July 1, 2015

Fiction By Adam Matson: "The Witch Of Malibu"

Adam Matson is originally a native of Acton, MA, and he now resides in Malibu, CA. He has previously had short stories published in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Driftless Review, Crack the Spine, The Broadkill Review, Happy Magazine, and The Cynic Online Magazine, with forthcoming publications in The Bryant Literary Review and Infernal Ink Magazine.  His short story, "Dairy Queen," was published in The Indiana Voice Journal in February.  He has also published a collection of short stories called Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong (Outskirts Press).

The Witch of Malibu

    My goal when I moved to Malibu was to become a working actor within 3 to 5 years. The paychecks and awards would follow once I established myself. I wanted my first major film or TV role within 1 year, my first commercial within 6 months, and an agent within 3 months.
    So far the only milestone I had reached was my first rejection from an open casting call, which I had achieved several times.
    I was working at an oceanside bar, earning a minimal living. I lived in Malibu with my friend Brian from back home. He had made it big in tech. He was married. I rented the apartment above his garage for an appallingly low price. Several years ago a bunch of us had taken a bro-cation to Mexico, and Brian had committed an indiscretion with a waitress. $400 a month was the fee for my silence.
    “What you don’t realize, Dean,” Brian told me one day when I was feeling sorry for myself. “Is that professional actors who are our age [28] don’t just step off the bus in front of Paramount Studios. They’ve been working their whole lives. Their parents dragged them to commercials when they were three. Just like those parents back home who made their kids play on the travel teams because they wanted them to make the Majors.”
    But my dream was to step off the bus and onto the back-lot. And I became desperate.
    “You need to go visit the Witch,” said Malibu Bill, one of the local characters who frequented my bar. “She hook you up.”
    Before moving to Malibu I never suspected it was populated by people like Bill. Malibu Bill had been everywhere and done everything. According to his own whiskey-fueled legends, he had befriended pro athletes, slept with movie stars, traveled to more than thirty countries. There was even a short documentary about him (I had seen it on YouTube). His insights on The Industry could not be ignored outright.
    “Who is the Witch?” I asked him.
    “The Witch of Malibu, man. Shit. E’rybody know: you want to be an actor, you go see the Witch.”
    I poured him another Old Fashioned, on the house, and he told me all about the Witch of Malibu, a mysterious woman who lived in the hills above Pepperdine. She had seduced Marlon Brando. She had “created” Tom Hanks from scratch one night on a bet. She may have been on the boat when Natalie Wood drowned. She knew things about Charles Manson that even the police never found out.
    “She for real,” said Malibu Bill. “Last time I seen her she told me my house gon’ blow away, and next day there was a wind.”
    “What’s her name?” I asked.
    “Shit, I don’t know. Find me a cigarette.”
    I tested the Witch story out on a few other locals, and most of them just grinned like they were used to being asked such things. The specifics were always vague, but the gist of what I learned was this: she had been around so long that she was alternately credited or blamed for every strange turn of every Hollywood big shot’s career.
    “I nearly ran her off the PCH once,” a screenwriter told me one night. “She used to drive this little Vespa, sounded like a mosquito. It was my fault, and I was about to apologize, when she made this bizarre hand sign, like this.” He made a sort of botched crossing motion with a karate chop at the end. “The Oscars were that weekend, and I was up for Best Screenplay. Everyone told me I was a shoe-in, but instead they gave it to Shakespeare in Love.”
    “The Witch?” I asked.
    He shrugged.
    “Yeah, the Witch lives just up the hill behind us,” Brian said when I asked him about her.
    “Where? What’s her name?”
    “Margaret Coombs,” he said. “She goes by Hattie.”
    “You know her?”
    “Nah, everybody knows her house though. It’s the one with the lemon trees hanging over the road. Stone gate. Jamaican flag on her mailbox.”
    I had jogged by the house literally dozens of times. I may have even seen this woman, but couldn’t be sure. Somehow I needed an audience with her.
    Operating on the theory that even a practitioner of the occult needed to check her mail, I jogged up the hill following the mail truck. I ran laps in front of her house for almost forty-five minutes before she finally came out to retrieve her mail.
    She was a short, hunch-backed woman with a bonnet of wild gray hair. Her facial expression was lost somewhere between a scowl and a yawn. She carried a Nalgene bottle with a curly pink straw, from which she sipped, sucking in her wrinkled cheeks like a chipmunk.
    “Hello!” I cried, pretending to be jogging by at just that moment. “Are you Mrs. Coombs?”
    “What do you want?” she asked.
    “I just want to talk to you,” I said, giving her my head-shot smile. “I heard you can help people.”
    She squinted at me. “You have a funny-shaped head,” she said. “If you go bald you’ll look like a big, white pecker.”
