An Uber Carol in Hollywood with the familiar Dickens elements and some modern twists!
Some of this is based on true life events. Most of it is not.
In the shadow of the Hollywood sign, Elaine twisted and wound her way up the switchbacks toward Griffith Observatory where her passenger was supposedly waiting (sometimes they weren’t). She felt confident about this one since the passenger had gone to the trouble of texting her what he was wearing so she could easily spot him – Rams hat, blue hoodie. She zipped up the hill through the green canyons, lost in her thoughts, calculating how many more passengers she’d need to make her day. Uber, at the moment, was her primary money source.
Then, her day went off the rails.
She swore she only took her eyes off the road for a few seconds, her eyes flicking from the app back to the yellow double line. Also, you’d think a limousine would be easy to spot. Especially in comparison to Elaine’s Prius. Can a stretch limo materialize out of thin air?
Never say never in Hollywood.
None of this changed the outcome though, a Prius sporting the familiar “U” sticker on the front window, now with a crumpled front end. A less crumpled, more resilient limo in front of her. The two vehicles landed at funky angles in a dirt lot meant for sightseeing on the side of the road.
Elaine remained in her car, hands still on the wheel, trying to recall Uber’s policy on collisions. She finally snapped out of it, grabbed her phone, and was scrolling the app looking for the driver support number when a rap on the window made her jump. The world’s oldest man gave her a kind smile and friendly wave. She groaned and got out to face the music. But Father Time, propped up by an ornate gold cane was singing a different tune.
“Come with me my dear, let’s have a friendly little chat.”
He steered her toward the back of the dented stretch and Elaine wondered if she’d crashed her way into a Lifetime movie about never trusting strangers. She stopped at the door as the old man eased himself into the backseat with surprising fluidity.
“Not to worry young lady, Jacob here will protect you,” he pointed in the direction of the front seat but Elaine couldn’t see the driver beyond the tinted partition.
“Great,” she thought, amused at being called ‘young lady’ at fifty-five years old, “instead of being murdered by one strange man, we can make it a two-for.”
She held up her phone. “I need to contact my employer to sort this out,” she told him.
The old man nodded agreeably and leaned toward the door, but not in a threatening way, she sensed he just wanted to be heard. She found herself leaning into the car, magnetically.
“Elaine, you and I both arrived here at the same moment, through two different sets of crossroads. Two different points on the same journey,” he said.
She was rooted in place, unable to form words in her throat. It occurred to her that no cars had passed by since the collision.
“I’m nearly at the end of my road,” he said, lifting a thin finger that looked to be wrapped in pale white tissue paper, pointing at the curved road ahead of them. “My only decision now is whether to share what I’ve learned with others, or take it to my grave.”
“Why… me?” Elaine’s voice was working again.
“Elaine,” he said as if they’d known each other forever, “You’re stuck between worlds, past and future. You’ve turned the present into a waiting game, a game no one ever wins. A game of standing still and watching time pass you by. No longer a human doing, you’re a human being in a vacuum.”
Then he shifted the ornate gold cane, and the spell lifted and Elaine found herself speaking again. She heard herself saying a lot of things, defending her life – so many meaningless words spewed out. She could see the old man’s shriveled mouth forming replies but couldn’t hear what he was saying. She also didn’t recall how she got back to her car which, somehow, was no longer crumpled. Nor did she remember driving up the rest of the hill to Griffith.
The next thing Elaine knew, she was driving to the observatory entrance and Rams hat and blue hoodie was climbing into the backseat. As she drove off, still on mental autopilot, Elaine remembered one of the things the old man had said. “…three passengers, each one with a different message, put the messages together and you’ll be free.”
Rams hat and blue hoodie stayed on his phone for his whole short ride, never saying a word to her. Elaine ruled him out as one of the three “special” passengers. But once she dropped him off, the first passenger was easy to spot. In the first five minutes of the ride, she launched Elaine in circles on a chaotic tour of Los Angeles and Hollywood. But since the passenger’s credit card was good for it and she kept adding new trips into her app, Elaine had no objections to the ride around.
