There was an awkward moment of silence as they continued to hold hands. Mike let go and said, “Do you feel like walking? It’s a beautiful night.”
She was studying his face. She smiled up at him. “Okay,” she said. “I can’t imagine sitting still right now.”
“I don’t blame you. After that reception.”
They started walking downtown.
“Come on. The audience went crazy.”
“Except my sister. But that’s probably a good sign.”
“I think I saw her in there. She looks like you but shorter. With brown hair and a squint?”
“Is it permanent?”
“Just the squint. I think she’s planning to try green hair next.”
They walked along, south on Broadway towards the Park.“I saw what happened with Todd,” he said after a while.
She turned her head. “You know Todd?”
“I’ve played tennis with him. He cheats.”
“That’s perfect. When they stick him in a retirement home he’ll find a way to cheat at shuffleboard.”
“He tried to follow you. He almost jumped me. It was weird. I actually wanted him to.”
“No, you don’t want to fight with Todd. That’s a bad idea.”
“You did all right.”
“Well, tonight maybe.”
“But tonight was good. Pushing him into the fountain – “
“He fell. It was an accident.”
“But you have to admit – it was good.”
“Yeah.” She smiled down at the sidewalk.
They walked several blocks in silence.
They were perfectly alone on the crowded sidewalk. That was the city’s gift. In the country it would be dark and lonely; in a small town everyone would be gossiping already. The city kept you company and left you alone at the same time. It made Columbus Circle an intimate spot, perfect for secrets. Mike had a few, but he wasn’t sure how to tell them. His story was bizarre, even to him. And this was the strangest part of all, walking the teeming streets of his newly humbled home town with this extraordinary woman, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. But he knew the truth: he was balancing something infinitely fragile on the end of a stick.
So he was quietly memorizing it all: the feel of his shirt against his back the smells of exhaust and the exhausted foliage of Central Park carried on the East wind; the buildings looming above them, the lights on, the cleaning crews working in the empty offices, the lines of cars, the jostling cabs, and the woman beside him, looking dangerously gorgeous in a short black dress and sandals, her dirty blond hair tousled by the wind and a necklace dangling three diamonds connected by a thin chain from her collar bone toward the scooped neckline of her dress. The material was so thin you could feel every movement of her body through the silk. Her head came to his shoulder; she was taller than Janet; her body fit with his. She looked up suddenly and caught him watching her. But she just smiled.
“I was at that party,” she said, as they crossed the broad avenue, heading for the Park. “The other night. When that woman cornered you.”
Mike shook himself out of his reverie. That incident came back sharply. He hadn’t been aware that anyone had overheard his tongue-lashing. He shrugged. “A lot of what she said turned out to be true.”
“So you did read some history, after all.”
“I was afraid I might run into her again.”
“She was horrible. And she didn’t see you at Ground Zero.”
“What? How did you - ?”
“My friends and I managed peek over the wall for a few seconds. Before they chased us away.”
“But I wasn’t – I was just there. I wasn’t doing anything special.”
“Yes you were.”
They walked on, south on Sixth Avenue and east on Fifty-Seventh Street. Somewhere near Carnegie Hall, Rachel took his hand. Her fingers were chilled.
“I feel like I’ve known you all my life,” he said finally. “I know that sounds odd. But it’s like we went to High School together. And I’m happy to say you haven’t changed a bit. Except your hair.”
“You have to cut it when you turn thirty. It’s an important life ritual. Kind of like shaving off that horrible mustache if you’re a guy.”
Mike laughed. “How did you know about the horrible mustache?”
“Maybe I’m psychic, like my friend Emily.”
“Oh her, right. What did she say about me?”
“That you’d like this dress.”
“Incredible! How could she guess a thing like that?”
Rachel turned away a little, deflecting the compliment.
“And she said – a long time ago, before we shot Escapade - she said … you’d stand up for me when no one else did.”
“Well, I got fired over that script.”
“No, seriously. I did.”
“What happened? What did you do?”
“I was working at Fox, in the story department. I loved the script and my boss hated it, so I went over her head. You’re not supposed to do that.”
“Oh God. Fox. So your boss was Elaine Littleton.”
“Friend of yours?”
“Not really, I kind of hate her, actually. I just – ugh.”
“Well, join the club. No I mean it, there really is a club. We meet twice a month and talk trash about her. Sometimes we stick little pins in this doll we made of her. Or we just make prank calls. You haven’t lived until you’ve woken Elaine up at three A.M to ask if she has Prince Albert in a can.”
“It sounds like fun.”
