Posts Tagged ‘screenplays’

Gig’s Baby

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Todd's Elk Breakfast

Lucinda, a breakfast waitress at the Backwoods Cafe in Yakima Washington, a roly-poly brunette in her forties, her hair in a bun, her nametag pinned to her black vest, saunters over to the window table where Gig Antonelli is having a muffin and coffee, refills his coffee cup, gives him a sparkly smile, and says in a friendly way, “Would you mind telling me how old you are?”

“I’m fifty,” says Gig, smiling sleepily at Lucinda because he is sleepy, having spent the night dozing fitfully in the driver’s seat of his faded bronze 2000 Camry parked on the side of a dirt road thirty miles north of Yakima. “May I ask why you want to know my age?”

Gig’s nose is slightly aquiline, his eyes are greenish brown, his voice is pleasantly gruff, and he always sounds a little stoned, though he hasn’t had a puff of pot in three years. For most of his life he was a beefy stoner with lots of extra beef and long hair, and now he is trim and muscular, his graying brown hair cut short for the first time since he was on the high school football team in Mountain Home Idaho.

Lucinda gives Gig a wrinkled-nose smile and says, “Sara and I… Sara’s the other waitress here… we had a little bet. She said you were one of those guys in his sixties who takes really good care of himself, and I bet you were fifty-three.” She shrugs. “Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” says Gig, sipping his coffee. “How much did you win?”

“A dollar,” says Lucinda, deciding to flirt with Gig. “You in town for long?”

“No, I’m on my way to Idaho,” says Gig, and just saying Idaho brings him close to tears.

Gig rarely picks up male hitchhikers, but he always gives female hitchhikers rides because he worries about them being picked up by dangerous men. However, on this rainy day in March, he really wants to talk to somebody, needs to talk to somebody, so he stops for the scruffy blond guy with a wispy goatee standing at the south end of Yakima with a cardboard sign saying Boise.

“Thank you so much,” says the guy, getting in the car and holding his bulky black knapsack on his lap, his orange jacket badly frayed, his blue jeans about to tear at the knees. “Stood there all day yesterday and slept in a ditch last night.” He shrugs philosophically. “Not a bad ditch, but not one of your better ditches, and then just as I was falling asleep a couple coyotes came sniffing around so I hardly slept thinking they might come back with their pals and have a feast, not that there’s much on these bones to eat.”

“I’m Gig,” says Gig, offering the fellow his hand. “What’s your name?”

“Biz,” says the fellow, allowing Gig to grip his hand, but offering no resistance, no matching grip.

Gig releases Biz’s hand feeling mildly disappointed—the quality of a handshake important to him.

“You spell that B-I-Z?” asks Gig, looking at Biz’s knapsack. “You can throw that in the backseat if you want to. Long way to Boise.”

“Didn’t see much room back there,” says Biz, glancing back at the sum total of Gig’s earthly possessions, not counting the five guitars in the trunk.

“Oh it can ride on top of that stuff,” says Gig, waiting for Biz to get the knapsack situated before pulling back onto the highway. “Nothing breakable.”

“Thanks,” says Biz, settling into his seat and sighing with relief to be moving again. “So yeah, I spell it B-I-Z. Just one Z.”

“Short for business?” asks Gig, smiling curiously at Biz. “Which business would that be?”

“Show business,” says Biz, looking out the window at the passing scenery. “I was a regular on two TV shows and I was in nine movies. Long time ago.”

“Couldn’t have been that long,” says Gig, not believing him. “You’re what… twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?”

“Guess again,” says Biz, closing his eyes. “Man, this is a comfortable car.”

“Thirty?” says Gig, thinking Biz might be as young as twenty-seven and as old as thirty-five.

“I wish,” says Biz, keeping his eyes closed. “Try forty-seven.”

“No,” says Gig, making a disparaging face.

Biz opens his eyes and looks at Gig. “I played high school kids until I was thirty-five, and when I couldn’t play high school kids anymore, nobody wanted me.” He closes his eyes again. “Cut to twelve years later. Biz, a former actor now a homeless recovering crack addict, waits two days at the south end of Yakima freezing his ass off until a guy named Gig mercifully gives him a ride.”

“I’m homeless, too,” says Gig, deciding to believe everything Biz tells him from now on. “Though I do have a mother with a nice house who says I can come live with her.” He nods to confirm this. “So now the only question is, can I get over my shame about being such a humongous failure and go back home with nothing.”

“I know of what you speak,” says Biz, nodding. “I have a sister in Ogden. That’s where I’m going. Hoping she’ll let me stay with her for a while.”

“In the meantime,” says Gig, rolling down his window and breathing deeply of the rain-washed air, “here we are.”

“Yeah,” whispers Biz. “Okay with you if I sleep for a while?”

“Sure,” says Gig, yawning. “I’m pretty tired, too, so don’t be surprised if I pull off the road for a snooze.”

“No worries,” murmurs Biz. “I trust you.”

They stop for gas in Kennewick and Gig treats Biz to a couple hot dogs from the little grocery attached to the gas station; and because Biz hasn’t eaten anything in two days, the hot dogs and buns are gone before Gig can pay.

“You were hungry,” says Gig, unwrapping his granola bar when they get back to the car. “Guy in there told me about a good organic grocery store just up the road here. We’ll get foodstuffs for the rest of the day.”

“I don’t have any money,” says Biz, smiling painfully. “So you just get what you need for you.”

“No, no,” says Gig, shaking his head. “We’ll get food for both of us. I got enough for that.”

“Thank you,” says Biz, bowing his head. “Thank you so much.”

Speeding along the interstate, a bulging bag of groceries onboard, Biz says, “So where you coming from Gig?”

“Tacoma,” says Gig, eager to talk, but not wanting to seem too eager. “My wife and I moved there from Idaho five years ago, moved into a beautiful house on Puget Sound, right on the water. I owned a big music store. Power House Music.” He glances at Biz. “You mind if I tell kind of a long story?”

“No, I don’t mind,” says Biz, gobbling fig bars. “Happy to listen.”

“I appreciate that,” says Gig, on the verge of tears. “So before I met my wife seven years ago, I had a three-bedroom house and a guitar shop in Mountain Home, and I owned a duplex I rented out, too. That’s where I grew up. Mountain Home. About an hour from Boise. You know it?”

“No,” says Biz, shaking his head, “but I’ll bet it’s beautiful with all those mountains. I assume there’s mountains if they call it Mountain Home.”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful, if you like small towns, which I do. Mountains all around. Some people say it’s too windy there, but I don’t mind the wind, so… I had a good life there. Lots of friends, my sister and her family and my mom nearby. My dad died when I was thirteen.” He clears his throat. “Anyway… I liked buying and selling guitars and giving lessons, but I was missing something. You know what I mean? I thought it was a woman, only I couldn’t find anybody who fit me. I went out with some nice gals, but they didn’t get me. You know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Biz, nodding. “Somebody who understands how you see things, and likes how you see things, and you understand them and like how they see things.”

“Yeah, exactly,” says Gig, near tears again. “So there I was, forty-three and thinking I’d never find anybody, and one day I’m picking out a watermelon at the farmers market, and this gorgeous Mexican gal wants to buy one, too, and she smiles at me and I nearly faint because nobody that beautiful has ever smiled at me like that, and she says, ‘You know how to pick a good one?’ And I say, ‘Yeah. You thump’em. And if they sound like a bass drum they’re probably pretty good.’ So she asks me to pick one out for her and I carry it to her car and get her number, and four months later we were married.”

“What was her name?” asks Biz, thinking of his first wife Alicia who was half-Mexican and half-Swiss.

“Celia,” says Gig, taking a deep breath. “Celia Luisa Alvarez. Most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Hard to believe she would ever marry somebody like me. But she did.”

“Did she get you?” asks Biz, guessing she probably didn’t.

“Not even a little bit,” says Gig, laughing and shaking his head. “But I didn’t care because she was so beautiful and she let me love her, and we were madly in love. Or I was anyway.”

“Strong drug,” says Biz, speaking from experience. “Sex with a beautiful woman.” He forces a smile. “So were you happy?”

“For those four months before we got married I was happier than I’ve ever been,” says Gig, nodding. “Non-stop love. But then just a couple weeks after the wedding she got real moody and said she’d made a mistake and shouldn’t have married me, and I was just crushed. I mean… I loved her so much, and I thought she loved me, but she kept saying I wasn’t who she thought I was.”

“Who did she think you were?” asks Biz, frowning at Gig. “And who did you turn out to be?”

“She said she thought I was rich.” Gig frowns gravely. “But she knew what I had. We went over it a hundred times before we got married. I owned the guitar shop and the building it was in, and that was worth about three hundred thousand, though I sold the business and the building to Beckman for one-seventy-five. Beckman was a guy who worked for me. And I rented the other store in the building for eight hundred a month. I made about five hundred bucks a week selling guitars. My house was worth about three hundred thou, my duplex about two-fifty. Had about ten thousand in the bank. But Celia said she thought I was so rich she could quit her job. She was a cocktail waitress. Made huge tips. She was movie star stuff, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Biz, wistfully. “Married two of that species myself.”

“They really are another species, aren’t they?” says Gig, thinking of Celia and how every time they made love he could hardly believe she was letting him inside her. “And I told her, ‘Well, you don’t have to work, honey, not if you don’t want to. We won’t live in luxury, but you don’t have to work,’ and we were planning to have kids anyway, so…”

“How old was she?” asks Biz, guessing twenty-something.

“Thirty-six. Seven years younger than me. But she looked about twenty-five.” Gig sighs. “And then she tells me she doesn’t want kids, which was totally bonkers because before we got married that’s all she talked about, how desperate she was to have kids, and I said I wanted them, too. Which was true.”

“No offense,” says Biz, scrunching up his cheeks, “but she sounds a little psycho.”

“Oh she was more than a little psycho,” says Gig, giving Biz a frightened look. “Turned out to be mega-psycho.”