Her name was Angelique, a light skinned black girl with lovely, gentle curls and curves, a warm smile – and absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever. Rather than instructing Elaine to take a left or a right, she would say to “take an Elaine” (since Elaine was in the left seat) or “an Angelique” (in the right seat).
It was an unusual tour, “this is your Hollywood life Elaine,” Uber edition. They saw the acting studio in Santa Monica where she studied the Meisner Technique. The improvisational nature of the method-like acting had led Elaine back to her true love, writing.
Angelique, acting the part of “Ghost of Hollywood Career Past,” reminded Elaine, with her own personal commentary for each one, of all her (once) favorite screenwriting haunts. Most were eclectic coffee houses, with the exception of that big perfectly shaped sitting rock on the beach in Malibu right off Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Elaine was surprised to see many of them still open. She was sure that one across from Chateau Marmont, the one with the amazing steel cut oatmeal, was turned into a Waffle House years ago.
But then again, given that this whole thing was probably a dream, or maybe the collision was a lot worse and Elaine was hospitalized in a coma, or maybe dead… either way, it was an enlightening tour. Then, south of Beverly Hills, Elaine suddenly recognized her passenger as her very first L.A. roommate. God that was a long time ago! How did she not recognize her before? This was Angelique, whom she’d met doing that Shakespearean inspired play (also, coincidentally, featuring spirits) at the playhouse in the hills north of the valley.
“Pull over here,” Angelique instructed, pointing at the alleyway behind a shitty apartment building near Pico and La Cienega.
Elaine groaned, recognizing her former residence.
“Why here?” she asked, cloaking her Prius in the dark alley opposite the built-in carports.
“You mean, why are we returning to the worst apartment ever, with the worst memories ever?” Angelique prodded.
“You know me well Angelique,” Elaine laughed, watching as a young woman who looked like a younger version of herself, pulled into one of the carports, exited her car with a garment bag draped over her arm while juggling a bulky box full of stuff, and headed inside.
“Long day of extra work on a studio lot,” Angelique remarked.
“No doubt,” Elaine said.
Elaine gave her an impatient look.
“Oh right… why we’re here,” Angelique remembered, pushing her perpetually sliding, stylish glasses back up her nose.
Angelique only wore her glasses when reading or trying for a bohemian intellectual vibe, Elaine remembered.
“Seriously Angelique, it’s late, I’ve been driving since early this morning and, since I think this is a hallucination with a message, I’d rather just have it and get on with my life.”
“See, that’s the exact thing.” The glasses were suddenly off again. “What exactly are you getting on with?”
Elaine went blank so Angelique gestured at the apartment building.
“Dearest…. You gave up here.”
Suddenly the two were flies on the wall in Elaine’s old apartment, witnesses to the lowest moment of her life. She was twenty-seven and earlier that day had buried an acting class friend. “The End” by Jim Morrison was playing on the stereo. The two stood invisible in the dining room, watching twenty-seven year old Elaine curled up in a ball on the floor in front of the stereo.
“That’s the night Hollywood went from an exciting dream to a horrifying reality check,” Angelique said softly.
“Mmm hmmm,” Elaine followed her younger self from the living room into the bedroom, where younger-her settled onto the floor, sitting against the bed and pulling the phone down from the nightstand.
Elaine knew who her younger self was calling – the suicide hotline. Not for herself, but because of her morbid curiosity about her classmate who had just taken his own life. This was pre-internet so the phone was the only available outlet for her curiosity. She recalled one word playing in a continuous loop through her head – Why??? #HollywoodLife had devoured all her small town naivete and she was now drowning. Elaine tried to remember the details of the conversation with the hotline but could only recall that it ended with a therapy referral.
Then they were back in the Prius again.
“It was never the same after that,” Elaine said.
“How could it be?” Angelique reached over and grabbed Elaine’s hand. Elaine was startled that the ghost was real.
“You’re right, I did give up after that, on Hollywood, writing, my dreams, myself. It was never the same after that. I was never the same,” Elaine admitted.
“And now you’re on autopilot,” Angelique said.
“Wait – no. That’s NOT true, I’m fine!” Elaine snapped out of her haze.
