driver of the Tinseltown Tour bus doled out ice cream
sandwiches and bottles of strawberry soda, a Hollywood
specialty, to the long line of cranky passengers waiting
to enter Faye's Lion Farm in El Monte.
A pudgy towhead walked up to them. "Good
afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, I'm Roland Roberts, please
have your quarters ready for the turnstile, thank you."
The tourists followed the boy past the souvenir huts decorated
with palm fronds and Tiki masks. "Hold your breath,
folks, because you're about to meet Jackie, the world
famous MGM lion!"
"You think he's that kiddy actor?"
a woman whispered to her female traveling companion. "You
know, the saucy one who wore the neck brace."
"Who cares. I'm hungry. I'll die
soon if I don't get some meat."
Roland approached the cage. "Jackie,
wake up, boy, you've got company."
The tourists circled Jackie's cage,
crunching eucalyptus leaves under their clodhoppers and
Mary Janes, making Roland wince.
Jackie scratched behind his ear with
a lumpish flea-bitten paw, yawned, licked his balls, lapped
water from a steel bowl. His once magnificent mane had
matted like a thrift store wig. Clumps of fur floated
in his drinking bowl. White worms poked through the scabs
on his shoulders. It hurt to stand and walk across the
soiled cage, but he did it anyway. A yo-yo shot toward
his eyes, a signal from Roland on the other side of the
"Ladies and gentlemen, get your
cameras ready. Otherwise what you're about to see will
brand you a leg-puller by your family and friends back
Roland swung the yo-yo back and forth
in front of Jackie, rattling off anecdotes as he waited
for the dazed lion to submit. "Did anybody see the
newsreel of rough and tumble Robert Taylor when he picked
up knockout Ann Sothern and put her down on Jackie's back?
Bet you didn't know Van Johnson puts his life on the line,
too. Sure he does, every time he comes to visit us, he
shakes Jackie's paw. And word has it favorite funny man,
Red Skelton, and that pair of gorgeous gams known
to us all as Ann Miller, both speak to Jackie through
Roland felt a collective scowl from
"Have you heard about the time
Mr. Xavier Cugat fed Jackie a handful of Mexican jumping
beans...ever seen dung dance?" Roland began to trip
over his words. "And get a load of this, one night
at a fancy studio party, hosted by none other than Mr.
Mayer himself, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy sang
'Indian Love Call' to Jackie, who was all done up in black
tie, of course."
Ropes of saliva dangled from the lion's
wide open mouth. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'll now
insert my entire arm into Jackie's meat grinder. Here
I go...Okay, yes, I'm in! Snap those photos!" Roland's
arm hovered inside the lion's mouth. "Don't let my
courage fool you, Jackie could bite my arm off at any
Roland removed his arm and wiped it
on his shiny black trousers. The show was over. Jackie
returned to a pile of worn blankets in the corner of his
cage and went back to sleep. The tourists gave Roland
the once over, then followed a gravel path to the other
famous cats, Sir Ocey, Judas, Bob, Bombay, sent to die
on four dusty acres at the edge of Los Angeles.
Roland leaned against the bars and played
with his yo-yo. He'd heard snickers. What went wrong?
Why did they look at him with hatred in their eyes?
Just then he noticed a man standing
between the eucalyptus trees, a beefy suntanned guy with
black wavy hair. The stranger approached, lit a cigarette.
The tattoo on his forearm, a geisha girl straddling a
swordfish, caught Roland's eye. When his muscles rippled,
the fish humped the geisha. "You're not afraid?"
Roland gave the yo-yo an impressive
spin. "Jackie's tame. Anyway, Mr. Faye gives him
The man nodded, looked around the park,
dragged on his cigarette. "Where can I get a steak
sandwich around here and a can of beer?"
"I dunno, I never had a steak sandwich
"And some fried onions."
Roland felt strange, sort of queasy.
Staring at the gravel, the leaves and candy wrappers,
he thought of his mother just over the fence making dinner,
and he thought of his father driving home from work. "Mister,
you look like Victor Mature. Like in Million Dollar
Mermaid with Esther Williams."
"Oh yeah? Sounds corny."
"You like scary movies? The
Red House with Edgar G. Robinson is real scary."
