There are two things about Lady Bird Lake that everybody from Austin knows:

  1. You don’t call it Lady Bird Lake. It’s called Town Lake. And…
  2. You can’t swim in it. It’s against the law.

Not that I’m from Austin, but I am a Texan– a former West Texan, to be exact, who has visited Austin many times. Hence my knowledge of Lady Bird Lake.

And here’s another thing about the lake that I know: there are homeless camps in the thickets along its shoreline. Not that I’ve seen them, mind you, but I’ve seen homeless camps along the river of my city; so I know they are there.  Same goes for your city.

Sad, but quantifiably true.

So, on February 19, 2013, when Austin police officers were called to a homeless encampment on the shores of Lady Bird lake and to the body of a homeless man, lying face down in the water there, they can be forgiven if they thought it a tragic, albeit unremarkable reality of their job. For even the most seasoned, been-there-seen-it-all cop could have never guessed, that just a month before, the deceased had starred in a critically acclaimed movie and that his performance would be lauded as one of the great cinematic performances of our era.

Director David Gordon Green is known for his love of crime and grime. Yet, his films are beautiful in their own eerie,  hyper-realistic way and distinct in the eloquent dialogue of ragged characters chased by demons with human skin. Consequently–much like the preceding sentence–they can be a little overwrought, as can his experiments with novice actors.

Timing is a critical component of acting. It can be taught and improved upon, but it cannot be mastered by technique. Those who have perfected it were born with it.

Casting agents Karmen Leech and John Williams caught wind of that talent when they encountered a nimble little tramp wandering the streets of downtown Austin. The two were scouting for actors–mainly extras–for Green’s adaptation of the Larry Brown novel Joe, starring Nicholas Cage. Roughed up and dirty, Charlie Chaplin he was not, but the two were intrigued by the man’s startling blue eyes that peered discerningly through a veil of white, baby-fine hair, some of it stuck to a nasty gash on his brow.

Still, for all that, it was the way the vagrant spoke–confidently, with a whiskey worn growl–and the grace within the way he moved that beguiled them most. He told them he was fifty-two (though he seemed paradoxically older and younger at the same time) and that his name was Gary Poulter.

And he told them he was an actor.

Maria MacGuire flew to Austin on a wing and a prayer. Though she was as safe and sound as anyone can be on an airliner and her flight was uneventful, it was the mission of her trip that was fraught and fragile. She flew there to see her big brother.

Maria and Gary’s relationship had always been complicated. Of course she loved him, he was her brother after all. Even as a child she loved him when he threw her down the stairs of their family home. She loved him when he locked her out of the house, his gleeful laughter penetrating the door as she rang the bell, crying, pleading to be let  in. She loved him when he choked their little brother and mistreated the family dog.

Terrified and terrorized, she dreaded for her parents to leave their middle class home to go to work. But still, she loved him. And she never told on him.

Her older sister, Debbie, had fonder childhood memories of Gary. Their relationship was different. Debbie was only a year younger than he was, so she had been both his sibling and his friend. They watched Lost in Space together and acted out the episodes. They rode bikes together and played circus in the backyard. Still, he could be mean to her too. Maria couldn’t understand why Debbie liked Gary so much.

But that was then, when they were kids. Before she understood that her big brother was sick.

As it turned out, Maria needn’t have worried about the trip to Austin. Gary was on his best behavior. They met for dinner and reminisced carefully, picking out the morsels of good times, concentrating on the near future. Gary had joined a traveling carnival and that was the reason for her trip: she wanted to see her brother before he left Austin, because this was the first time she’d laid eyes on him in years and with Gary–with anyone yes, but especially with Gary–the last time you saw him might really be the last time.

To be cont’d…