Devon O’Keefe, star of a popular streaming TV series Beverly Hills Banshee, is losing her grip on life and her sudden fame. When substance abuse and erratic behavior cause production of her show to come to a halt– and after burning through all of her money on drugs and legal fees– the young Midwestern transplant finds herself alone and homeless in L.A.
Enter Nikki Barnes, notorious aging child star and Hollywood survivor with her own tabloid exploits, who waylays Devon after a twelve-step program meeting. Nikki sees a younger version of herself in Devon, having battled addiction, eating disorders and the effects of personal tragedy for decades. She offers to share her decaying Laurel Canyon mansion with the troubled actress, determined to help her avoid making the same mistakes she’s made. But soon a series of mysterious and disturbing incidents occur and the two women find themselves locked in a complex and twisted relationship that spirals downward into violence.
Ladies of the Canyon explores the universal need for family and acceptance, and how a toxic environment can affect the choices we make.
Targeted Age Group:: 18-adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I'm a movie fan and especially like suspenseful ones that mine psychological territory. As a kid, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? scared me and I found I was attracted to other somewhat dark films such as Sunset Blvd. and Day of the Locust that were set in Hollywood (where I live and work, writing, of all things, TV shows for kids.)
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Being a former actor, I approach writing the same way– figuring out objectives for the characters then throwing obstacles in their way. I find that when I do this, the characters start to write themselves.
Celebrities are always telling you not to believe everything you read in the press, but in my case it’s all true. Shoplifting. DUIs. Restraining orders. Community service. Interventions. Rehab. Rehab again.
Let’s just say for a young woman of twenty-three, I’ve led a full life.
I’ll spare you a rehash of all of the above because what’s the point. If you want the gory details, you can always Google me. All that matters at this moment in time is that I’m sober. “One day at a time,” as they say. But that’s the thing about those twelve-step platitudes—and why I use them sincerely, without irony or apology—they really are grounded in truth. And today I’m all about truth.
I’m at a Sunday morning meeting and not just any meeting; I’ve been asked to share and it’s my first time. The church basement is small and cave-like and I’m feeling a little clammy. The meeting leader has one of those craggy faces that looks like it would shatter into a million pieces if he smiled. But he doesn’t smile. He just whispers into the mic in a voice so soft I almost don’t realize he’s said my name.
I make my way up to the podium and look out at about twenty-five people. It’s a typical West Hollywood crowd—film industry types, hipsters, LGBTQ, young and old, but nobody as young as me, not even close. There’s one middle-aged woman who looks familiar but I can’t quite place her. She’s beautiful, in a ravaged sort of way, and she’s staring at me. I break from her gaze and begin speaking.
“My name is Devon, and I’m a drug addict and alcoholic.”
“Hi, Devon,” everyone responds.
I’ve decided to speak off the top of my head, no notes. I’ll save the
script reading for when I’m at work. This isn’t a performance, it’s real life. “I’ve been sober for thirty-three days.”
People clap and it feels awesome—even better than any applause I’ve
gotten from the crew after a particularly good take.
“They say one of the best parts of recovery is getting your feelings
back. And, of course, the worst part is getting your feelings back.” There’s some light laughter.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m scared. I just got out of rehab where they decided my mother has been enabling my addiction—that she’s the reason I keep relapsing. Apparently, it’s not healthy for me to continue to live with her.”
I barely get the words out. Tears well up in my eyes and I bite the inside of my cheeks so I won’t cry. I hate when people get up here and cry. I take a deep breath and regain my composure.
“Yesterday she went back to Wisconsin after the social workers sug- gested she have no contact with me for the next few months. I’ll be on my own for the first time ever. My father’s dead. Cirrhosis of the liver seven years ago, so yeah, it’s in the genes.”
I look into the audience and see that the woman who was staring at me is hanging on my every word. Her mouth is slightly open and a tear rolls down her cheek. She swipes it away with the back of her hand.