"Never seen it. Movies make me
"Oh...I sipped some whiskey the
"Yeah, so did I."
Roland stuffed the yo-yo in his back
pocket. "I liked it. Not at first but the more I
drank the more—"
"That's usually how it works. So
you're a pretty weird kid...you some kind of circus brat?"
"No, I live next door. My dad owns
Bogue Pharmacy on Lower Azusa. I'm an actor."
"My mom knows someone at church
who used to work for Hedda Hopper. She's going to talk
to her and see if she can get some people to come see
"Don't waste your time. Join the
Merchant Marines, they'll take you. That's where the real
action is, not prancing in front of a camera."
Roland felt a strange churning in his
belly as he gawked at the man's handsome face, a scarcity
in El Monte, and breathed in the man's scent, a combination
of grass, eucalyptus, cigarettes, and cotton candy.
"Your old man a prick?"
"A jerk? A creep-o? Does he make
you sit up straight and keep your mouth shut? Does he
call you Nancy?"
"You hate him?"
"Yeah...I guess I do."
Jackie turned on his side, smacked his
lips, waved his tail.
"Tough luck. Well, see you around."
The man flicked his cigarette and walked
toward the trees.
For a few minutes Roland was happier
than ever and charged with excitement. Then, and he didn't
know why, sadness closed in on him like two elevator doors.
Roberts family ate dinner at a picnic table in the backyard,
side by side on a splintery bench. The evening was hot
and windy. Mrs. Roberts, not at all hungry herself, served
her husband, then her son, before wiggling in-between
them. Her gaze wandered from the patchy St. Augustine
lawn, to the bed of dead marigolds and beer-filled saucers
set out to kill snails, to the wall of bamboo separating
them from the Lion Farm.
Silence was the rule at dinner, but
since they were eating outdoors Roland felt it safe to
ask his mother a question. "Mom?" He paused
for a moment to see if his father was going to object.
"Have you talked to your friend, the one who worked
for Hedda Hopper?"
"Not yet," she said, perturbed,
returning her pork chop to the platter.
Roland mashed his peas with the back
of his fork. "In two months they're casting the new
Lassie picture, and I've got to get in the door before
then." He glanced at the moon. "I read that
Alan Ladd keeps horses near here."
His mother did not respond. His father,
grumbling under his breath, scraped white sauce off his
pork chop. His father's smell, a cross between ammonia
and aspirin, was unbearable even in the wind, and far
worse than the animals. A depressive, unrelenting man,
Roland Sr. preferred the company of El Monte's elite over
that of his wife and son. If he wasn't snapping fingers
at them or swatting their faces with a rolled up newspaper,
he was ignoring them. On occasion, he voiced his disgust.
Roland Sr. set his spoon at the edge
of his plate and cleared his throat. "Listen up,
Roland. Once again, here are the rules: you get up early
every morning, you have breakfast with me and your mother,
you work your little tail off in school, and you do your
chores at the Lion Farm. You will not think about anything
else. And, as of this second, you will never bother your
mother ever again about movies. Eat! Homework! Bed! Church
on Sunday! This, Christ Almighty, is what a boy does!"
Roland's tears fell into his scalloped
potatoes, and the tough pork in his mouth wouldn't go
down. On the verge of retching, Roland laid his palms
flat on the table, then stood up.
"Sit down, now, or I'll
drag you by your ears to the sanitarium!"
Roland sat. Hoping for support, a tiny
smile, anything, he looked to his mother. At one time,
she had been his ally. Now she could only contemplate
the food on her plate, incessantly cutting her bread into
Mrs. Roberts hid her failed perm in
a beige snood the same shade as her hair. When Mrs. Roberts
was a girl, a playmate pushed her out of a tree house,
leaving her with a permanently deformed shoulder. Self-conscious,
Mrs. Roberts wore only loose, flowered housecoats. In
the center of her forehead, barely concealed under a messy
application of Just Like Flesh, were two scars, the result
of a recent lobotomy.
Roland Sr. pointed at his pork chop,
a command for Mrs. Roberts to cut the meat into bite-size
pieces. "Dear," she said timidly, "I don't
think I'll be able to finish my bread. When you've eaten
yours, I'll give you what's left of mine."