“So you sold everything you owned,” says Biz, guessing the general plot of Gig’s story, “and you moved to Tacoma and gave her everything she said she wanted. But it wasn’t enough.”

“Seemed to be at first,” says Gig, wishing he could pinpoint the exact moment when everything fell apart, though he knows there was no exact moment, only a vast chasm between them from the beginning, a chasm bridged by his enormous desire to love her and be loved by her. “We had kind of a second honeymoon for a few months after we got there, and then…”

Biz looks out the window at a dense forest blurred by the speed of the car, and he thinks of his second wife Leslie, and how she tried to save their unsaveable marriage by booking the same honeymoon suite in the Las Vegas hotel where they honeymooned after their wedding and conceived their first child, and how he got tired of waiting for her to get dressed for dinner—she kept changing her outfit—so he snorted a few lines of coke and went down to the casino and had a few drinks and succumbed to a young woman who recognized him from Meet Ya After School, the sit-com in which Biz played Riley Caruthers, a likable idiot; and when he got back to the honeymoon suite the next morning, his wife was long gone.

“…she said the real problem was I was fat,” says Gig, going on with his story. “She said the problem had never been about money or where we lived, but about her not being attracted to me physically because I was fat and she’d been afraid to say anything about it.”

“But you’re not fat,” says Biz, looking at Gig. “You’re in great shape.”

“Yeah, but I was fat,” says Gig, nodding. “So I gave up sweets and fatty foods and started working out every day, and voila… I became the Adonis you see before you. But then she said the problem was that I smoked dope. So I stopped smoking dope. And then it was beer. So I stopped drinking beer.”

“When did it finally dawn on you that it didn’t matter what you did?” asks Biz, remembering his favorite rehab counselor, an ex-con who would proclaim Catch-22 whenever Biz elucidated one of his many dilemmas from which there was no escape because every escape route brought him back to the cause of the dilemma. “When did you realize she was the problem, and not you?”

“Nine months ago,” says Gig, recalling that critical moment as if watching a crystal-clear movie. “We go out to dinner and I try to pay with a credit card and the waitress comes back with the bill and the card and says, ‘Sorry but your card was rejected.’ So I give her another card, and that one’s no good either. So I give her a third card, and that’s kaput, too. Luckily, I have enough cash to pay the bill, and on the way home, Celia says, ‘You need to get us another card or get us more credit. It’s embarrassing when the cards get rejected.’ And I say, ‘Honey, these cards have twenty-five thousand dollar limits. Are you telling me you knew they were full? We don’t have seventy-five thousand dollars in play money. What’s going on?’ And she says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it right now. I’m too upset. I hate it when you yell at me.’ And I say, ‘But we have to talk about it right now. We’re in a very delicate financial position. The business is finally starting to make some real money and I can’t default on my loans or…’ and she shouts, ‘I don’t care about your fucking business. I want a divorce.’ And when we get home she jumps in her car and goes to her sister’s house and when I get home from work the next day the house is empty. She came with movers and took everything. And then I find out she got three more credit cards in my name without telling me and maxed them out getting cash, and she’s been getting cash from our cards ever since we moved to Tacoma. And then I find out she bought a fuckin’ condo with her sister. And before I can stop the bleeding I default on the big loan carrying my business and I lose everything. Everything!”

“You should pull over,” says Biz, speaking quietly. “You’re pretty upset, Gig. Pull over for a little while until you calm down.”

When they get to Pendleton Oregon mid-afternoon, Gig says to Biz, “I can’t drive any more today. I need to sleep. I’m gonna get a motel room. If you want to share it with me, I’ll get a room with two beds. But if you’re not comfortable with that, you’re welcome to sleep in the car and I’ll take you to Boise tomorrow.”

“A motel room sounds great,” says Biz, looking out at the rain. “Be nice to take a shower and get some sleep. Sounds great.”

“If I had a cell phone I could find the cheapest place,” says Gig, pulling into a gas station. “But in lieu of that, I’ll ask a human being.”

They are directed to a Motel 6 where Gig pays cash for a room with two single beds, and while Biz takes a shower, Gig sits cross-legged on the bed furthest from the bathroom, his back against the headboard, and calls the front desk.

“Hi, this is Gig Antonelli in Room 26. I don’t have a cell phone and I want to call Mountain Home Idaho. That’s not a local call, and since I didn’t put this room on a card I can’t make that call from this phone, so what do I have to do to make a long distance call from here?”

“You can come to the office and use my phone,” says the desk clerk. “Five bucks?”

“Okay,” says Gig, embarrassed not to have his own phone. “What’s your name?”

“Greg,” says the man. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s it,” says Gig, clearing his throat. “I might see you down there.”

Gig hangs up and closes his eyes, and he is so weary he falls asleep sitting up and doesn’t wake when Biz comes out of the shower and gets into the other bed and falls asleep the moment his head hits the pillow.

After an hour of sleeping sitting up, Gig wakes with a crick in his neck, takes off his clothes, and crawls under the covers.

He dreams he still owns Gig Music, the guitar shop he used to own in Mountain Home. He is standing behind the counter of the cluttered shop, unable to get the cash register open. His sole employee, Beckman, a very tall slender man, is sitting on one of the two ratty sofas playing The Beatles’ song ‘Blackbird’ on a small Martin guitar while Gig’s mother Sophia, wearing her red party dress and her faux diamond necklace, her long gray hair in a braid, sings the words. Her voice, usually high and quavering, sounds exactly like Paul McCartney.

Gig comes out from behind the counter and sings harmony with his mother, and as they sing together, his mother becomes a young African American woman and the song turns into ‘Moon River’ and Gig takes the young woman in his arms and they dance to the old love song until they begin to sink into the floor that turns into a deep pool of water and Gig begins to drown and wakes with a shout, gasping for breath.

At midnight, Biz and Gig dine on avocadoes and goat cheese and olives and seed bread and green protein drinks.

“So where were you coming from when I picked you up?” asks Gig, enjoying Biz’s company and appreciating his candor.

“Seattle,” says Biz, relieved to be gone from that crazy city. “Lived there for nine months. I was staying with a guy I went through rehab with, but I couldn’t find a job and he needed a roommate who could help with the rent so… here I am.”

“Where were you before Seattle?” asks Gig, never having given much thought to how homeless people survive until he became homeless a few months ago.

“Portland for a year,” says Biz, loving the food. “Worked in a pizza parlor. Slept in a little trailer behind the place. Me and two other guys. Juan from El Salvador and Diego from Mexico. They were both sending money home to their wives and parents, but I couldn’t save a dime. I like to go to movies and out for coffee and pastries and Mexican food and Chinese food and… Portland is food heaven if you’ve got money. But Juan and Diego made do with crappy pizza and never went anywhere, except Diego went to a massage parlor for sex every couple weeks.”

“And before Portland?” asks Gig, wondering what Biz does for sex, wondering if he’s ambidextrous, as Gig’s mother likes to call bisexuals.

“Santa Fe,” says Biz, sighing. “Lived with a woman I met in rehab. Diana.” He nods, remembering. “For two years. She lived in a little cottage behind her daughter’s mansion. Her daughter was a socialite married to a hedge fund guy.” Biz grins. “Diana’s in her sixties, but man, talk about a sexual dynamo. Fucked me silly.”

“Why’d you leave?” asks Gig, never having had sex with a woman older than he.

“What’s that expression?” says Biz, yawning. “Smothered with love?” He nods. “That’s how I felt with Diana. Couldn’t hardly breathe after a while.”

“Did you have a job?” asks Gig, thinking about looking for work in Mountain Home if he can get up the nerve to go back.

“Kind of,” says Biz, smiling wistfully. “I was writing screenplays. Hoping for a big break.” He raises his green protein drink. “Here’s to the gods of Hollywood. You never know what might happen.”

After their midnight feast, Biz falls asleep again, but Gig is wide awake, so he goes for a long walk, the night cold and clear.

When he gets back to the motel, he sees the motel office brightly-lit, a woman standing behind the counter, so he goes into the office, identifies himself, and says he wants to make a phone call in the morning and wonders if he can make an arrangement with her similar to the one he had with Paul.

“I’m here until eight and I have unlimited calling on my phone,” says the woman. She has a small nose and gray blue eyes and short blonde hair. She’s wearing a blue down jacket over a black Portland Trailblazers T-shirt, and Gig guesses she’s thirty-seven and descended from Scandinavians. “But you don’t have to pay me anything. And then Justin comes on after me and I’m sure he’ll let you use his phone for free.” She shakes her head. “That Greg. Never misses a chance to make a little extra. Can’t blame him, but… yeah, you get here before eight, no problem.”

“May I know your name?” asks Gig, liking her.

“Florence,” she says, reddening at the intimacy of telling him her name. “But everybody calls me Flo.” She arches an eyebrow. “What’s Gig short for?”

“Not really short for anything,” says Gig, remembering when he was next in line to cross the stage of the Mountain Home High School multi-purpose room to receive his diploma, and how when Mr. Frederickson leaned close to the microphone and said Lawrence Antonelli, Gig didn’t recognize his given name and just stood there waiting to hear Gig until Glenna Barnes shoved him from behind and hissed, ‘That’s you, Gig. Go!’

“Where you traveling to?” asks Flo, something in her voice suggesting to Gig that she would rather not be having this conversation.

“Mountain Home,” says Gig, stepping back from the counter. “I appreciate the future use of your phone. I’ll try to get down here before eight.”

“You want some tea?” she asks, nodding hopefully. “I was just about to make some black tea for me, but I could make you some chamomile. Help you sleep.”

“That’s very kind of you,” says Gig, smiling at the inaccuracy of his intuition. “I would love a cup of chamomile tea.”

So Flo makes their tea and Gig sits on a not-very-comfortable armchair, and Flo rolls her office chair out from behind the counter and sits a few feet away from him.

“The hardest thing about this job,” says Flo, glad to have someone to talk to, “is I’m so not a night person. As soon as Justin or Greg quits, I’ll get an earlier shift and get my life back.”