“Thankfully, I still have a job. They put my series on hiatus for a month and I start back tomorrow. I’m grateful to have this second chance. Dealing with fame is a bitch, but when I was in rehab I met people who suffered real problems—poverty, abuse, homelessness.”
A guy in the back nods knowingly. He leans so far back in his metal chair I’m afraid he’ll crash.
“They made me realize how privileged I’ve been and how I’ve wasted so many opportunities. I’ve hurt a lot of innocent people—friends, fam- ily, co-workers. Ex-boyfriends. So I’m counting on a higher power to get me through this tough period. A lot of people are depending on me and I can’t let them down. More importantly, I can’t let myself down.”
I realize I need to wrap up, but I’m distracted by the staring lady. She’s now full-out crying, not just a few tears, but actual sobbing. The tatted guy next to her shakes his head, irritated, but the woman on the other side of her tries to console her and hands her a Kleenex, which she takes and blows her nose into. When she’s done, I get a better look at her face and it hits me who she is—Nikki Barnes, one of the most notorious child stars-gone-bad, more famous for her drug abuse and various tab- loid exploits than her show-biz career. She gets up and rushes out of the room, clearly embarrassed by her emotional outburst. I’m a little rattled, not sure what it is I’ve said that’s set her off. I continue with my speech.
“Thanks for listening to me. Recovery is a journey, not a destination, so I appreciate all the support from you, my fellow travelers.” Oh, God, did I actually say that out loud? I can’t believe I ended with something so trite. I smile sheepishly, but no one seems to care because they’re applauding enthusiastically.
The speakers that follow tell their tales of hardship and suffering. A few have been in prison. One woman describes being date-raped when she was too drunk to fight back. Another numbly relates how she’s been court-ordered to attend meetings. I’m sympathetic to her story until she gets to the part where she left her four-year-old in a hot car. The child survived but is brain damaged.
One speaker looks remarkably like my dad and it makes me wish my mom and I could’ve convinced him to go to a meeting. I regret he never got a chance to see my career take off—he would’ve been proud. He was a high school English teacher and it was he who got me interested in reading— books, plays, and poetry, everything from David Sedaris to O’Neill. He’s also the one who encouraged me to audition for school plays. “Read this,” he said, tossing me a copy of The Crucible one day while I was doing my homework.
“Let’s see you put some of your teen angst on stage where it belongs, my little drama queen.” Somehow he knew I had talent before I did. I was cast as Abigail and suddenly my recent break-up with one Robbie Jurgensen was no longer the end of the world as we know it. For the record, I did not give him a hand-job during Toy Story 3 despite what he told every student at Bradford High. Robbie—who I hope goes by Robert these days—was my first “bad boy.” There would be many to follow, the unfortunate result of having a dad who could be Atticus Finch one moment and Chris Brown the next.
The man who looks like my dad speaks lovingly about his family but in the next breath mentions he’s lost them to his addiction. He doesn’t even know where his grown daughter lives now. “I might be a grandpa for all I know,” he says, rubbing his stubbled face.
As riveting as these speakers are, I can’t help but be preoccupied. Why was Nikki Barnes sobbing while I was speaking? I get up and head for the lobby, hoping she’s there.
She is—standing alone next to a drinking fountain, dabbing her eyes with Kleenex. When she sees me, she calls my name, “Devon!” like we’re old friends or something.
The first thing that strikes me about her is how pale her skin is, like a vampire who’s never seen the light of day. Her eyes are impossibly large and soulful, sad actually. She has great bone structure, with prominent cheekbones, or maybe it’s just because her face is so gaunt. Her short spiky hair is obviously dyed black—very 1980s. In her skinny jeans, tie- dyed T-shirt, and Converse All-Stars she looks kind of waifish, if that’s possible for someone who looks every bit her age. There are lines around her mouth, her forehead, and her deep-set eyes. But I like her lived-in face.
When I’m close enough, she throws her arms around me and gives me a big hug that she holds for an uncomfortably long time. She reeks of cigarettes and I have to choke back a cough. I can’t tell for sure, but I think she’s crying again. What is with this woman?
