God could not have created a more perfect morning. The sun rose over the Malibu hills, casting warm sunbeams on the large beach house. A white seagull floated on the breeze, doing his morning aerial dance before scrounging for breakfast. The Hollywood star pulled a chair up on his deck. He watched the waves crash on the beach, enjoying their calming effect. As last night’s alcohol died in his system, he felt his head began to throb.
“I’ve got to stop drinking.” His friendship with Jack Daniels made his head spin. It was a Hollywood tradition: Murder your body at night and then go healthy during the day. No time for a beach jog. Maybe a sprout shake or some suppository vitamins would make him feel better. Although he had lived in Los Angeles for 25 years, he still felt like a stranger in a foreign land.
He picked up the most recent copy of the trade magazine Variety. His latest picture, “Attack on the White House,” was #1 at the box office. The review had called him “the next Tom Cruise.”
“Oh Lord,” he bemoaned to the gull who had landed on his porch. “I hope not. The moment I jump on Oprah’s couch, I’m moving back to Mississippi.”
Cole Rayborn was a $25 million dollar a picture Hollywood star. But all the fame and wealth still left him empty. Yes, he had his people. Agents, security, staff — all the folks a multimillionaire actor needs. But he didn’t have friends. Well, other than Jack Daniels. And that wasn’t exactly a mutual friendship.
The gull cocked his head, curious why the man hadn’t at least given him a French Fry. Gulls didn’t worry about silly things like friends. They just worried about where their next meal was coming from.
Cole picked up his iPad and flipped to his hometown paper. He liked to keep up with the local news, keeping tabs on old friends and loved ones. The past 25 years had been rough on his old home city. Middle-class flight had left the tax base much smaller. Now only the uber rich and the very poor lived there. And his parents. They still lived in the small house where he grew up.
That was a source of embarrassment to him. He had tried to give them money for a new house, but they were proud. Stubborn, actually. His father had worked for the State of Mississippi and his mom had been a teacher. Both were retired now and lived for their 13th retirement check. The fact that their son was one of the richest actors on earth was a source of pride for them. “You’re the only person I know who knew what he was going to do when he was 8 and actually did it,” his father had said at the Academy Awards. His favorite photo was his mother kissing his Best Actor Oscar statue. But they wouldn’t take his money. “Just keep doing us proud, boy. That’s reward enough.”
The National Tattler had once gone to Mississippi and taken pictures of their little house and painted him as a cheapskate. ”Cole plays while his parents suffer.” The tabloids always had a way to find the cloud in every silver lining. Making people look like buttheads sold more copies. It just sucked when it was you they used you to boost circulation.
But that was part of the game. With great wealth comes great scrutiny — even from jerks.
He flipped through the iPad and read the headlines. ”Baggy Pants Ban.” He rolled his eyes. “House votes on Charter Schools.” OK. Fabled drama teacher dies in car wreck.”
Cole dropped the iPad onto the deck, shattering the glass.
It takes one special teacher to change your life. Lenore Gabriel was that teacher. While the other kids wanted to play football, Cole wanted to act. He sought out the small drama club in his high school and met Miss Gabriel. She changed his life forever. He hung on her every word. He was clay in her hands. Now, at the age of 55, those beautiful hands had been stilled.
As the gull watched, one of the toughest men in Hollywood broke down and cried.
“FLIGHT 43 to Atlanta final boarding call.”
Delta could get there but you had to go through Atlanta. In fact, the old joke was that when you died, you had to got through ATL to get to Heaven or Hell. Cole wore his sunglasses and an overcoat as he sat in First Class. He stirred his drink with a straw, thinking about why he was flying back home.
Home. The one place that could make him feel whole again. God, it had been so long. He hadn’t even called his parent. He just hopped the first flight he could find. (he thought about chartering a private jet, but not on this trip. He was going home as Cole Rayborn, Mississippian, not Cole Rayborn, actor.
“Aren’t you?…” the flight attendant began. Cole smiled and said, “I’m afraid so.”
The flight attendant blushed and asked for his autograph. Cole smiled and said, “sure.”
By the time he arrived in Jackson, the airport was deserted. He went up to the rent-a-car desk and said, “The smallest car you have.” The young girl looked up and nearly fainted.
Thirty minutes later, after knocking on the door, his dad came to the door with a gun. “BOY, I could have shot you! Do you know what time it is? Do you know how to call?”
The old man’s protests stopped, though, and he set the pistol down. He hugged his son as tight as he could. “It’s so good to see you, boy.” Cole’s mother ran into the room and nearly tackled her child.
It was a cold and cloudy morning at St. Saints Episcopal church. Cars lined the oak-lined neighborhood as the mourners filed into the nave. “Episcopalians put on great weddings and funerals,” Cole thought. But he would have traded his fortune to see Miss Gabriel again.
He took a seat in the back as the service progressed. Former and present students stood up and told the packed house how much their teacher had meant to them. The love could have lifted the roof that morning. And at the very end, a lone man walked to the front of the room. He kneeled down and laid across the coffin. Cole Rayborn, the toughest man in Hollywood, broke down and openly wept for the woman who gave him his start.
The mourners gasped when they realized who the hulking man in the front of the room was. Cole walked up to the pulpit and pulled out a piece of paper.
“A teacher is precious gift to a child. This particular teacher changed my life and made me who I am today. In this era of teaching to the test, the arts are under siege in our schools. Today, with the help of the Mississippi Arts Commission, I’m setting up the Lenore Gabriel scholarship fund for teachers who want to pursue teaching the arts. And I’m donating even more money to make sure the drama program survives at my old school.
Miss Gabriel changed my life. Now it is time for me to pay that forward.”
Cole folded the paper and put in his suit pocket. He walked past the coffin and stopped again. He bent over and kissed it one last time.
“Thank you, Miss Gabriel. God sent you to me. Now He has called you home.”
And as he stood up, the sun broke through the clouds, illuminating the church’s expensive stained glass. The people in the room and the coffin were bathed in a warm light.
It was Cole Rayborn’s finest performance. And for the first time in 25 years, the actor felt whole.