“How long have you been working graveyard?” asks Gig, noting her wedding ring.

“Almost two years,” she says, nodding wearily. “I keep thinking I’m gonna get used to it, but I never do. I get home at eight-fifteen and go to bed and sleep for a few hours. If I’m lucky. Then I get up around noon, my kids come home from school at three-thirty, we have dinner at six, I do the dishes and watch television and go to bed about eight, get up three hours later, leave the house at eleven-forty, and I’m here from midnight to eight. My days off I just drag around and try to catch up on shopping and housework and… I can’t wait for somebody to quit or get fired, but Justin’s not going anywhere and Greg keeps saying he’s moving to Portland, but he never does, so I don’t know.” She shrugs. “It’s a job. Better than no job, that’s for sure.”

“What does your husband do?” asks Gig, starting to feel the relaxing effects of the chamomile. “Assuming that’s a wedding ring on the official finger.”

“He works in a hardware store,” says Flo, her voice full of sadness. “We’ve been separated for two years. He says he wants to get back together, but I don’t. He’s a horrible pessimist. The world is out to get him. Everybody’s a crook except him. Everybody’s out to get him. I can’t live like that.”

“How old are your kids?” asks Gig, feeling a kinship with her.

“Fourteen and twelve,” she says, smiling at the thought of her children. “Boy and a girl. Aaron and Sheila.”

“Fourteen and twelve,” says Gig, feeling something shift inside him, something being released, a recalcitrant knot unfurling. “That can’t be easy. Puberty times two.”

She laughs. “They’re good kids. Thank goodness they’re smart and healthy and… but, yeah, it’s one thing after another at that age. Never a dull moment. That’s why I wish I could get on a day shift and be there for them more.”

“I believe in you, Flo,” says Gig, looking into her eyes. “And I thank you for this tea and your company. I’ll be back around seven-thirty.”

“Okay,” she says, getting up with him. “Thanks for helping me pass the time.”

“My pleasure,” he says, handing her his mug.

“Mine, too,” she says, blushing. “You’re a good person, Gig.”

Biz is sleeping soundly when Gig gets back to their room and undresses and crawls into bed.

And though Gig fears he won’t be able to sleep, he drifts into a dream of playing frisbee with Beckman in an orchard of newly planted apple trees, their exuberant game a celebration of the planting. Beckman throws the frisbee way over Gig’s head, and as Gig turns to chase the whirling disk, he realizes the frisbee is destined to slow as it meets the oncoming breeze and return to exactly where Gig is standing. With this in mind, he relaxes and waits for the disk to come to him, and as he waits, he hears his mother calling from afar, “Gee-ig. Gee-ig. Time for supper.”

At seven-thirty that morning, Gig goes to the office and Flo lends him her phone. He steps outside the office, the day dawning sunny, and after hesitating for a moment, he enters his mother’s phone number and listens to the dial tone until Sophia answers in her usual way. “Antonelli’s. Who’s calling, please?”

“It’s your erstwhile son,” says Gig, his eyes filling with tears. “Wondering if…” He can’t continue, his urge to cry too strong.

“I had a dream about you last night,” says Sophia, knowing Gig is crying. “When will you be here?”

“Mid-afternoon,” says Gig, struggling to speak. “You… you sure it’s still okay?”

“Don’t be silly, Gig,” she says, trying not to cry, too. “I’m making chicken and potatoes and salad.”

“Might bring a friend,” says Gig, thinking of Biz. “Nice guy I met. Maybe not, but…”

“That’s fine, honey. Drive safely. See you when you get here.”

Gig tries to say I love you, Mom, but he can’t stop sobbing.

He takes Biz out to breakfast at the Main Street Diner and Biz has a mushroom omelet, a stack of buttermilk pancakes, and a fruit smoothie. Gig has two eggs over easy with sausage and hash browns, and gives his toast to Biz.

“So this guy Beckman was in both your dreams,” says Biz, sipping his coffee and feeling pretty damn good. “Must be an important person in your life.”

“Yeah, he was,” says Gig, nodding. “We worked together six days a week for sixteen years, and we liked each other. He was quiet and friendly and a great guitar player. I can’t remember him ever missing a day of work. I used to get sick three or four times a year, but he never did. And you know what I just realized? Along with my mother and my sister, he was the only constant person in my life. The only constant man for sure.”

“And you’ll be seeing him soon,” says Biz, never having had a constant man in his life.

“I guess I will,” says Gig, imagining going into Gig Music again for the first time in five years. “Unless he’s not there anymore. We didn’t stay in touch so… we’ll see.”

“I think your first dream was about the past,” says Biz, nodding to the waitress as she comes to refill his coffee cup. “And I think your second dream was a prophecy of the future. A new beginning that’s coming to you.”

They reach the northern outskirts of Boise in the early afternoon, and Gig says, “So Biz, would you like to meet my mom? Hang out in Mountain Home for a few days? I asked her if that would be okay and she said it was fine with her.”

Biz forces a smile. “That’s really kind of you to offer, Gig, but my sister is expecting me, and with good luck I’ll get to Ogden tonight, and with bad luck I’ll get there tomorrow or the next day. I appreciate everything you did for me.”

“I’d like to stay in touch,” says Gig, nodding hopefully. “If you want to.”

“Yeah, I do,” says Biz, with little force. “I’ll see how things go in Ogden and then… I’ll give you a call. Your mother in the phone book?”

“Only Antonelli in town,” says Gig, feeling pretty sure he’ll never hear from Biz again. “Well, listen, now that I know I’ve got a place to live and I don’t have to worry so much about running out of money, how about I give you a little something? Get you to Ogden without starving to death.”

“That would be wonderful,” says Biz, sighing with relief. “You may not know it, Gig, but you’re some kind of angel.”

Gig drives by Gig Music on his way to his mother’s house and is startled to see the old Gig Music sign, big blocky black capital letters on a dirty white background, replaced by a much classier Gig Music sign, burgundy cursive, all lower case letters on a peach background, the new sign half the size of the old, yet much more eye-catching and intriguing.

Indeed, Gig finds the new sign so eye-catching and intriguing, he can’t resist parking in front of the shop, getting one of his guitars out of the trunk to sell for some quick cash, and hurrying to see what other changes have been made.

The front door is new, the funky glass door now solid wood painted the same burgundy as the cursive letters in the sign. And before Gig can reach out to turn the doorknob, the door opens inward automatically, a most convenient innovation for people who might be carrying guitars.

But these exterior changes are nothing compared to what awaits within. The old dark wood floor, treacherously warped, has been replaced by sunny bamboo flooring, the darkness of the high-ceilinged room no longer dispelled by fluorescent lights, but by seven large skylights and tasteful track lighting.

And the wall between Gig Music and what used to be Sylvia’s Hair Salon is now gone, the guitar shop merging seamlessly with an elegant art gallery with large paintings and photographs, landscapes and portraits, adorning the walls.

“Wow,” says Gig, awestruck. “Incredible.”

The two dilapidated sofas have been replaced by three handsome armless chairs with cushioned seats, and the wall where Gig used to display banjos and mandolins and fiddles is now a wall of guitars, each guitar spot-lit, suggesting These are works of art, too. And the big ever-cluttered counter has been replaced by a beautiful oak worktable, the cash register out of sight.

“May I help you?” asks someone calling from the art gallery; and Gig turns to behold an attractive woman wearing delicate red-framed glasses and blue jeans and sandals and a scarlet dress shirt, her long brown hair in a ponytail.

“Hello,” says Gig, waving to her. “Does Beckman still own this place?”

“Yes, he does,” she says, crossing the room to him, her accent thickly Spanish. “I recognize you. You are Gig. I’ve seen pictures of you with Julian.”

“Julian?” says Gig, half-smiling and half-frowning. “Oh, yeah. Julian. Sure. Beckman. Who are you?”

“I’m Portia,” she says, studying his face. “Julian’s wife.” She laughs. “Beckman’s wife. We invited you to our wedding three years ago, but we never heard from you, so then we sent you pictures of the wedding and our honeymoon in Spain. You didn’t get them?”

“No,” says Gig, knowing with absolute certainty that of all the things he might have forgotten in the last five years, he never would have forgotten an invitation to Beckman’s wedding and photos of the ceremony he missed. “I would have had to be in a hospital on life support not to come to Beckman’s wedding if I’d known about it.”

“You didn’t get the letters Julian wrote to you?”

“No,” says Gig, grimacing. “I don’t know why, but I didn’t.”

“I’m so sorry,” says Portia, placing a hand on her heart. “But you are here now, so we can celebrate. I’ll go get Julian. He’s just finishing up a lesson. Please, have a seat.”

So Gig sits down on one of the comfortable armless chairs and gazes around the big room at the many guitars, and he is filled with joy by the splendid transformation of this place he gave birth to.

        fin

Bernard Comes Of Age

Monday, December 24th, 2018

Age BW

Bernard Borenstein is seventy-years-old, a wiry five-foot-nine, with short frizzy gray hair growing whiter by the day. A charming person with a pleasingly deep voice and an infectious sense of humor, Bernard was born in Burbank, spent his childhood and teenage years there, and in 1972, at the age of twenty-two, bought the house in Santa Monica where he still lives today. He paid 23,000 dollars for the lovely two-bedroom home on an oversized lot three blocks from the beach, and the place is now worth at least four million dollars. Bernard paid cash for the house, the cash resulting from royalties from a song he wrote the lyrics to.

The song, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was one of ten songs Bernard wrote the lyrics for on the only album of a short-lived Hollywood rock band called Still At Large. Their self-titled album came out in 1970 and may have sold two hundred copies, but certainly no more than that.

However, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was subsequently covered by Roy McClintock of country music fame on one of his platinum albums, became a staple of country music radio stations, was covered by several other country music artists, and can still be heard today on hundreds of country oldie radio stations. Ironically, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was originally a blues ballad, and all the members of Still At Large detested country music.