Nikki finally lets go of me then thrusts her arm forward to introduce herself—“Nikki Barnes.”
We shake. “Actually, I know who you are.”
“Yeah, well, my reputation tends to precede me,” she says. “Once your twat’s been splayed out all over TMZ, there’s no turning back.”
I laugh. “No, no—I grew up watching reruns of One More Thyme on Nick at Night. I loved that show.”
“You’re sweet,” she says, shoving her Kleenex in the pocket of her jeans. She looks down at the linoleum floor, as if she’s embarrassed, then back up at me.
“Listen, I’m sorry for blubbering like an idiot in there, but your speech really touched me.”
“Thank you,” I say just as people start streaming into the lobby from the meeting room. Many of them are already reaching for their cigarettes.
“Would you like to grab some coffee?” Nikki asks.
This takes me by surprise. “Um, I’d love to but I’m sort of under the gun. I need to…” I’m not sure how much I want to tell this virtual strang- er. “It’s a long story,“ I say, hoping she’ll let it drop. She doesn’t.
“What? You can tell me.”
I sigh. “I’m being evicted. Can’t pay my rent at the Oakwood— that’s where my mom and I were staying before she moved back to Kenosha. I blew through all my money on you-know-what so I need to find a cheap place to live. By tomorrow. Or I’m out on the street. Pretty pitiful, huh?”
“Small potatoes, babe. My own mother planted coke on me just to get me out of her house and into jail. ’Course it was sort of redundant since I was already carrying a fuckin’ kilo of heroin.” She laughs a throaty laugh that turns into a smoker’s cough.
“So where ’ya headed?” she asks.
“The west valley. I have a 2:30 appointment to see a studio apart- ment in…” I pull out my phone, start scrolling. “…Chatsworth. I’m still not familiar with anything but the west side. Is that far from here?”
“Trust me. You don’t want to live in Chatsworth.”
“Oh. It’s one of the few places I can afford. That, and a place in…” I scroll through my phone. “South Central?”
Nikki cracks up, starts coughing again.
“Devon, listen. You can stay with me until you get back on your feet. I live in Laurel Canyon. It’s not luxurious, but you can have your own room. I’ve got tons of space.”
I remind myself I just met this person two seconds ago. I also remind myself that I’m desperate. And someone told me Chatsworth is the porn capital of the world.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I ask. “You hardly know me.”
“Of course I know you. You’re me, thirty years ago!”
That explains the crying, I think. She heads for the double doors,
apparently deciding the conversation’s over. I follow her outside where she cuts through the cluster of smokers. Enveloped by haze, she looks like an apparition.
I’m driving into Laurel Canyon in my Mini Cooper, breathing in the scents of chaparral, sage, and eucalyptus, my new friend Nikki Barnes in the pas- senger seat. She told me she hitched to the meeting; her car’s in the shop.
Sometimes my mom and I would take this canyon through the Hol- lywood hills to get to our furnished apartment at the Oakwood near Uni- versal Studios. She found the canyon charming, appreciating the narrow, winding streets that reminded her of Europe. I’d never been to Europe, but I liked Laurel Canyon because lots of musicians and artists lived in its wooded hills and it had a funky country store at its center where I’d buy Snapple and Mint Milanos.
It’s just minutes from the congested Sunset Strip, but you really feel like you’re in a small, rural town when you’re up here. When we first came to L.A., we used to fantasize that someday I’d be making enough money to live in this idyllic oasis of nature. My mom would ape Joni Mitchell’s high voice and sing about the hippie chicks who lived here back in 1970—Trinna and Annie and Estrella, the “Ladies of the Can- yon,” who would bake and sew and sing and draw. I’d picture myself as one of those lovely canyon ladies but in my fantasy, there was always a hot canyon guy nearby, one of those long-haired types with wiry arms who made his own musical instruments out of trees.
“Turn left here, then follow this road all the way to the top,” Nikki says, and we drive higher into the hills, past quaint cottages with peace sign flags, that sit next to multi-million dollar mansions with avant-garde sculptures in front.