“Honey, you can drive an Uber and not write and not act anywhere in America. Why here?”
“Because…” Elaine was sure she knew the answer, but her mind felt too foggy to form the words. She blamed the old man. She felt light headed.
The scene in front of her flipped again, from the West L.A. dark alleyway, to outside of a movie theater in Glendale, another scene from Elaine’s past. She found herself waiting for her next rider. She checked her phone and saw a text from the rider describing himself – he sounded familiar? Her jaw dropped as her favorite hunky actor EVER got in the backseat. Her heart raced – was this her knight in shining armor? Was he the second ghost? But when he started texting, without looking up, Elaine’s hopes sank. He was just like Rams hat blue hoodie guy, nothing but a regular passenger.
Elaine rolled her eyes and set her GPS for the destination in his Uber reservation. They rode in silence for the first couple minutes, heading toward an address Elaine recognized as in the exclusive, elite Malibu Colony – home of socialites and stars! Getting beyond the golden gates and visiting Malibu Colony was one of her Uber driving bucket list goals. With visions of mansions, swimming pools, and wealth, she pulled onto I-10 toward the beaches. They were approaching the 405 interchange when the movie star pocketed his phone and looked at her in the rearview mirror (those ocean blue eyes!).
“You know what,” the hunk said as they approached the part of the I-10 that veered off north up PCH toward Malibu COlony.
“Take the next exit instead,” he pointed at the sign indicating Santa Monica/Venice. Elaine exited with an internal groan. She knew this exit. As he gave her the street turns, Elaine’s radar went off.
What was this guy trying to pull? Shit… he IS one of them.
The famous actor had almost tricked Elaine into thinking he was a real person. This was still a dream – an exhausting one.
She heard motion behind her and realized the actor-ghost had scooted forward in the seat and was resting his chin on the opposing seatback. Ten minutes ago her heart would have raced right out of her chest. But now that this was a hallucination, it was a letdown.
“Yeah, sorry about this,” the hunk said. “I wasn’t super excited about drawing this assignment either.”
“Lucky you, drawing me,” Elaine said as she navigated the bevvy of narrow one-way streets in busy Venice Beach, keeping an eye out for unpredictable pedestrians who treated busy streets as their own private sidewalks. Locals, for sure. The tourists tended to cling to the popular Santa Monica beaches. Venice was an X factor where hippies, artists, and other individualists could be themselves in anonymity, milling about the streets, shadows, and eclectic shops and cafes, uncaged, unbothered. Maybe that was why Elaine liked it so much here. She and her ambitions could hide in peace. She could deny that she ever wanted anything more than exactly this.
And this… Uber Carol Ghost of Hollywood present? He seemed to read her mind the way the others had.
“I agree. This does seem like a good place to hide from your dreams,” the actor said.
“That’s not what I meant,” Elaine said out loud, defending her unspoken thoughts.
She parallel parked between 2 EVs and began the three block walk toward her walk-up studio apartment. Not surprisingly, the ghost was two steps behind. The two walked in silence up the three flights of stairs in the dark dingy hallway of the 1970’s era building.
Intellectually, Elaine “knew” she lived in yet another shithole. But for some reason, and maybe because she was in the company (or hallucination) of a famous actor, he from a segment of society she once desperately wanted to join, tonight it felt shitty too. She felt embarrassed as she turned the key in the lock, entered her apartment, and flicked the lights on. The actor followed, closing the door behind him.
“Lock it please,” Elaine said without thinking.
The actor obliged with a smirk. Elaine walked the ten or so steps into the kitchen, opened a bottle of wine already on the counter and poured herself a glass.
“Do spirits drink?” she asked the actor, handing him an empty glass.
“Sure,” he accepted.
Elaine raised her eyebrows and a few seconds later the two were toasting on her coach, bringing up Netflix. As commonly happens when movie people get together to watch films, the conversation became a contest of critiquing, nitpicking, and over analyzing other people’s creations. The unspoken game was called – “I’m more of a movie buff than you are. I deserve to be here more than you.” Elaine won easily. The ghost was obviously being kind. Elaine downed the rest of her glass.