Then in 1982 an instrumental jazz version of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ debuted on national television as the theme song for Brad Raymond’s comedy detective show Snoop For Hire, a show that ran for nine enormously successful seasons and was then re-run for another twenty years; and every time the show aired, Bernard made money, though his lyrics were never sung on Snoop For Hire.

Had Bernard invested his royalties wisely, he would be a very rich man today, but because thirty years ago he spent his considerable savings, and then some, launching a talent agency that floundered for ten years before dying a miserable death, he is not rich.

At seventy, Bernard, twice-divorced and single for thirty years now, is a self-proclaimed Chekhov character, and by that he means he has a valuable house, no car, and enough money from Social Security and the occasional royalty check to eat well, pay his property tax, cover his gas and electric and water bills, and not much more.

He is still hoping for another big hit, and to that end he is forever collaborating with an array of acquaintances on television scripts, screenplays, and songs. Some of his co-writers are roughly his age, some are younger than he, and one guy is in his nineties and has a great grandson who is an up-and-coming agent at a major talent agency.

On a hazy morning in late August, Bernard is sitting across the table from his old pal Lou in a booth at Jean’s, a Santa Monica café and bakery that has been in business for nearly a hundred years.

“Lately when I walk by that long wall of windows next to the sidewalk at Bob’s Market,” says Bernard, sipping his coffee, “I’ll look to my right and here’s this skinny old Jewish guy with gray hair, at least twenty years older than I am. We’ll walk along together, smile at each other, maybe bounce our eyebrows, but we don’t talk. And then he goes into the store and I lose sight of him. I wonder why I keep running into this guy? Who could he be?”

“A succinct summation of your powers of denial,” says Lou, a chronically under-employed actor in his seventies who wears colorful scarves and a burgundy beret.

“Are you suggesting…” Bernard feigns a look of horror. “…the old guy is my reflection?”

“I’m suggesting you did this shtick three days ago,” says Lou, raising his hand to beckon a waitress. “It wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now.”

“Who said it was supposed to be funny?” says Bernard, frowning at Lou.

“I’d love to continue this scintillating conversation,” says Lou, slapping a ten-dollar bill on the table, “but I have to go spend the rest of the morning deepening my already considerable debt to a dentist. At least he claims to be a dentist. It seems my one remaining tooth has yet another cavity.”

“I’ll call you,” says Bernard, wincing sympathetically as Lou grimaces when he stands up, his sciatica ferocious this morning. “Take it easy.”

“Famous last words,” says Lou, shuffling away.

The waitress, Darlene, a curvaceous gal in her thirties with curly brown hair and darting green eyes, arrives at the table. “More coffee, Bernie?”

“Yeah, why not?” he says, smiling at her. “You want to go out with me some time, Darlene?”

“Where would we go?” she asks, filling his cup.

“Take a walk on the beach,” he says, nodding hopefully. “Ethnic cuisine of your choice. Go back to my place. Watch a movie.”

“Sounds divine,” she says in a monotone. “But then my husband would kill us and I’m not ready to die.”

“Nor am I,” says Bernard, nodding his thanks for the refill. “I guess we’ll just have to make do with vivid fantasies.”

Julia Sapperstein, a big smiley woman in her fifties with shoulder-length hair dyed auburn, is sitting at Bernard’s seven-foot Mason & Hamblin grand piano in Bernard’s high-ceilinged living room, banging out chords and singing a song she and Bernard are writing together, a love ballad with the working title ‘So Why Did You Stop Calling Me?’. Julia’s voice is a pleasant tenor in the middle register, but when she strains to reach the higher notes, Bernard—making coffee and toasting bagels in the big airy kitchen adjoining the living room—cringes as if someone is scraping a chalkboard with her fingernails.

“Sorry about that,” says Julia seeing Bernard cringing. “Mary said she could maybe come sing this for us on Thursday. You free at two on Thursday?”

“I’ll move my appointment with George Clooney to four,” says Bernard, shrugging. “Let him wait. What else has he got to do?”

“You have an appointment with George Clooney?” says Julia, frowning at Bernard. “The George Clooney?”

“No, a George Clooney,” says Bernard, laughing.

“Have you ever met the George Clooney?” asks Julia, innocently.

“No,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “I’ve seen him in a number of movies and I once saw him walking a dog on the beach right here in Santa Monica. At least I think it was George. He had George’s face and demeanor and gait and charisma, so I assumed it was he.”

“Why would he have been walking a dog on the beach here and not in Malibu?” asks Julia, having a hard time imagining George Clooney on the Santa Monica beach. “What kind of dog?”

“You know, come to think of it,” says Bernard, pouring two mugs of coffee, “it wasn’t a dog. It was a lion.”

“You’re kidding,” says Julia, getting up from the piano and joining Bernard in the dining nook.

“Now she thinks I’m kidding,” says Bernard, glancing at an imaginary audience. “No wonder she’ll sleep with me.”

“Yes, I will,” says Julia, smiling sweetly at Bernard. “And that’s no joke.”

Julia leaves Bernard snoozing in his king-sized bed and writes him a note on a large blue post-it she affixes to his thirty-year-old answering machine on the kitchen counter.

Dear Bernie,

Thank you for a most wonderful time today. I think our song is turning out gangbusters. I can’t wait to hear somebody with a good voice sing it. You’re the best.

Julia

A half-hour after Julia leaves, Bernard wakes from a dream of arm-wrestling with Scarlet Johansson while pitching her an idea for a movie about the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. He takes a moment to enjoy what he remembers most vividly about the dream, the lovely glow in Scarlet’s cheeks, and reminds himself he just had sex with Julia, not Heather with whom he also writes songs and occasionally has sex.

He listens for any sounds indicating Julia is still in the house, and hearing none, he gets out of bed, puts on his blue terrycloth bathrobe, and wanders down the hall to the kitchen where he finds the note from Julia and sees the red light on his answering machine blinking.

The first message is from his only progeny, his son Mason, calling from Oregon. “Hey Dad. Got the check. Thank you so much. We’re doing fine, but every little bit helps. So… can you come visit sometime in the next couple months? We’ve been here five years and you haven’t seen the place yet. Gorgeous here in the fall. The kids would love to see you, and so would Nina. I know it’s a long drive, but I really want to see you and show you all the work we’ve done on this amazing place you helped us get. Love you.”

The second message is from Les Cutler, Bernard’s co-writer of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ and the former bass player of Still At Large. “Bernie. Les. When the fuck are you gonna get a cell phone? I never can get you when I want you. Call me as soon as you get this. And get a fucking cell phone.”

The third message is from David Chapman, one of Bernard’s younger collaborators, a college friend of Mason’s with great expectations of becoming a successful screenwriter. “Hi Bernie. It’s David. I’m slightly desperate to read you these new scenes. I incorporated all our new ideas and I think we’re really onto something here. Call me. Bye.”

“What a life I have,” says Bernard, looking around his comfortable little house. “If only one of my projects would pop and I could make some serious money again. But nothing ever pops. Nothing has popped since I was a kid and got lucky with a song. Yet I still believe something is gonna pop any day now because once upon a time something did.”

Bernard dons his mustard yellow Los Angeles Lakers sweat suit, loads his blue Dodgers tote bag with towel and sunblock and notebook and pen, steps into his beach sandals, walks the three blocks to the beach, buys a fish taco from his favorite mobile taqueria, and dines on the sand just north of the Santa Monica pier, the afternoon balmy, beauties in bikinis abounding.

“How can I be seventy?” he asks the roaring waves as he watches two young women wearing the equivalent of nothing playing Frisbee on the edge of the surf. “I’m old enough to be their grandfather, yet I have no trouble imagining being married to either of them, especially the brunette, and carrying on as if I am twenty-five.”

Having said this, Bernard has a revelation. If I had not been obsessed with having another success equal to or greater than ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ I could have stayed married to either of my wives and created a shared life instead of a life all about me striving for another hit.

“But what can I do about that now?” he asks, following the flight of the Frisbee back and forth between the two young women. “Knowing is not the same as changing, and I am, after all, seventy. Furthermore, what’s wrong with striving for another hit? Certainly better than just waiting to die.”

Home again, Bernard calls David and invites him to come over at four and read the new scenes. And because David’s parting words are, “Say hi to Mason for me next time you talk to him,” Bernard calls Mason.

“Dad?” says Mason, sounding like a boy to Bernard, though Mason is forty-four. “A daytime call? This is unprecedented. What’s going on?”

“Not much,” says Bernard, thinking of Maureen, Mason’s mother, and how she begged him to sell the house and move with her to Seattle, but Bernard wouldn’t leave Santa Monica, so Maureen divorced him and took twelve-year-old Mason with her. “Just returning your call.”

“You gonna come visit?” asks Mason, his voice full of hope.

“I’d love to,” says Bernard, realizing his brain is stuck on a picture of Mason at twelve. “How does October sound? I’ll juggle some things and zip up there for a few days.”

“Oh you gotta stay for at least a week,” says Mason, decisively. “Takes two days to get here. And thanks again for the check. We really appreciate it. And just so you know, that amount gets you an engraved tile in the bathroom in the guest house, which is almost done.”

“The bathroom or the guest house?” says Bernard, fighting his tears.

“Both,” says Mason, laughing. “Hey, can I call you back tonight after I talk to Nina and we’ll get something on the calendar?”

“Yeah, call me tonight,” says Bernard, starting to cry. “Be great to see you.”

After he hangs up, Bernard cries so hard for so long, he soaks his clothes and has to change before he calls Les.

“Your daughter?” says Bernard, frowning into the phone. “Which daughter? You have three, don’t you? Or is it four?”

“It’s four,” says Les, who also has five sons. “And I’m speaking of Grace, my oldest. Jenny is thirty-eight, a successful interior designer, Serena is twenty-nine and having a ball as an international flight attendant, and Crystal is six. Why would I want any of them to live with you?”

“So why do you want Grace to come live with me?” asks Bernard, sitting down at his kitchen counter. “How old is she now? Forty?”