“Once I start work I’ll have plenty of cash coming in. I’ve got to pay off some debts,” I explain, “but I’ll be able to give you rent in a few weeks. And then, in a few more I should have enough to get my own place.”
“Don’t worry about it. You can stay as long as you like. It’ll be good for me to have some company again. I’ve lived alone for I don’t know how many years and that shit’s getting old.”
Nikki points up ahead. “See all that purple bougainvillea that’s cov- ering the carport? Pull in there.”
I come to a stop behind a filthy yellow Porsche with four flat tires that looks like it’s been sitting there a long time. I wonder if this is Nikki’s other car, the one that’s not in the shop.
“You don’t have to pay a cent. I paid cash for this house years ago, so I only have utilities and property taxes to worry about…thank God for residuals.”
The house is a two-story Spanish Colonial, enveloped by more bou- gainvillea and climbing vines. The stucco badly needs painting and some of the red terra-cotta tiles are missing, but the 1920s architecture is im- pressive and I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. This is the kind of house I might’ve bought had I not squandered away my money on drugs.
“Here—take a look,” Nikki says as she leads me through an archway on the driveway. Before us is a spectacular view of the canyon. Tall cypress trees in one direction, palm trees in another. Cabins and cottages dot the rolling hills like in a fairy tale. We come to the front entranceway. Nikki steps over a mound of junk mail and unlocks the door.
“This is so generous of you,” I say. Nikki opens the door and we step inside. My smile instantly fades and my first thought is what the hell have I gotten myself into?
Any charm the Spanish-style interior might have—walls with round- ed corners, wrought-iron bannisters, exposed wood beams—is obliterated by the worst of 1980s décor. It’s as if Nikki purchased and decorated the mansion at the height of her fame and then just let the whole place deteriorate around her, never updating the furnishings or even maintain- ing them. I’m reminded of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations—the reclusive woman who suffered a mental breakdown when she was jilted by her fiancé and never left her crumbling manor.
The living room is so dark I have to squint; mangled vertical blinds, in mauve, no less, cover the windows and sliding doors, and I wonder why anyone would block out the breathtaking canyon view.
Nikki notices me scanning the room. She lights up a cigarette and says, “Take a look around,” clearly proud of her not-so-humble abode.
The room is huge. One wall has peeling shiny pink and black vinyl wallpaper, another displays mirrors in geometric shapes. There’s a wonderful fireplace but the space where logs should be is crammed with Interview magazines. Directly above it is an original Andy Warhol of Nikki, her unmistakable Margaret Keane eyes in impossibly vivid colors. Surrounding it are three framed posters bearing the signature “Nagel” depicting soulless New Wave women—jet black hair, porcelain skin, full lips.
In the center of the room are massive leather couches and chairs, ripped beyond compare. There’s a pseudo Art Deco entertainment center the size of Milwaukee next to a hulking Pac-Man arcade video machine.
A wet bar is in one corner—dirty cocktail glasses and empty bottles evidence of a party that might’ve taken place last night or years ago. The lighting fixtures are garish monstrosities of brass and glass. The ceiling has brown water stains; soggy clumps of it litter the soiled wall-to-wall teal carpeting.
“Excuse the mess,” Nikki says casually. “My maid’s been sick for a few weeks so the place has gotten a little cluttered.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” I say, trying to pretend the overpowering smell of mildew doesn’t bother me. I glance down at my phone, the address of the Chatsworth apartment still on my screen. Surely not everyone who lives there is in porn, I tell myself. One night. Just one night at Nikki’s. Tomorrow I’ll scour L.A. for a place to stay. Doesn’t matter how small it is, or if it has hardwood floors or gets southern exposure—it just has to be clean.
“Here, let me show you your room.” Nikki leads me through the living room—we step over take-out containers and pizza boxes to a staircase that climbs up to the large second floor. Some of the Spanish tile risers are beautiful, others broken. We walk down the hallway past several rooms until we reach the last one. Nikki opens the door and we step inside a surprisingly large room.
“This used to be my office.”