    She made some strange sign with the Nalgene bottle, then disappeared behind her gate.
    I didn’t give up. Later that week I heard from someone that it was the Witch who had been doing shots with Mel Gibson the night of his famous drunk driving fiasco. Apparently she hadn’t liked The Passion of the Christ, and tried to sabotage its creator. So I rounded up some sticks from Brian’s yard and tied them together into some vaguely occult-looking omen like I had seen on TV a bunch of times, then jogged back up the hill to her house. Back home the neighborhood witch would have lived in a twisted Edward Hopper Victorian with torn shutters and peeling paint. But in Southern California, the witch had a paved driveway, an electronic gate, and a camera looming over her buzzer. I pressed the buzzer and waited.
    “Who is it?” said a croaking voice.
I watched the camera swivel around to face me. “My name is Dean, ma’am. Dean Prentiss. I was running by your house and I saw this hanging on the gate.”
I held up the twine-bound stick thing I had made. For a moment the camera just stared at me like a dead, black eye.
“Well, get rid of it,” the voice on the intercom said.
“Okay,” I said. I looked around. It was garbage day. I spotted a trash barrel across the street, jogged over, and dropped the thing inside. “All set,” I said, returning to the gate to inform her.
There was a moment of silence. “You’re the one with the funny-shaped head,” she said eventually.
I laughed, not sure how to respond to that. At least she recognized me.
A moment later I heard a click and the gate crawled open. There was no verbal encouragement from the Witch, but I took this as an invitation to enter.
Her property was surprisingly well-groomed for an allegedly-insane woman of advanced age. Then again, it was Malibu. No lawn left unmowed.
She met me at the front door, again sipping off her Nalgene bottle. I imagined her drinking a cocktail of dead cats and blood and stuff. She invited me inside and led me into her living room, which was like a shrine to old Hollywood. She had pictures of everybody, many of them personally inscribed. I wondered how she could be so casual about allowing a stranger into her home. I could be a robber looking to sell her memorabilia.
Then I saw the jars. Lining the shelves. Sitting on the coffee table. Filled with yellowish liquid (formaldehyde?). Containing… things.
Only a madman would break into this house. You felt like some sinister claw was digging into you just sitting in her armchair. I wanted her to let me leave.
But I told her who I was, and that I lived down the hill, and that I was an aspiring actor. She nodded like I’d told her my life story a thousand times. She told me nothing about herself.
“You’re not a vegan, are you?” she asked, her fingers tapping the Nalgene bottle.
“No, ma’am.”
“Everyone out here’s into some kind of voodoo,” she hissed. “Vegans, chakras, Scientology. I spit on all of it.”
I didn’t follow her logic, but looking at her spidery jowls I had no doubt about her salivary capabilities.
“I’m making cheeseburgers for dinner,” said Hattie Coombs. “You’re welcome to stay, if you want.”
The Witch of Malibu cooked a mean beef patty, medium rare and oozing warm, greasy blood. Over dinner she finally relaxed.
“I saw you coming a mile away, boy,” she said. “You kids have been coming to Old Hattie for years. Looking for an omen, are you?”
“Honestly, I don’t know what I’m looking for,” I said.
“That little stick thing you made was horse shit, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“All right, Dean,” she said eventually. “I’ll give you a test to prove your worth. I want you to do something for me. You seem to have slippery morals.”
This last comment sounded sort of like a question, and I shrugged to neither confirm nor deny her assertion.
“I want you to visit my neighbor’s house tonight after dark. Mr. Harry Caldwell.”
“The actor?” The Harry Caldwell. He had like three Academy Awards.
She waved her hands impatiently. “Whoop-dee-do. He made himself famous playing half-wits and thieves. Mr. Caldwell is not half-wit. But he is a thief. He has something of mine, Dean. A little jar… like the ones you’ve seen in my living room. It sits on his mantelpiece. I gave it to him years ago, and he believes he owes the success of his career to that jar. I’ve told him that’s horse shit, and I want it back. But he won’t give it to me.”
“What’s in it?”
She smiled, and for the first time I noticed that she didn’t have any teeth. Her mouth was a gray hole full of gums. “Something very dear to me,” she said. “Bring me that jar, and I will help you with your darling aspirations.”
Sneaking into the homes of the rich and famous was not part of what I had envisioned for my 5-year plan when I moved to Los Angeles, but to be fair, I had heard stories of people achieving stardom by stranger means. You never knew where The Break was going to come from, and you couldn’t rule anything out. If the woman who had allegedly seduced Marlon Brando wanted me to snatch a jar full of God-knows-what from a 3-time Academy Award winner’s living room in the middle of the night, then who was I to deny the fickle mistress of opportunity?
The Malibu moon was a gleaming silver dollar as I whispered across Harry Caldwell’s lawn. The Witch had allowed me to climb into Caldwell’s yard using her lemon tree, so I wouldn’t trip any alarms at the front gate.