“She’s fifty-two,” says Les, shouting. “You’ve known her since she was a baby. You used to give her piggyback rides. She adored you until you stopped coming to visit.”

“As I recall,” says Bernard, resisting his impulse to join Les in shouting, “I stopped coming to visit because your second and third wife couldn’t stand me. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” says Les, lowering his voice. “They couldn’t stand me either.”

“So if Grace needs a place to stay,” asks Bernard, having a hard time imagining sharing his house with anyone unless he’s married to them or he’s their father, “why can’t she stay with you?”

“Because she’s been living with us for six weeks now, and Carol says if Grace stays another week, she’s leaving me.”

“Why?” asks Bernard, perplexed by Les’s request. “If Carol can’t stand her, what makes you think I’ll be able to?”

“Because she’s a sweetheart and I’ll pay you. Two thousand dollars a month. And I know you’re gonna ask why I don’t just get her an apartment? Because she needs to live with someone, Bernie. She survived two horrendous marriages, raised two kids all by herself and did a damn good job. They’re both in college now, and she’s alone and lonely and… she’s out of gas. Lost. You know? But she’s a great gal, Bernie. She remembers you. She loved you. Please?”

“So suddenly I’m a babysitter?” says Bernard, wincing. “Jesus, Les. How would you feel if I asked you to take in my middle-aged son?”

“It’s not the same thing. You don’t have anybody there. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Will you at least talk to her? As a favor to your old friend?”

And only because Bernard feels beholden to Les for ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ he says, “Sure, I’ll talk to her. Come for breakfast tomorrow.”

The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe?” says David, a tall round-shouldered guy with short blond hair and huge back-framed glasses. “Starring Scarlet Johansson?”

“Thus spake my dream,” says Bernard, bringing two bottles of beer into the living room where David is about to read some new scenes to Bernard from the two screenplays they’re writing together, one a comedy romance set in the 1960s, the other a noir murder mystery set in the 1930s.

“Bernie, that’s genius,” says David, gaping at Bernard. “Scarlet would kill to play the part of Marilyn. They have the same mouth, the same cheekbones, the same body. Scarlet was made to play that part. Immediately. Before she gets any older.”

“What part?” asks Bernie, handing David a beer. “It’s an idea. What’s the plot? Is Marilyn doomed to relive her tragic life? Does she grow up happy and become a veterinarian and have three delightful children? Is she born poor and black in Mississippi? Or rich and Jewish in Beverly Hills? Is she perhaps a man this time? Does she run for President and win, only to be assassinated? What part?”

“All of the above,” says David, getting up from the sofa and pacing around the room. “She is born again and again, always essentially Marilyn, yet living different lives. My God, if we could pitch this to Scarlet, she’d option it before we finished pitching!”

“You think?” says Bernard, accustomed to David’s enthusiasm for outlandish ideas. “I don’t have her current phone number. Do you?”

“I’m this close to getting a good agent,” says David, showing Bernard a tiny space between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. “And when I get her, she’ll set up the pitch.”

“Oh, it’s a her this week,” says Bernard, dubiously. “Last week wasn’t it Larry Somebody at ICM?”

“Shirley Daytona,” says David, nodding assuredly. “At CTA.”

“David, listen to the voice of experience,” says Bernard, pretending his beer bottle is a microphone. “Beware women agents and actresses and artists who take the names of cities for their last names. If you dig just below the surface, you’ll find someone who is ashamed of being Jewish, and an agent who is ashamed of being Jewish is… well… silly. And who wants a silly agent?”

“If she can sell one of our scripts, she can be Bozo the Clown,” says David, taking a long swig of beer. “Shall I read you our new scenes?”

“I’m dying to hear them,” says Bernard, who enjoys working with David more than with any of his other collaborators. Why is that? Because he remains undaunted in the face of my relentless cynicism, and because he genuinely likes me, and he thinks I have talent. I should be nicer to him. From now on, I will be.

When David is done reading the new scenes, Bernard has another revelation, which he elucidates to David.

“It occurs to me that we set these movies in the idealized past because we find contemporary life dreary and hopeless and uninteresting. But why not set these stories in the present and reveal the humor and mystery of today? Maybe the reason we’re having so much trouble getting these scripts right is because we’re avoiding our field of expertise, which is being alive now.”

“I hear you,” says David, giving Bernard a pained look. “But I hate contemporary movies. Everybody’s on cell phones, everybody’s either fucked up or an idiot or a snide asshole or a clueless bimbo or an ideal person married to a rotten person and somebody’s always dying of cancer and everybody’s having an affair or they’re gorgeous but all alone and there’s always someone contemplating suicide and someone addicted to drugs or porno, and even when there’s a somewhat happy ending, the world is still rotten.”

“Right, but that’s not how it will be in our movies.” Bernard smiles warmly at David. “Our movies will reveal the divine in the every day.”

“And no one will buy them,” says David, despondently.

“Maybe not,” says Bernard, nodding in agreement. “Probably not. So shall we write a movie about a wizard who is also a vampire who is also a corrupt politician having an affair with a teenager addicted to porno?”

“Yes!” says David, excitedly. “And only one person can stop the vampire wizard politician. A woman with super powers from another planet.”

“I’ve got just the title,” says Bernard, pausing momentously. “The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”

“Now this we can sell,” says David, pointing at Bernie. “You laugh, but this we could sell. Tomorrow.”

After supper, Bernard gets a call from Mason, and when they have agreed on an October date for Bernard’s trip to Oregon, Bernard realizes he is afraid to leave Los Angeles, afraid to venture into the unknown.

Getting ready for bed, Bernard takes a long look at himself in the bathroom mirror and decides he likes his face, likes his smile, likes the spirit animating him; and he says to his reflection, “Yes, I am seventy, and yes I’m afraid to leave Los Angeles, but there is an undeniable youthful vibrancy to my je nes sais quoi, and so long as I feel this way, I shall not despair.”

Bernard is making hash browns and scrambled eggs and coffee and toast when Les and his daughter Grace arrive.

Les, his red hair lost to baldness, was an avid surfer and skier until he was thirty-five and broke his leg in six places in a skiing accident. When his leg healed, he took up bicycle riding and was a maniacal biker until he turned fifty and his fourth marriage collapsed. Now he is seventy-two, married to a woman in her thirties, and he is uncomfortably overweight. And though he never wrote another song after his band Still At Large broke up in 1972, he parlayed the money he earned from ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ into a huge fortune in real estate.

Grace is a pleasant surprise to Bernard. He hasn’t seen her since she was a sultry beauty in her twenties, an aspiring actress and singer. She is a mature beauty now, with short brown hair and a lovely figure, though she no longer affects sultriness.

She stopped acting and singing when she married at twenty-seven and threw herself into raising her two children, Timothy and Kathy, and being a devoted wife to a show biz scoundrel who left her when the kids were two and six months. She remarried a year later; her second husband a narrow-minded misogynist with inherited millions. She had two miscarriages with him, after which he divorced her.

Single again at thirty-three, her kids five and three, Grace got a job as a secretary at a Mercedes dealership, rented a small apartment in Studio City, and raised her kids on her own with no help from her mother who had moved back to France after leaving Les when Grace was seven, and with little help from Les who was busy supporting his series of wives and the children he fathered with them.

Grace’s children are now twenty-two and twenty, and both are attending college courtesy of Les. Grace works thirty-hours-a-week in a bookstore in Culver City and Les gives her five hundred dollars a month. And though her life has not been easy, she is an inherently positive person, empathetic and thoughtful and warm.

Ten minutes into breakfast, Les looks at his cell phone and says, “Shit. I have to be in Century City yesterday.”

And in the next moment, he’s out the door.

Grace smiles shyly at Bernard and says, “That was unconvincing.”

“I dislike cell phones,” says Bernard, glad Les is gone. “So many people use them to tinker with the truth. Have you noticed? More coffee?”

“I’m fine,” says Grace, who is also glad her father is gone. “At least regarding coffee.”

“What about regarding everything else?” asks Bernard, sad to think of such a delightful person being alone in the world.

“I’m actually pretty okay regarding everything else, too,” she says, liking Bernard’s directness. “It’s true I’m not very good at making money, but I’m happy most of the time, glad to be alive.”

“Les says you’re lonely,” says Bernard, sighing in sympathy.

“I’ve never not been lonely,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Maybe before my mother left I wasn’t lonely, but I can’t remember that far back.”

“You were lonely living with your kids?” asks Bernard, frowning. “Lonely for what, do you think?”

“A soul mate,” she says simply. “I’ve never had one. Or even a soul friend.”

“I’ve heard of soul mates,” says Bernard, getting up to make more coffee. “I think they’re found in the same eco-systems as unicorns.”

“You’ve never had one either?” says Grace, gazing in wonder at him. “That surprises me. You’re such a sweet person.”

“Me?” says Bernard, pointing at himself. “Sweet? I’m a caustic old narcissist.”

“Oh honey,” says Grace, her eyes sparkling. “I’ve known a hundred world-class best-in-show narcissists, and not one of them would ever admit to being a narcissist.”

“I was quoting my two ex-wives and several former friends,” says Bernard, filling the coffee maker with water. “But maybe I’m not a narcissist. Maybe I’m just a selfish egotist.”

“Why do you say you’re selfish?” asks Grace, smiling curiously. “A selfish person wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sharing his house with the middle-aged daughter of his annoying old friend. Just because you take care of yourself doesn’t mean you’re selfish. Why conflate self-love with selfishness?”

Pondering this, Bernard realizes he loves looking at Grace, loves her voice, loves her mind, loves the cadence of her speech, and loves her desire to go below the surface of things. Yes, he is attracted to her sexually, but far transcendent of this attraction, he wants to be her friend.

Four days after Grace moves into Bernard’s second bedroom, formerly his office, Bernard and Julia Sapperstein are in Bernard’s living room, Julia playing the piano and slaughtering the high notes of their song, working title ‘So Why Don’t You Call Me Anymore?’ while Bernard sits on the sofa cringing.