The first thing I notice is a faded cardboard standee of Nikki as her character Jennifer Thyme, smiling in the corner like a ghost. Yellowed Jennifer Thyme posters line the walls. Lots of cleavage and bare midriff, obviously made to appeal to testosterone-filled teenaged boys, or more likely, horny middle-aged men. There are two file cabinets and boxes of One More Thyme memorabilia stacked against the wall and on a desk.
“I used to have a staff to answer fan mail, send out autographs and shit. Long time ago.”
“The couch turns into a bed—it’s pretty comfortable.” She picks up a Cabbage Patch doll resting there and holds it in her arms as if it were a real baby. She speaks with the cigarette between her lips. “And there’s an adjoining bathroom. That TV works too.”
“Cool,” I say and glance at the bulky dinosaur on a rolling stand. The only televisions I’ve seen like this are at the back of thrift shops or in old movies.
“Don’t worry,” she says, motioning toward all the boxes. “We can move all this crap into the garage.”
Damn. I have to say something. I can’t let Nikki go through all the trouble of cleaning up this room only to walk out on her tomorrow.
“Nikki—I don’t know if this is such a good fit.”
She looks at me and cocks her head as if she’s having trouble hearing what I’m saying.
I search for words that won’t sound harsh but can’t find any. “We just… I think we may not be compatible exactly.” Nikki doesn’t say anything, just looks at me with deep concern, waiting for me to say my piece. I wuss out and place the blame on myself. “I’m sort of a neat freak,” I lie.
“Got it!” she says, letting out one of her throaty laughs. “In my house, people wipe their feet on the way out! I’m a fucking pig—why didn’t you just say so?”
Now she’s got me laughing. “In Kenosha, we’re told not to say such things, aloud, anyway. It would just be rude, or mean.”
“At Casa Nikki it’s just honest. I’m an open book, Devon. You can say just about anything to me without hurting my feelings. I’ve been dragged through the mud so many times, my skin is as thick as a crocodile’s.”
“Crocodile or pig,” I ask. “Which is it?”
“Both.” Nikki sits down on the lumpy couch. I remain standing, afraid if I sit down, I’ll arise with an STD.
“I’m just now pulling out of a clinical depression. That’s why my place looks so messy. That, and I don’t have any cash to renovate it the way I’d like.” Nikki looks down at the couch and smoothes her hand over the nubby fabric. When she looks up again, her face is that of an ashamed child.
“Do you know what it’s like? To be depressed?” she asks, tentatively.
“Yes. Yes I do.” And in that instant I decide to stay. Not sure for how long—a week, a month, however long it takes to get back on my feet. “I can help you clean. I’m really good at it. I spent one summer as a maid at the Value Inn.” Cleaning gives me a sense of accomplishment. There’s a beginning, a process, and a positive result. Kind of like getting sober.
“Then you’ll stay? I could sure use the company.”
“Of course,” I say as a wave of sorrow sweeps over me. I don’t know if it’s for Nikki and her sad life or for me and mine. Maybe both. I feel the urge for a drug, any drug, and am glad I have nothing on me. One day at a time, I remind myself. I place my trust in the twisted higher power that has, for some strange reason, delegated washed-up Nikki Barnes as my savior.
Links to Purchase Print Books
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Link To Buy Ladies of the Canyon On Amazon
Douglas Wood writes, creates and produces children’s television for Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, NBC, Amazon, BBC, Netflix and Apple. The PBS series, Molly of Denali, for which Wood was Story Editor received a Peabody award. Wood has also been a film executive for Steven Spielberg at Amblin Entertainment as well as several major Hollywood studios. He began his career in entertainment as an actor in Chicago where he appeared at Steppenwolf and the Goodman Theatre. He was a member of the Second City National Touring Company and the Fine Line comedy duo, which appeared at the Comedy Store, The Improv and The Motown Revue with Smokey Robinson, an NBC series for which Wood was also a writer. He lives in Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica mountains outside of L.A. with his wife and two cats. Ladies of the Canyon is his first novel.