The house was grand, a sprawling ranch with a swimming pool and outdoor bar. It did not seem eerie and still, like no one home. It had the feeling of occupation. I got the old surge of adrenalin as I eased open the sliding glass door on the back porch. The house smelled of human presence, food and cigarette smoke and surface cleaners. Somewhere in the home’s echoing chambers I could hear an old jazz record.
I tip-toed past darkened rooms, through the kitchen, stopping when I reached an expansive living room with a fire place. The lights were on. This was when I expected the adventure to come to a crashing halt. Either a Rottweiler would maul me, or I’d hear the cold, unmistakable Ka-Klick of a shotgun. Or maybe something more exotic: a naked starlet would appear suddenly, mid-laugh, cocaine residue on her lip- and then a piercing scream.
What I saw was both anti-climactic and sad. Harry Caldwell himself sat slumped on his couch, mouth open, snoring, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on the coffee table. He was alone and passed out in this big room with scratchy saxophones wailing on the record player. It was a moment I resolved to remember, perhaps as a warning: the fool’s gold of excess.
Resting on the mantelpiece I saw the jar. It was small and green, or at least its contents were green. I dashed across the carpet and picked it up. Inside were two floating crescents that looked like strands of old corn kernels pressed together. I realized they were false teeth.
“Oh God…” I groaned, and Harry Caldwell gave a twitch of motion. I froze, watching him slump over onto his side. He kicked his coffee table, and ice clinked in his empty glass, but he did not wake up.
I sprinted from his living room with the jar.
Back at the Witch’s house Hattie Coombs hissed with glee as she cradled the jar in her hands. I noticed, with a sort of sick dismay, that her mouth now contained two gleaming rows of pearly whites.
“So those are not your teeth?” I asked, my finger quivering at the jar.
“No, no,” she said, replacing the jar on her own mantelpiece.
“Whose teeth are they?”
“They belonged to a famous actress.”
“I won’t say, but I can tell you she won four Academy Awards, including one in which her character defies the norms of upper crust white society by bringing a black man to dinner.” She waved her hands at this antiquated notion of controversy. “Her teeth are sort of a Hollywood good luck charm I acquired years ago. Caldwell wouldn’t give them back. He thinks they have special powers.”
I was tired. I wanted to go home. I couldn’t believe everything that had happened. My 5-hour plan was to get stoned and fall into a rapturous slumber.
“Now I have something for you, Dean,” said Hattie Coombs. She reached into the drawer of a little end table and pulled out another jar. This one contained an unidentifiable pinkish substance that made me nauseous even before she told me what it was.
“Told” isn’t really the right word. What she said was: “It’s not uncommon for actors to get a little work done, Dean, when they reach a certain age. Makes them easier to photograph.”
I turned the jar over in my hands. The contents looked like human flesh.
“That is facial tissue from perhaps one of your favorite actors,” she said gleefully, clearly enjoying my repulsion. “I won’t say who, but I can tell you that he attributes his own substantial success to a quirky ‘religion’ invented by a science fiction writer. Everyone out here believes in some kind of voodoo.”
“I don’t believe this,” I said.
She shrugged. “Hold onto it, and good things will come your way.” She reached out suddenly and grasped me with the wrinkled hand that wasn’t clutching her Nalgene bottle. “Just promise me, Dean, that when I ask for it back, you’ll give it to me. Don’t make me send some scampering grasshopper into your house in the middle of the night.”
“You can have it back right now,” I told her.
“Nonsense.” She patted my arm and sent me on my way. At her front door she wished me a good night.
I turned and stared at her curiously. “What’s in your Nalgene bottle?” I asked her.
    She took a long sip. “Lemonade,” she said.   

I won’t say I attribute all of my success to a jar containing scraps of the star of Mission Impossible’s face. But I will tell you that just four days after I visited the Witch of Malibu, I got a call-back from a casting director. That was my first job, and others soon followed. I begin shooting my first major film next week. According to my plan, I should be making my first Academy Award acceptance speech in 5 to 7 years. After that I will certainly give the jar back to Hattie Coombs whenever she asks for it. But not until then. Don’t want to jinx a good omen.
~Adam Matson

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