At which moment, Grace comes home from working at the bookstore, looking smart in a long gray skirt and billowy turquoise blouse. Bernard introduces Grace to Julia, Grace heads for her bedroom, and Bernard forestalls her exit by saying, “Grace? Would you be up for singing the song Julia and I are working on? The high notes elude us.”

“Sure,” says Grace, smiling at Julia. “Just let me change out of my bookstore uniform into something less constricting.”

When Grace is out of earshot, Julia glares at Bernard and whisper-shouts, “You didn’t say she was gorgeous. And why did you ask her to sing our song?”

“Because she has a great voice,” says Bernard, speaking quietly. “She was a pro before she had kids. Wouldn’t you like to hear a pro sing our song?”

“Are you fucking her?” asks Julie, squinting angrily at Bernard.

“No,” says Bernard, admitting to himself that the only thing he really likes about Julia is having sex with her.

Grace returns in jeans and a sweatshirt, goes to the piano, stands beside Julia and sings the words from the sheet music as Julia plays—Grace’s voice so fine, she makes the not-very-original song sound fabulous.

“Wow,” says Julia, smiling red-faced at Grace. “That was great. Will you sing on our demo?”

“Sure,” says Grace, sauntering into the kitchen and putting a kettle on for tea. “Would you like a little feedback about your song?”

“Please,” says Bernard, nodding eagerly. “You made it sound positively Bacharachian.”

“What are you, a mind reader?” says Grace, frowning at Bernard. “Because what I was thinking was… the melody is pretty close to ‘The Look of Love’ and you might want to modify…”

“Not true,” says Julia, defiantly folding her arms. “Just because it reminds you of that song doesn’t mean it sounds like that song.”

“You’re right,” says Grace, regretting saying anything about the song. “Lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“The melody isn’t even close to ‘The Look of Love’” says Julia, glaring hatefully at Grace. “That’s just how you sang it. The actual notes are not what you sang.”

“I’m sorry,” says Grace, looking away. “I’m out of practice. Sorry.”

“I have to go,” says Julia, snatching the music off the piano and grabbing her purse and stalking to the door.

“Julia, wait,” says Bernard, following her out the now open front door.

He catches up to her at her car where she turns on him and growls, “Why didn’t you say something when she accused me of plagiarism?”

“Us,” says Bernard, never having seen or imagined this side of Julia. “You and I both wrote the song.”

I wrote the melody!” shouts Julia. “You wrote the words. She didn’t say you stole the words from Hal David. She said I stole the melody from Burt Bacharach.”

“She didn’t say that,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “She said the melodies were similar, which they are. So what? As you said, lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“I didn’t say that, she did,” says Julia, opening her car door. “And I will never come here again as long as she lives here. You’re a shit, Bernie. A total shit.”

“I beg to differ,” says Bernard, pained by this sad demise of his relationship with Julia. “I just wanted to hear someone with a good voice sing our song. And I thought it was beautiful. And on that note, I think we should end our collaboration.”

“You used me,” says Julia, getting into her car. “You used me until you could ensnare somebody younger.”

“First of all, she’s not younger than you,” says Bernard, his sorrow changing to anger. “Second of all, I have not ensnared her. Third of all, you and I used each other as good lovers will, and you know it. And finally of all, I wish you well, Julia. I really do.”

Two weeks into Grace’s residency in the House of Bernard, after sharing Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine, Grace and Bernard retire to the living room and Grace accompanies herself on Bernard’s grand piano and sings for him—Bernard sitting on the sofa and thinking I’ve died and gone to heaven.

When Grace finishes her song, Bernard gapes at her. “You wrote that?”

“Yeah,” she says, nodding and laughing and blushing.

“When?” he asks, astounded by her voice and her tender love song.

“Just… in the last few days. Whenever you weren’t here.”

“God, Grace, it’s fantastic. There were a few lines that could use a little syllabic massaging, but otherwise it’s stunning.”

“I was hoping you’d help me with the lyrics,” she says, smiling shyly. “I mean… I think it would be fun to write songs with you.”

“I think so, too,” says Bernard, the back of his neck tingling. “There’s only one small problem. You’re about fifty thousand times more talented than I am.”

“That’s not true,” she says, playing a series of eloquent chords. “You’re a wizard with words.”

Three weeks into Grace’s residency, Bernard and Grace throw a little party on a Saturday night, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, for about twenty people, mostly Bernard’s friends, but a few of Grace’s bookstore pals, too, the highlight of the evening Grace performing the two songs she’s written with Bernard since coming to live with him.

Bernard introduces Grace’s performance by standing at the piano and saying to the assembled guests, “You’ll all be relieved to know I will not be singing tonight, not audibly. I contributed a little bit in the way of lyric tampering on the first song Grace will sing while accompanying herself on piano, and I wrote a good many of the lyrics of the second song Grace will sing accompanying herself on guitar. As you know, I made a good deal of money from a song I wrote shortly after emerging from puberty, but I can say without a doubt that the musical high point of my life has been collaborating with Grace on these songs.”

While Grace enthralls the guests, Bernard stands in the kitchen, singing along in a whisper and deciding to continue his collaboration with David, and possibly with Alida Schultz on their sitcom The Chess Club, and with Grace, of course, but to end his other collaborations and henceforth focus on quality not quantity.

Karl Sharansky is ninety-one and lives with Maureen, his attendant and cook, in an elegant apartment on the eleventh floor of a twenty-two story apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Maureen is seventy-four, Irish, and loves working for Karl. He naps prodigiously, eats two meals a day, and is a funny affable person with no end of money from the chain of do-it-yourself car washes he started in the 1960s.

Not owning a car, Bernard takes a cab from Santa Monica to Karl’s apartment on Wilshire, and over a delicious shrimp salad in Karl’s dining room, Bernard has to shout to be heard because Karl forgot to put in his hearing aids and keeps squinting at Bernard and saying, “Come again, Bernie?”

Hearing Bernard shouting, Maureen hurries into the dining room with Karl’s hearing aids, pops them into Karl’s ears, and disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.

“Say again,” says Karl, smiling at Bernard. “You’ve taken up mouse skating and smoking cigars? Never heard of mouse skating. Is that a thing you do with a computer mouse? So many new things all the time now. Who can keep track? Of course I know all about smoking cigars, but what is mouse skating?”

“No, I have a housemate now,” says Bernard, laughing. “And she plays the guitar and sings like an angel. She’s the daughter of an old friend.”

Karls sighs. “All my old friends are dead now. Well, not Maury Klein, but he might as well be dead. Stares into space all day. God only knows what he’s thinking about. If I ever get like that, shoot me. Please.”

“So…” says Bernard, relieved to be able to speak at a normal volume, “I brought the latest draft of our movie. I think you’ll like it, Karl.”

“You already made the changes I suggested?” says Karl, frowning gravely. “So fast?”

“Two weeks is not so fast,” says Bernard, deciding now is the time to end his collaboration with Karl and just be his friend. “My new housemate happens to be a blazing fast typist full of good ideas, and she helped me with this final draft. Oh, and I decided to set the story in present-day Los Angeles instead of in the 1950s.”

“Present-day?” says Karl, wrinkling his nose. “With talking computers and smart phones and cars that drive themselves? Why?”

“It works better this way,” says Bernard, nodding assuredly. “After lunch I’ll read it to you.”

“I have a better idea,” says Karl, winking at Bernard. “Sonny’s coming over to meet you and we’ll hand him the script together. You put in the deli scene? When Ruth tells Maurice she’s leaving him?”

“I put it in,” says Bernard, laughing. “It’s a scream.”

“Of course it’s a scream,” says Karl, laughing with him. “We’re comic geniuses.”

Bernard and Karl are having coffee and cookies in the living room with Richard Sharansky AKA Sonny, when Karl has to go to the bathroom and leaves Bernard alone with Richard.

“Karl pay you to write this script?” asks Richard, fixing Bernard with a steely gaze. “How much?”

“He paid me in lunches and coffee and cookies,” says Bernard, smiling at Richard. “I understand why you would think I might be taking advantage, but I’m not. I’ve known Karl for thirty-five years. I had a small talent agency long ago and represented his granddaughter Sophie, who would be, I think, your aunt.”

Richard taps the script on the coffee table and says, “Three things. This any good? Can you send me a PDF? What’s your arrangement with Karl?”

“The script is better than good,” says Bernard, appreciating Richard’s candor. “Yes, I can send you a PDF. Our deal is fifty-fifty. Shall I send you a copy of our contract?”

“Yes, please,” says Richard, handing Bernard a business card. “What’s the pitch?”

“A charming but shy young woman and her delightfully droll gay friend decide to open a bakery. To do so, they enlist the help and money of their grandparents, a snobby British guy and an ironic French lesbian. Chaos ensues, genders are bent, love conquers all.”

“I like it,” says Richard, whipping out his cell phone. “Repeat that.”

Bernard recites the pitch again for Richard to record, and this time Richard laughs.

“When the agent laughs, good things follow,” says Bernard, knowing very well he may never see or hear from Richard again, but relishing the moment.

“Who said that?” asks Richard, liking Bernard despite his tendency not to like anyone.

“I did,” says Bernard, getting up to go. “I’ll send you that PDF as soon as I get back to command headquarters in Santa Monica, and then I’ll alert the sentries to be on the lookout for the Brinks truck.”

“It’s all he talks about,” says Richard, laughing as he shakes Bernard’s hand. “The movie he’s writing with Bernie.”

On the one-month anniversary of Grace living with Bernard, two days before Bernard is scheduled to leave for Oregon, Bernard and Grace go out for Thai food, and Bernard invites Grace to continue living with him. She accepts with tears in her eyes and asks if she can count on staying for at least another few months and would it be okay for her kids to come stay with her now and then.

“Yes, of course,” says Bernard, clinking his glass of beer with her glass of wine. “Mi casa es su casa.”

“Tu,” she says, smiling at him. “We’ve lived together for a month now, Bernie. You can use the familiar. Not that you couldn’t have from the get go.”

