49. Chelsea Grin

FOR A TIME, AS a young man, not long out of acting school, I was the Worst Luck Guy. Anyone over the age of, say, 25 might remember the commercials, if they watched any TV in their childhood. The commercials were for an insurance company called Omaha Farms – it’s since been bought out by another insurance company – and the character I played was known as the Worst Luck Guy. In every commercial, he’d be doing something like, for example, cleaning windows high up on a skyscraper, and the worst possible thing would happen to him. In the case of window cleaning he drops his bucket and it falls on top of a luxury car, whose driver in turn swerves into a truck full of watermelons, which spill out onto the street and cause a multi-car pile up, and so on. A cascade of the worst possible luck. All through this the Worst Luck Guy carries on, oblivious to the havoc he’s caused.

I almost didn’t audition for the commercial because I didn’t want to do commercials in the first place, but I was in a tight spot moneywise, the way you are when you’re a young actor, but I wasn’t sleeping in my car or anything they way some of my acting school friends were. I guess I auditioned out of a sense of duty, although to what or whom I’m not sure. I didn’t think I’d get the job, but as it happens I had the one thing no one else who auditioned had – the Worst Luck Guy smile.

That first commercial was wildly popular, a huge success for Omaha Farms. And so began my career as the Worst Luck Guy. Every few months I’d get a call or an email from my agent to say they were shooting another commercial, and could I come to Los Angeles as soon as I could. Each time I said I wouldn’t do any more, but the advertising agency would reply by offering me more money, and I’d relent. It was almost like a routine we had going. The thing about the Worst Luck Guy was that even though he always had the worst luck in everything, he was always smiling, no matter what – presumably because he was insured by Omaha Farms. That Worst Luck Guy smile, that was my thing – a big, open-mouthed, wide-eyed smile, the dumb smile of the guy who knows nothing could ever possibly go wrong, the goofy grin you’d find on an Omaha farmer’s son, setting out in the world, believing the best in people. In the later commercials they even used special effects to widen the smile – they made it so wide it was almost grotesque. Four years of acting school and that was it came down to: that big, dumb, artificially enhanced smile. And yet I was the envy of all my friends from acting school, while they were scraping by doing the Eugene O’Neill and David Mamet plays no one would cast me for because everyone knew me as the Worst Luck Guy. In public, everywhere I went, people would recognise me and they’d do one of two things: give me their version of the Worst Luck Guy smile, which I hated, or tell me how much of an asshole I was, which I also hated but which at least I respected. I couldn’t live with that kind of exposure, so I took to living in a van so in between shoots I could get away from LA, where no one was casting me for anything anyway. It seemed that other than the Worst Luck Guy my acting career was practically already over.

The van contained everything I owned in the world. It had a bed in it too. I must have lived like that for three, maybe four years. When we were shooting, I had an aunt who lived in Laurel Canyon who would let me park my van in her yard. Then, in the long spaces between jobs, I’d drive down to Mexico, stopping on a whim wherever I liked for a couple of weeks or months. I was often very happy, but I was often blue, or lonely, or bored, too. The best part about Mexico was nobody recognised me and nobody knew about the Worst Luck Guy. All that time I was writing too – screenplays, endless screenplays, for films long and short. They were the kind of screenplays people like me used to write in those days, without much of a story, where characters amble in and out of screen pointlessly, where nothing much ever seems to happen. Most of them featured love affairs between a young man called the Protagonist who never seemed to work and a mysterious older woman called the Stranger who smoked white-tipped cigarettes and never smiled and would drift in and out of the young man’s life, never staying the night. There were always cats in them, or swimming pools, or detectives who wore Hawaiian shirts and never had sex, or all of those things. As the months passed, I learned to speak Spanish and I drifted ever further into the heart of Mexico, stopping for weeks at a time in cities like Hermosillo and Chihuahua and Ju├írez. One time I found myself in Monterrey for four months, another time I was in Guadalajara for a whole winter. Two or three times a year my agent called me back to LA telling me the next Worst Luck Guy commercial was ready to shoot.

Finally, in Durango, I began to weary of my travels. I’d met a woman called Ambra Hidalgo. She worked in a recruitment agency and lived in an apartment complex with a swimming pool on the top floor; she smoked white-tipped cigarettes, had two Abyssinian cats and an ex-husband who was a police detective. In the one photograph she’d kept of him, she’d cut out his face, but I could make out a powerful body dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. She told me she’d left him because he was jealous, possessive of her to the point of obsession, and had a violent temper. She said her marriage had made her wary of men and love, but try as she might she still needed a man. She never let me sleep over, but always made me return to my van after we’d slept together.

This went on for some months.

Meanwhile, I’d stopped writing screenplays. I spent most of my days in a restaurant called El Toro, teaching myself to speak Spanish by reading cheap detective and mystery novels – usually translations of American pulp – with a dictionary beside me. Or else I’d float on my back in the swimming pool above Ambra’s apartment, waiting for Ambra to finish her day’s work.

When my agent called me back to LA for another commercial, I really didn’t want to do it. It felt like a call from a previous life, a life I wanted nothing to do with. I told him that this time I would need even more money, and I named a ridiculous sum I knew the advertising agency would never agree to. The advertising agency agreed. This time I decided to leave my van in Durango, knowing I’d be coming back, and fly to LA instead. Ambra told me she suspected her ex-husband was having her telephone tapped, and that I should not expect any phone calls from her while I was gone, nor should I call her. I agreed.

The morning of my flight, I hailed a cab parked near Ambra’s apartment building to the airport. I felt the driver’s eyes looking at me in the rear vision mirror. He began talking, making remarks about the traffic, about the weather, about how beautiful the city had once been. When I replied in my broken Spanish, he began speaking in English, telling about his love of America, about his time living in Texas in his youth. He asked me if I liked football, real football, he said – you guys call it soccer. I said I liked it but my interest didn’t run deep. He said if I was planning on staying in Mexico I should learn about football. He said there are all kinds of football, but the best football is English football. He was a big Chelsea fan, he said, Chelsea and Real Madrid. He asked me which team I supported. I said I knew nothing about football teams, especially English football teams. This seemed to concern him. He asked me if I had ever heard of the Chelsea grin – he repeated the words in Spanish, somehow trying to be helpful, I guess. No, I said, I’ve never heard of the Chelsea grin. I’ve heard of the Glasgow smile but not the Chelsea grin. This made him laugh out loud for some time. I noticed a wheeze in his laugh. He told me it was all the same to him. He said he liked me, he told me he wanted to buy me a beer and tell me all about football, which was required knowledge for anyone planning to stay in Mexico – it’s football, he repeated, not soccer. He said the word ‘soccer’ with a look of distaste, as if he’d just drunk sour milk. I asked him how he knew I was planning to stay in Mexico. What?, he asked. As I repeated the question, he turned off the road to the airport into a maze of back streets in a poor neighbourhood I didn’t know. I tried pulling the door handle but the door was locked. The car pulled up outside a cantina where two men were waiting at the side of the road. They got into the back of the cab on either side of me. There was a flash of knives.