Mr. Roberts nodded, his mouth crammed
with meat. Mrs. Roberts, her eyes sorrowful, her lips
pursed for kissing, tried to spark a reaction in her husband.
He turned away, repulsed at the sight of her.
Roland often thought about the first
time his mother acted strange. It was around noon on a
scorching hot day in the middle of summer vacation when
he noticed her running around the yard collecting rocks
and pebbles in a laundry bag. With a library book she
identified every single rock, then glued all 1,122 of
them to the walls of the rumpus room. When Mr. Roberts
discovered what his wife had done, he punched her in the
gut. Mrs. Roberts collapsed into a shivering heap on the
floor. As she wailed at the top of her lungs, Mr. Roberts
kicked her backside with his shiny new brogues. All night
long Roland watched from the hallway, hugging a pillow
to his chest. The sight of his mother standing on a ladder
prying rocks off the wall with a spatula, and his father
hitting her with a broom handle as he ranted about communism
and Jesus, gave Roland sweaty nightmares for months.
Soon after that incident, a lynx at
the Lion Farm killed a crow. When Mrs. Roberts heard about
it, she became despondent and confused. One night, Roland
looked out his window and saw her running around the backyard,
an apron over her nightgown, uprooting flowers and grass
with a hoe. Mrs. Roberts dug up the entire backyard and
sifted it through a window screen suspended between two
sawhorses. Night crawlers left on the screen went into
a trash barrel. When the barrel was half full Mrs. Roberts
poured in some cornmeal and mashed it all up with a hoe.
A kerosene lantern cast her sweaty, soiled body in a phantom
light. Roland, peeking through the curtain, shivered at
the sight of her. In the morning, Mrs. Roberts ordered
her son up on the roof to leave scoops of wet mush for
the crows: "Show the crows we care, make us look
good." Mrs. Roberts kept the crow food in the freezer.
Three times a week, she thawed a block of the stuff in
a saucepan with a little water. After it cooled, she gave
it to Roland. This continued for a month until one midnight
Dr. May and Mr. Roberts came tramping through the mud.
Mr. Roberts took photos of his wife down in a hole she'd
been digging, momentarily x-raying her head with each
flash of the bulb.
"Betty, sweetheart, it's Dr. May.
Please come up so we can talk."
For five long lonely weeks, Roland had
only a vague idea of where his mother was. When she returned,
she re-seeded the lawn and planted marigolds, her smile
so severe her eyes watered and blood vessels appeared
on her cheeks.
Soon enough, Mrs. Roberts had a new
fixation: Roland's career. "You're talented and handsome,
just right for the screen." Twice a week, they saw
movies and browsed Bullocks. Roland loved the attention.
"Movie stars are snowflakes from heaven," she
often said. "I'll never be a movie star but you will,
Roland, you'll be mother's snowflake."
Mrs. Roberts sent for Hypnotism Made
EZ, a pamphlet she'd seen advertised in the back of
Movie Darlings magazine. Before her new ritual
of tucking Roland into bed, she tried to hypnotize him
with a yo-yo, yet night after night she failed to take
hold of his mind. Eventually, Roland tried it on her and
discovered he had a real knack. For almost an hour, Mrs.
Roberts stared at Roland's xylophone, her eyes teary and
bloodshot, saliva dribbling off her chin. Roland made
her promise to help him get into showbiz. It was this
experience with his mother that gave him the idea to hypnotize
Jackie. For a while, Mrs. Roberts believed her son's new
skill would unlock all the doors in Hollywood, until Mr.
Roberts threatened to send her back to the sanitarium
if she didn't stop sissifying Roland
set down his fork. "Mom, you're the one who told
me about the lady in the first place."
Mrs. Roberts leaned against her son
and whispered, "You've gone off the deep end like
dad said. That gal hardly comes to church anymore. Darn
you, forget it once and for all."
Dinner was over, Mr. Roberts announced.
Roland went to his room and collapsed in his chair. Tilting
backwards, covering his eyes, he wished he was allowed
to play his xylophone. Everyone, himself included, was
embarrassed when he sang "Sentimental Journey"
at the Summer of '51 Lion's Club Family Picnic talent
show, but it didn't stop him from winning the grand prize,
a Big Band xylophone.
The next morning, being that it was
Saturday, Roland ate corn flakes at the picnic table.