“Is that what that is?” says Bernard, clinking his glass to her glass once more. “Tu es familiar. Mi casa es tu casa.”

“Gracias,” she says, smiling brightly. “I’m so grateful to you, Bernie. I feel like… I feel like I’m standing on solid ground for the first time in… forever.”

“I’m glad,” he says, taking a deep breath. “While I’m shaking in my shoes about going to Oregon. Every five minutes I think about calling Mason and cancelling, but… I don’t know. I want to go, but I’m afraid to go.” He looks away, ashamed of himself. “Last night I woke up in such a panic, I thought I was having a heart attack. It’s stupid, I know, but… I haven’t left LA in thirty years, and only a few times before that. I feel like an idiot, but… well, I’ll figure it out.”

“What are you afraid of?” she asks gently. “Or what do you think you’re afraid of?”

“Oh… dying,” he says, looking at her and laughing anxiously. “What else is there to be afraid of?”

She thinks for a moment. “Would you like me to come with you?”

Startled by her suggestion, Bernard says, “Would you like to come with me?”

“Yeah,” she says, eagerly. “I haven’t been out of LA since… forever.”

“And here the one thing I was not feeling anxious about was leaving my house unattended because you were gonna be there,” says Bernard, giddy with happiness. “And now you’re coming with me.”

“Is that an invitation?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Sort of sounded like one.”

“Yes,” he says, nodding humbly. “I would very much like you to come with me.”

They leave Santa Monica in their zippy blue rental car at five in the morning to beat the craziness on the freeways, and when they are an hour north of Paso Robles on Highway 101, Bernard driving and Grace gazing out the window at the passing beauty, they feel themselves leaving the gravitational pull of Los Angeles; and they turn to each other and exchange looks of excitement and wonder.

During a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Redding, Grace studies maps of California and Oregon and suggests they take Highway 299 from Redding to Arcata and make the rest of the trip to Yachats, Oregon via the coast.

“I love the idea of getting off the freeway,” says Bernard, taking a deep breath to quell his anxiety. “But what if the car breaks down? How will we survive out there in the middle of nowhere?”

“Maybe we won’t,” says Grace, slowly shaking her head. “But at least we’ll die together.”

“And believe it or not,” says Bernie, gesturing for the waiter to bring the check, “that’s a great comfort to me.”

“To me, too,” says Grace, gazing lovingly at him. “How about I drive for a while?”

Moments after they head west on Highway 299, where the four-lane road becomes two lanes, they feel they have entered a whole new world.

“This is fantastic,” says Bernard, gazing ahead in wonder as the road carries them up through the foothills into the mountains. “I love this. So much.”

“Me, too,” says Grace, her heart pounding. “And we’ve barely started.”

 ∆

Elated from their long drive from Redding through the spectacular mountain range to the coast, they have supper at a Mexican restaurant in Crescent City, after which they go to the Ocean View Inn to get rooms for the night, another seven hours of driving awaiting them on the morrow.

At the check-in desk, a friendly young woman wearing granny glasses says, “Just the two of you? No pets? Non-smoking? I’ve got one room left with a view of the beach, but there’s only a queen in that one. If you want a king and don’t need a view, I’ve got three of those available.”

“We’re getting two rooms,” says Bernard, smiling at the young woman.

She looks from Bernard to Grace and back to Bernard. “I’ve got a room with two queens. Eighty dollars less than getting two rooms.”

“What do you think?” says Bernie, turning to Grace.

“Up to you,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder.

“No,” he says, blushing at her touch. “I want you to decide.”

     fin

Captain Fantastic

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Vito & Todd

Vito & Todd photo by Marcia

“We may divide thinkers into those who think for themselves, and those who think through others. The latter are the rule, and the former the exception.” Arthur Schopenhauer

As the inauguration of Trump fast approaches, many frightened Americans talk of moving to Canada, in much the same way frightened Americans spoke of moving abroad when George Bush became President. But Canada and other safe haven countries only want us these days if we are wealthy or possessed of highly desirable technological skills. Thus we common folk must consider other responses to the new regime.

One vision of a response to the madness currently gripping and deforming American life is the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, a California writer, director, and actor who lives in Berkeley. I mention where he lives because I seriously doubt that a writer/director living in Los Angeles could have written a screenplay as far outside the Hollywood box as Captain Fantastic. That Ross also raised millions of dollars to make this fairly outrageous movie and was able to land a distribution deal resulting in the film turning a profit is nothing short of miraculous.

I will not spoil the film by recounting the plot, but I will say that Captain Fantastic bears some resemblance to the excellent 2003 American film Off the Map, and the dreamy Swiss/Italian 2014 film The Wonders. All three films involve adult couples seeking to live independently of the dominant capitalist paradigm, and each of these movies focuses on the children of those seekers as they collide with the outside world.

I found Captain Fantastic by turns funny and sad and disturbing and uplifting and maddening and deeply moving; and twice during the movie I had to get up and go outside to catch my breath and calm down, but not because the film is violent; it is not, thankfully. Marcia and I have been talking about the movie for several days now, and that alone makes Captain Fantastic a rare American film for us.

Meanwhile, here in the so-called real world, we are facing a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court poised to wreak havoc on our already inadequate healthcare system, dismantle Social Security, remove constraints on industrial pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and enact laws to benefit the wealthy and further punish the beleaguered lower and middle classes as defined by income and assets. These same dangerous people are anti-women, anti-minority, anti-peace, and anti-anybody other than white Christians. And that is why so many people are afraid, and why so many people wish they could leave the country.

“There are three kinds of economist. Those who can count and those who can’t.” Eddie George

I am currently writing a new screenplay, having recently rewritten an old one for a director in Canada. I had not immersed myself in the screenplay form for more than a decade, and the rewrite got those juices flowing again. And though the odds of getting a movie made of anything I write are not quite as good as the odds of winning the national lottery, should I ever buy a ticket, I do enjoy the screenplay form and love imagining the scenes I write coming to life.

Yesterday, under the influence of Captain Fantastic, I read what I’ve written so far of my new screenplay and thought: I wonder if I’m writing this story in lieu of trying to flee the country.

Speaking of fleeing the country, it was recently reported in various mass media outlets that Ford Motor Company was about to spend a couple billion dollars opening a new plant in Mexico. Then President-elect Trump bellowed at Ford for being un-American, Ford cancelled the Mexico plant, and instead says they would invest 700 million dollars in upgrading a Michigan assembly plant. This would reportedly save at least 700 American jobs and give a much-needed boost to the Michigan economy.

Was any of this true? Maybe some of it was sort of true, but probably none of it was true. Ford Motors now says they are proceeding with plans to increase production in Mexico by enlarging their existing facilities there and not opening a new plant. Does this give us more reason to doubt Trump’s credibility? Yes. Ford Motors stated they prefer doing business in Mexico because they feel oppressed by so many federal and state regulations in America having to do with decreasing pollution and increasing safety and requiring the payment of taxes, and they are hopeful that under Trump they won’t have to worry so much about those annoying things.

So what are we common folk to make of all this? I think that henceforth we must assume anything we hear or see or read in the news (not counting really good fiction and neighborhood gossip) is probably not the whole truth, or even part of the truth. Did Donald Trump save 700 jobs in Michigan? Unlikely. Why did Obama expel dozens of Russian diplomats for something that may not have happened? We don’t know. Why are automobile manufacturers still allowed to make cars that run on gasoline? Because unregulated capitalism cares nothing about the environment.

The most popular American movies nowadays are animated films featuring animals behaving like goofy people and speaking English, live-action films set in other galaxies featuring humans with British accents, films about wizards and vampires rife with astonishingly bad dialogue, and films about impossibly strong and violent people who say very little as they run amok. Oh, yes, and films about morons and bimbos are popular, too.

Captain Fantastic is entirely about Now and full of real people dealing with the many and complicated challenges of being human. In this way, the movie reminded me of my favorite movies from the 60s and 70s, movies exploring contemporary society from the perspectives of people for whom the dominant cultural paradigms do not serve—movies about eccentrics and rebels and artists and innovators who are questing, as many of us were in those days, for ways to live healthy and meaningful lives on spaceship earth.

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2012)

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.

Robbery

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

Someone broke into our car last week while we were in Cotton Auditorium for another marvelous Symphony of the Redwoods concert, Marcia in the orchestra, I in the audience. I left our car unlocked, having lost the habit of locking up since I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley six years ago. The thief or thieves took a water bottle, a pair of dark glasses, and several CDs. They did not steal the stereo or wreck anything, but the invasion left us feeling sad and cranky. Marcia always locks her car, and I will do so henceforth, though it pains me to feel I must.

I’ve been robbed several times in the course of my life, each robbery ushering in a time of self-review. I’ve had six bicycles stolen, each theft necessitating the purchase of my subsequent mount, along with new and improved locks and chains. And because riding my bicycle was, until quite recently, my primary mode of transport, I understand very well why we used to hang horse thieves.

The grandest material theft of my life befell me two days after Christmas in 1979. I had just moved to Sacramento and was renting a house in a demilitarized zone—poverty to the south of me, wealth to the north. For the first time since childhood, and after more than a decade of living a monk’s life, materialistically speaking, I was relatively affluent. In quick order I had acquired an excellent stereo with fabulous speakers, a fancy camera, a state-of-the-art electric typewriter, and several items of new clothing, having theretofore shopped exclusively at the Salvation Army. Friends were visiting, one of whom was a professional French horn player, another a professional guitarist. We went to the movies and were gone from the house a little more than two hours.

Upon our return from Going In Style, an appropriately bittersweet comedy starring Art Carney and George Burns as elderly bank robbers, we found my front door wide open, lights blazing, the house thoroughly sacked. Gone were my friend’s one-of-a-kind French horn, my other friend’s one-of-a-kind guitar, and most of my possessions, new and old. The thieves had driven a van up onto the front lawn and backed it up to the front door. They took the beer from the refrigerator, the sheets and blankets from my bed, every last one of my newly acquired gadgets and articles of clothing, as well as my entire record collection (seventy albums or so) including nine Ray Charles albums, my favorite jazz, Ravel, Debussy, Stevie Wonder, the Sons of Champlin double album, Leon Bibb, Buffalo Springfield…everything except a Laura Nyro album left to me by a long lost girlfriend.