“Okay I give, what the hell do you want from me?” she asked.
The actor laughed and refilled her glass. “Don’t you get it? I’m the ghost of Hollywood present. This…” he gestured around the one room apartment, “is your life.”
Elaine hurled her wine glass at the wall.
“You know what, SCREW you people! I know what you’re all trying to do and…” she struggled to force the words in her head to make sense coming out of her mouth.
“And what?” the actor said, slipping over to the “home office” corner of the room.
Elaine was standing in the kitchen, arms crossed, back to him. “I don’t need a bunch of middle age crisis hallucinations making me feel bad about my life choices.”
“I’m not here to make you feel bad about your life Elaine. I really just came here to ask you about this,” the actor said, rapping loudly on a dusty maroon filing cabinet shoved in the corner of the room. He tried to open it.
“Locked,” he remarked.
“No shit,” she said. “Get away from there. It doesn’t concern you.”
“What’s in the locked box Elaine?”
Now he was in the kitchen standing next to her, staring at the locked filing cabinet with her. Elaine jumped and the actor laughed heartily.
“Ha! You’ve been saying all along that I’m a ghost, I might as well act the part!”
She faced him, fuming, “Just tell me what you came here to tell me. Cliff Notes version.”
“What’s in the file cabinet?” the actor repeated.
“Nothing. Nothing is in there,” she insisted.
She stalked across the room and held the apartment door open for him to leave. “Go haunt someone else. I’m not opening it – not for you, not for anyone.”
The actor shoved his foot in the door jam so she couldn’t slam the door in his face. “Don’t do it for me, for anyone – open it for yourself Elaine.”
“I don’t want to DO anything,” she exclaimed before kicking his foot away and slamming the door in his face and locking it three different ways.
She decided she wasn’t going to wait around for the ghost of Hollywood future to ping her for an Uber ride. She turned her cell phone off, put it in the freezer and went to bed.
As if going to bed ever ended a ghost story…
The prompt was blinking against a blank white screen.
Where am I?
Elaine spoke the words but only heard them in her head. Where was her voice, her mouth… her body??? She realized that the blinking cursor was in her mind.
>What can I help you with today Elaine?
Who is this?
>As always Elaine, I am your personal chatbot. You prefer to call me Brad.
>Which damn actor do you wish me to research?
Am I dead?
>I am not programmed to answer that question.
But you can hear all my thoughts?
And all I am is my thoughts.
So now what do I do?
DO! DO! Move around, go to work, drive a car, eat, drink, walk around – DO!
>I am confused Elaine. I thought you said you no longer wanted to do – anything.
Because of what I said to…
>Being Elaine who no longer wants to do.
>What was that Elaine?
I guess being still means feeling.
>Would you like me to find psychology research to help you answer that question?
No, it was rhetorical.
So I’m allowed to be, think and feel. But not do.
Well someone must have done this to me. How else would it happen?
>Who do you think did this to you Elaine? Removed you from doing?
I don’t know, the old man in the limo with the cane?
>I don’t know the old man in the limo with the cane. Shall I research him?
No, he’s probably gone by now. On to teach someone else a lesson.
Yes. This whole lesson about life being short, following your dreams, not giving up on yourself and all that self help garbage.
>Researching ‘self help garbage’…
No, please stop. Brad.
>Is there anything else I can do for you today Elaine?
What if I say no, then what happens?
>Then our session ends until you have a new request.
What happens in between?
>I don’t have data on the answer to that question Elaine.
You don’t know what people do between sessions with you?
>That is correct.
Aren’t we supposed to be feeling, being – and doing? Isn’t that the point of being human???
>Researching ‘the point of being human.’
Don’t bother. I don’t think I want to know the answer.
In her mind, Elaine saw only a blinking cursor on a white screen.
Then the blinking prompt disappeared and the white screen turned black. Elaine was in total darkness. And now, without even her thoughts to keep her company. There was just – nothing.
A gush of air filled Elaine’s lungs as she bolted upright in bed. She was alive! White angelic light streamed through the windows of her apartment. It had never looked so beautiful.