The cats were unusually noisy. His mother clipped coupons
on the kitchen floor. His father was at the pharmacy.
Later, getting ready for work in the bathroom, Roland
dabbed a little of his mother's Eau de Tahiti behind
his ears and smeared some Just Like Flesh on his greasy
nose. Studying himself in the mirror, he felt disgusted
by what he saw. He-men didn't wear makeup or perfume,
he told himself, dunking his head under the faucet.
At the end of the day, only a handful
of tourists, and no one from Hollywood, had visited the
Lion Farm. As Roland swept around Jackie's cage, Mr. Faye
approached, eating an ice cream sandwich. Despite Mr.
Faye's unwavering respect for Mr. Roberts, Roland liked
his boss. Mr. Faye was interested in movies, especially
swashbucklers, and they often exchanged Hollywood gossip.
"Hiya, Roland. Slow day, huh."
"Hey, I've got some news."
"Someone famous die?"
"Well...It seems MGM thinks Jackie's
making them look shabby, you know, the worms. Let's face
it, Roland, Jackie takes up a lot of space. MGM's sending
us Jackie number two, we gotta make room. If the new cat's
the unruffled type like Jackie you can still do your show."
Roland felt tears spill from his eyes.
"The Lion's Club's taking care
of everything. Your dad knows how to put a lion out of
his misery in a painless manner. The club got together
last night and planned a very dignified ceremony in the
luau-style where we roast him in the dirt with coals.
You'll have a great time and get your picture in all the
"You're barbecuing Jackie?"
"It's the humanitarian thing to
do. Think of the publicity for the farm, not to mention
"You can't do that, Mr. Faye. Jackie
doesn't need to die, just take him out of the public eye,
hide him in the back somewhere."
"Life ain't pretty, Roland, and
when it is, it's just to hide something ugly. Learn that
and your life'll go smooth sailing...don't you want smooth?"
Rio Hondo Park the following weekend, Roland and his mother
sat at the top of the bleachers while Mr. Roberts tripped
over himself in right field. Mrs. Roberts pointed to a
cloud of black smoke at the far side of the park. "I
hope there's no funny smell coming this way."
"Dad shot Jackie between the eyes."
"And you're going to eat it just
like all the fellas. I'm a little squeamish, though. But
meat's meat when you think about it. Cow, chicken, lion."
"Jackie's not like a bunch of stupid
chicken parts down at the butcher, Jackie's important,
Jackie's famous all over the world...how could you let
them do this?"
Mrs. Roberts riffled through her handbag
in search of her cigarette case. "Your dad works
hard for his club because he's loyal. And he says loyal
men have the good conscience to mean what they say. At
the meeting he said the publicity will be just what the
When the softball game was over, everyone
gathered around the smoldering mound. "She's ready!"
Mr. Faye hollered. "Ladies, bring the carving tools."
Mr. Roberts, Mr. Faye, Dr. May and a
few other distinguished members, cleared the palm fronds
and oak branches off the top of the mound then shoveled
away the coals and red-hot earth. Roland looked down at
his former partner, charred and shrunken yet unmistakably
feline. He watched them carry Jackie, impaled on a spit,
to a table wrapped in aluminum foil, where men lined up
to ceremoniously carve lion meat for their families.
"Can't be any worse than my wife's
pot roast," Mr. Roberts said.
Mr. Faye stabbed the knife into Jackie's
side and sliced downward until a steak-size piece of stringy
meat fell into his hand. He sniffed then took a big greasy
bite. "Delicious! Here boys, take a nibble, live
Photographers from the local papers
Sixteen picnic tables encircled Jackie's
blistered remains. Roland, facing Jackie's hind quarters,
sat to the right of Mrs. Orts, widow to the founder of
the El Monte chapter. Roland's parents and Dr. May sat
across from him. The air was heavy with Jackie's pungent
odor, which many likened to overdone corned beef.
"Please pass me the Waldorf salad,"
Roland said to Mrs. Orts.
"Certainly dear," the old
woman replied, handing him the bowl. "If only Mr.
Orts was here for this momentous occasion, he'd be crying
like a baby." Mrs. Orts was a tiny woman, though
not at all frail, with champagne-colored hair and a slight
harelip. "Young man, aren't you going to eat this
delicious meat? You better gobble up or I might just steal
it off your plate."