I immediately called the police and was informed by an extremely irritable woman that unless the thieves were still on the premises and actively stealing things, it would be two or three days before they could send anyone out to take a report. She said they were currently experiencing a tsunami of crime and the non-violent nature of what had happened to me combined with my unimpressive address made me a low priority for the overworked gendarmes. I thanked her profusely for being so compassionate and understanding, but my tone must have betrayed my dismay, because her last words to me were, “Hey, it could have been worse.”

“True,” I replied, though she had already hung up. “They might have taken my piano, too, if only it wasn’t so heavy.”

In my life review that followed such a thorough erasure of my physical assets, my first thought was that the robbery was a clear sign I should not have moved to Sacramento and that I should quickly change course and move to Mendocino, which is where I really wanted to live. But I did not love myself well enough to heed that intuitive wisdom, and so I stayed in Sacramento for fifteen years, bought a house, married, divorced, gave up the house, and finally fled to Berkeley where more bikes were stolen and more self-reviews pointed me to Mendocino, though I would wait another eleven years before finally trusting the wisdom of that recurrent impulse.

Not that I regret the twenty-six-year delay. What is done is done. Regret is a venomous leech, so rip that sucker off and get on with things. Right? We rob ourselves by dwelling in self-pity, just as we rob ourselves by not expressing our feelings—happy or sad or angry. We rob ourselves by staying in rotten relationships and rotten jobs. And that, I think, has always been the greatest gift of being robbed—a wake up call, a reminder to discover and expel those parts of our lives that are self-robberies, self-swindles, self-sabotage.

Betrayal is another kind of robbery. I was lifted out of my first long stint of poverty by the sale of the movie rights to my novel Inside Moves. I had long aspired to write and direct movies, and to that end I had been writing screenplays for several years, as well as writing novels and short stories and plays. The agent handling the movie sale of my novel informed me there were two offers, one from Robert Evans who had recently produced The Godfather and Chinatown and Love Story, and one from Stephen Friedman who had recently produced The Last Picture Show. I was told that Friedman was offering twenty-five thousand dollars more, but the agents advised me to take the offer from Evans because they said he had a much better chance of getting the movie produced.

And I said to the charming agent handling the deal, “I just want to remind you that I very much want to write the screenplay of my novel. Is that a possibility?”

“No,” she said, laughing delightfully. “Bob has some big names in mind for that. Let’s get the movie made and then we’ll see about getting you some screenwriting gigs.”

Since I had yet to learn anything about the true nature of the movie business, I agreed to the deal with Bob Evans, and he did, indeed, hire the now-famous Barry Levinson and Barry’s then-wife Valerie Curtin to write the screenplay for Inside Moves. But then Evans dropped the project and it was relegated to limbo for a couple years. I subsequently published a second novel, Forgotten Impulses, and one of my suitors for the movie rights to that tome was the same Stephen Friedman. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with him, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m still angry that you didn’t go with us on Inside Moves, especially since we offered you more money and the screenwriting gig.”

“But (name of agent) never told me you offered me the screenwriting gig.”

“Fuckin’ agents,” he said, scowling. “I told her you were born to write that screenplay.”

Hilariously naïve, I went directly from my meeting with Friedman to the agency representing me wherein dwelt the beautiful woman who was my official representative in Hollywood, and when I informed her of what Friedman had told me, she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, that’s true. He did want you to write the screenplay, but we thought it would be better for the project to go with Evans.”

“But…so…you lied to me.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, her voice dropping to a husky whisper. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that in this town. Things are far more complicated than you realize. This business is all about relationships and the balance of power.”

A few weeks later, I was informed that I had been assigned to another agent in the esteemed agency representing me, another charming woman who “totally got” my yen to establish myself as a screenwriter; and to that end she encouraged me to write treatments for the movies I wanted to write. A treatment is a thorough synopsis of a movie’s plot accompanied by detailed descriptions of the characters, with snippets of scenes and samples of dialogue. I wrote a dozen of these cinematic treatises for her over the next few years, virtual novellas, and at least one of them caught the eye of a powerful producer at Tri-Star. My enthusiastic agent called me from a celebratory lunch with that producer at the Beverly Hills Hotel to let me know a lucrative deal was imminent, after which I never heard from her again. However, a few weeks after her exuberant phone call, I was informed I was being shifted to yet another agent at the esteemed agency representing me.

Then a year or so after that, I went to see a new comedy from Tri-Star with my friend Bob, and about five minutes into the film, I realized we were watching a movie based entirely on my treatment, down to the minute details of the characters I’d invented, the content and order of the scenes, and much of the dialogue. There were, of course, things in the film I had not imagined, but for the most part the movie stayed remarkably faithful to my treatment. I knew well enough by then there was no way I could prove the theft and win any sort of settlement, though the story and characters were entirely mine, which knowledge simply added to myriad other sad and discouraging things I had learned and was learning about the big money end of American culture. I felt robbed, yes, but this time I also felt stupid for having trusted Lucy yet again to not pull the football away, so to speak, right before I was about to kick a winning field goal.

I am currently reading The Horse’s Mouth, a wonderful novel about an artist, a painter, a truly gone cat, his art more important to him than anything else, even friendship. And he is forever coming to the conclusion that everything that happens to him—everything that has ever happened to him—is not only the result of his own actions, but precisely what he requires to continue evolving as an artist.

Bums At A Grave

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The first movie I remember seeing at a movie theatre was The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, Basil Rathbone, and the very young Angela Lansbury. 1955. I was six years old. As we left the Park Theatre in Menlo Park, California, I distinctly recall turning to my mother and announcing that I was going to be a movie star like Danny Kaye. To which she replied, “Don’t be silly.”

Three years later, 1958, my parents took me to see Alec Guinness in The Horse’s Mouth, after which I proclaimed, “That’s what I’m going to be. An artist and live on a boat.” To which my father, a psychiatrist, replied, “Just what we need, another narcissistic sociopath.”

Both The Court Jester and The Horse’s Mouth have stood the test of time for me. I’ve seen them several times in the intervening fifty years, and I still consider The Horse’s Mouth to be one of the very best depictions of a person who cares more for his art than for anyone or anything else.

When I was nine, Willy Mays supplanted Danny and Alec as my supreme mentor and hero, and led me off my artist’s path into the glory of baseball and eventually basketball, my twin obsessions until late high school when I was felled by what the western medical doctors called a hot case of ankyllosing spondilitis, which ailment cut short my dreams of athletic glory, returned me full steam to writing and music and drama, and shortly thereafter saved me from going to fight in Vietnam.

When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I knew what I wanted to be: a professional writer, actor, and musician—Danny Kaye and Alec Guinness rolled into one.

Despite a thousand setbacks and highly annoying poverty, I held to this vision of myself, worked day and night at my writing and music, and at twenty-eight was rewarded by having my first novel published and made into a major motion picture. A year after that, I published my second novel, and Warner Brother paid me to write the screenplay for Laura Ziskin, famous most recently as the producer of the Spiderman franchise.

And though by the age of thirty I hadn’t made buckets of money, I had made a goodly chunk of change, so I decided to make a little film of my own to prove to myself and others that I had the chops to offer myself as a director of my own movies. This, of course, was in the days before digital anything, when making a good-looking movie, even in sixteen-millimeter film, was extremely expensive; and so was born my truly minimalist fifteen-minute fictive film entitled Bums At A Grave.

Within a year of completing the film, my career, so bright and promising (in commercial terms) had collapsed. Bums At A Grave became but a reel of celluloid in a canister that lay on my dusty shelf for nearly thirty years. And then a few weeks ago, at the urging of several old friends who remembered the movie and wanted to see it again, I had the film transferred to DVD in a good lab in San Francisco.

Seeing Bums At A Grave for the first time in twenty-eight years was a fascinating walk down memory lane for me. I wrote the script in 1979 when I was living in Santa Cruz, California. The film is set in 1933 during the Great Depression, and seems remarkably predictive of Now. We filmed it in the summer of 1980 shortly after I moved to Sacramento—a two-day shoot in 105-degree heat near Grass Valley. Richard Simpson was the cinematographer and editor, Doug Peckham handled sound, Bob Smith produced, Patty Nolan was continuity person and assistant-to-everyone, my brother Steve starred as Willy, and I co-starred as Trevor.

For years prior to the Bums shoot, I studied movies in search of filming techniques that particularly pleased me. This meant I had to go to movies multiple times, since VHS technology had barely been born and DVDs were not yet a glimmering in the eye of the future. I did not and do not like quick cutting from one scene to another. I very much enjoy action within a still frame, slow tracking shots, and a slowly pivoting camera on a tripod. No handheld shots, please!

Thus when I wrote the script for Bums At A Grave, I intentionally minimized the need for edits while creating setups for active and changing points of view. This not only made for more pleasing cinema, it saved money in those days when even 16 mm shooting and editing was expensive.

For instance: characters at a distance can move (in the course of a scene) to the forefront of the frame where a slow zoom to a close-up can add up to three or four “scenelets” in a single take without the need for an edit.

Bums At A Grave screened at the 1980 Filmex film festival in Los Angeles for an audience of 1200 hardcore film buffs and movie biz folks. They loved the film, laughed uproariously at the Republican joke (Reagan our brand new president in 1980), and gave us a rousing ovation at the end. While we were in LA, we screened the film for Laura Ziskin, and to my everlasting delight Laura pronounced, “Your agents are missing the boat with you. They should be pushing you as a director.”

But life, as the poets say, intervened and I took another road in the opposite direction of Hollywood. Today, at last, you can see scenes from Bums At A Grave on Youtube. Turn up the volume and have some fun. Or view the entire fifteen minutes of Bums At A Grave, Admission Free, at Underthetablebooks.com.