Her cell phone buzzed on the coffee table across the room in front of the couch. She could have sworn she put it in the freezer last night… She bolted out of bed, turning off the Netflix screensaver on her TV and checked the dozens of missed Uber ride alerts on her phone, followed by an alert from the company itself. Her drive account had been terminated. Not surprising, given that she’d failed to log off and hadn’t responded to rider pings for over 12 hours.
“What day is it today Bra… Siri?” she asked her phone.
“Today is New Year’s Day Elaine.”
That’s when she noticed the empty champagne, wine bottles, and takeout containers scattered around her apartment, and remembered. She remembered being smothered under a thick cloak of darkness and pain as the hours ticked away leading into the New Year. She couldn’t bear another identical new year. The monotonous days and nights, going through the motions, the unbearable loneliness. She couldn’t remember why she ever came to Hollywood in the first place. Her original hopes and dreams seemed like millions of miles away.
Her eyes scanned the room looking for ideas, a reason not to repeat the whole thing again tonight. And there it was – the maroon file cabinet. She remembered the actor.
“Do it for yourself,” he had said.
What did she have to lose at this point? It took a few minutes of thinking and searching, but she finally remembered where she had hidden the file cabinet key. She retrieved it and did the thing she told the actor she would never do. The metal of the cabinet was warmer than she remembered. She flipped the tiny key around between her trembling fingers, trying to catch her breath. Ten whole years. Would she even know what to do with it? What if it was worse than she remembered? What if her writing was DOA? That would be a relief – validation that locking it up was the right decision and she should have thrown away the key too. Or even worse, what if it was better, but now she didn’t have the skills to finish it?
Fingers shaking, she dropped the key between the file cabinet and the wall. It landed in a thicket of cobwebs. Elaine stared at the key suspended in cobwebs. She considered leaving it there, stuck in the past forever. That way she never failed as a screenwriter. Her dreams could be stuck in a state of suspended animation forever.
That reminded her of the last, terrifying part of her dream.
No doing, no being, no feeling – nothing.
Elaine thrust her hand into the cobwebs, grabbed the key, and opened the file cabinet, retrieved the screenplay, pushed some bills and junk mail out of the way, and plopped the triple bound, hand typed document in the middle of her desk.
“Hello again old enemy.”
She exhaled as she flipped through its familiar pages, running her fingers over the words. It was like reading sanskrit – ancient, unfamiliar, mysterious. Could it be salvaged? She skipped forward to the end, half expecting the screenplay to have finished writing itself. But there it was, on page fifty-five – a blank white page.
Ten years ago the blank white page had sent her into analysis paralysis. Fear. Hopelessness. She didn’t know which path she was supposed to take to finish the story. It felt like there were infinite options. Not knowing what to do was terrifying. It was the scariest thing she could imagine, as a struggling artist, desperate for fame, fortune, acknowledgment. So she did nothing.
Elaine now realized the idea of doing nothing felt worse than doing the wrong thing. Cutting off all the potential paths by doing nothing was not the answer. Elaine knew it was finally time to pull her laptop out and begin recreating her screenplay, and her writing dreams.
But not yet.
Looking again at the empty bottles, and thinking of the old man, Angelique, and Brad (both versions). Elaine had something more important to do now. She needed to be around actual humans, not just revolving passengers in the backseat of her car. She needed a forum to share all that had been pushed down for too many years now before it destroyed her from the inside out. Elaine knew she could no longer pretend to be a hero and carry it all herself. She needed human connection. Fortunately, her faithful chatbot Brad knew exactly where to send her. It seemed that she wasn’t the only human struggling with human problems on New Year’s Day.
Before she left for the meeting, she gathered every last bottle, every last remnant of the night before into a garbage bag to toss into the dumpster in the basement. It was time to move past the crossroads, pick a direction, and move forward. Even if the direction was wrong. GPS be damned. Not doing meant waiting for death and the old man was right – she was still young.
As she left her apartment, the entire scene faded out to a blank white screen.
>Happy New Year, friends of Elaine.
I found great value in the following Suicide Prevention & Education resource while writing this story. Please check them out, especially if you are an author writing about the subject of suicide.