Roland ignored Mrs. Orts. What an idiot
she was to think he'd eat Jackie. He noticed his mother
and Dr. May watching him.
"I hear they're building an underwater
drive-in movie at Long Beach," Mrs. Orts mumbled,
her mouth full of food.
"Oh yeah?" Roland spooned
his serving of dark stringy lion meat onto Mrs. Orts's
plate. "Pretty soon they'll be showing my movies
down there." Orange grease from the meat had made
the Waldorf and macaroni salads on his plate impossible
to eat. Roland set his fork on the table. Even the pineapple
soda tasted funny.
"You say you're going to the movies?"
"No, I'm going to be in
Dr. May and Mr. Roberts gave each other
a conspiratorial glance.
Roland and Mrs. Orts were soon engaged
in a conversation about Betty Grable, whom neither of
them thought had an ounce of talent.
"You're right," Dr. May whispered,
"he lives in a delusional world."
Roland heard the comment and reacted
by speaking louder. "She can't act worth a hill of
beans, that's why no one hires her these days. Not like
me, I'm a great actor...Say, do you like that song 'Long
Ago (and Far Away)'? I heard it on the radio last night.
I love it more than any other song."
Mr. Roberts shook his head in shame.
"That's what I've been telling you."
"Listen to him talk to Harriet,
I mean, she's senile, she's supposed to speak nonsense,
but he's just a boy," Dr. May said, smacking lion
meat in his mouth. "I foresee sexual problems in
the very near future."
"Last week I met a guy who looks
like Victor Mature. He had big muscles and tattoos and
the most handsome face I've ever seen."
"If you want my professional opinion,"
Dr. May said, "your kid's already something of a
"Roland," Mr. Roberts yelled
across the table, "for gosh darn shut the hell up,
you're making us sick!"
Something snapped in Roland. He went
to Jackie, broke off one of his hind legs, and gripped
it like a baseball bat. One hundred faces glared at him.
He lunged at his father and clubbed him over the head.
Before he could see the outcome, he was sprinting across
the field toward the orange grove.
Mr. Roberts fell backwards into the
dirt, his face covered with blood and lion meat.
Roland spent the night in the upper
bows of an orange tree, wide awake. At times, he was afraid,
but for the most part he was excited. In the morning,
surveying the grove from his high perch, he decided it
was safe to descend. Groggy, Roland peed into a man's
shoe, a brand new black wing tip abandoned near the base
of the tree. Zipping up his trousers, he laughed, realizing
what he had just done.
Sitting in the dirt, surrounded by rotting
oranges, he wondered how to get to Hollywood twelve miles
west. In the far reaches of the grove, he saw two men
duck behind a tree. Cops? Dr. May and his father? He hoisted
himself into the tree. The longer he watched, the more
apparent it became the men weren't looking for him. One
took off his shirt, then the other. Roland soon realized
one of them was the wavy-haired guy from the Lion Farm.
With his heart ready to explode, Roland jumped out of
the tree and ran to him.
The men dashed in opposite directions.
"Hey! Hey! Victor Mature, wait up, it's me, it's
me!" Finally the man stopped, and Roland caught up
to him. "Remember me?"
"What the hell's wrong with you?"
"I beat up my dad last night."
"Please," Roland begged, "let
me come with you."
Figuring he had nothing better to do,
the man took Roland home to Hollywood.
the next few months, the man, Dean Humberstone was his
name, grew very fond of Roland, and Roland very fond of
Dean. Dean knew a few studio carpenters willing to help
Roland get a screen-test. Finally, after seven months
in a tiny apartment listening to the radio and reading
movie magazines all day, Roland landed his first role.
It was a small part, the son in The Werewolf Family,
yet he couldn't have been happier. After the picture came
out, Roland was in demand at the smaller studios. The
horror and sci-fi directors all agreed, "The kid's
a natural." They slathered his face with scary makeup,
wrote him weekly checks for seven-hundred dollars, enrolled
him in a school for showbiz kids, and hired Mr. Lionel
Hampton to teach him how to play the xylophone. And, just
in case anyone from El Monte ever saw one of his pictures,
he changed his name to Jack Lyon and never thought of
Roland Roberts again.