“You should come to the next meeting. We’re putting together an official accounting of the grosses of all the hit movies she’s rejected over the years. Oh yeah – and egging her house.”
“Could we put a ‘Kick Me’ sign on her back? And tie her shoe laces together?”
They crossed Central Park South, dodging between the horse carriages, and stood jogging as the light changed. They paused in front of The Plaza and she caught him staring at her.
“What?,” she said.
He hesitated; then just said it.
“I, well … I don’t know. I’m finding this kind of hard to believe. That I’m just walking down the street with you. I‘m finding the street itself a little hard to believe. It’s much improved, tonight. It’s like the place I grew up in again. My Mom used to take me to the Oak Room every Saturday for lunch. We’d have cream of chicken soup and talk about literature. She liked the Oak Room because people left her alone when she was there. She always used to tell me, ‘It’s not what you do. It’s who you do it with.’ I’m sure that applies to walking in Manhattan on a night like this.”
“What kind of night is that?”
“Mild, breezy, humid.”
She smiled. “What else?”
“I don’t know. Sad? Victorious? And implausible. Definitely implausible.”
“But the walking is nice.”
“It is. I’m just nervous.”
“You’re doing okay, so far.”
“Yeah. Our strides match. That’s important.”
“I hate people who dawdle along.”
They walked another block.
“Can I ask you a question?,” he said finally.
It might be hard to answer.”
“All good questions are hard to answer. Have you noticed that? Whenever someone being interviewed says ‘that’s a good question,’ the next thing they always say is, they don’t know the answer. Which they obviously hate. They say, ‘Good question, Ted,’ but they don’t mean it. They’re not really complimenting the guy. They’re just stalling for time.”
Mike let the words run out and let their steps press her nervousness into the sidewalk.
“Anyway,” he said after they had crossed another street.
“I’ve read your scripts and your articles, I’ve seen your movie, and your short film; I’ve finally met you, we’ve been talking. And I’ve got to say, I just don’t get it. It doesn’t add up. Sorry.”
“Todd Richter. What was someone like you doing with Todd Richter?”
Rachel looked down. “Good question, Ted.”
“No. I don’t mind. I had lots of reasons. Some of them make sense and some of them don’t. He certainly wasn’t my type. Maybe it had something to do with the guys who were my type. I wound up kind of hating them all. Like the guy I left when I came to L.A. His name was Malcolm Ocverberry. He was at the screening tonight. I don’t know, he meant well. He wanted to be ‘giving’ and ‘supportive’ and sensitive. But our main topic of discussion wound up being his ‘needs’. That’s a horrible word. You can’t help whining when you say it. ‘I have needs. What about my needs?’ A little of that goes a long way, believe me.” She shivered a little. “Malcolm and his needs. He was like a cucumber you left in the fridge too long. Kind of soft and slimy. At least Todd was solid. He knew what he wanted and he took it. He wanted me and and took me and I liked it. I know that’s not politically correct.”
“So he made you happy?”
“No. Well, I don’t know. Sometimes. It’s complicated. He was so totally encased in his world view. It was like armor. He clanked when he walked. But it was sad, also. You felt he had never really managed to … I don’t know. He was a frustrated artist. He had … yearnings, I guess, not that he’d ever admit it. So he lashed out and he made me feel bad, but he also … you know what it was like? It was like the crowd on the subway at rush hour.”
“I’m not sure I really - ”
“No, this actually makes sense. You have the old Chinese man and his wife sitting next to the dozing wino and the Haitian grandmother with her three little boys bothering the friendly Hasids and the dangerous-looking guy in the kung-fu uniform with tattooed forearms who just made room for the Dalton girls being ogled by the five Puerto Rican kids in cut-off t-shirts and the business men in rumpled summer-weight suits glancing past their Wall Street Journals while trying to ignore the Rasta couple making out under the graffiti covered subway map, pissing off the two huge black ladies in print dresses reading The Watch Tower magazine. That kind of jumble. I’d feel hurt and embarrassed and angry and resentful and powerless and dim-witted and also excited and challenged and hot for him and eager to impress him and sad that I couldn’t change him and certain that I could and it all added up to just love basically. Like all those different people are just an average bunch of New Yorkers, heading home on the IRT.”
She caught her breath. They both laughed.
“But he’s mean,” Mike said. “He was running you down that day at Conklin’s house. It sounded like he thought your writing sucked and he just wanted to show you off in a string bikini.”
Rachel crossed her arms against her chest and squeezed. “That was bad. I never wore that thing again. I felt like I was in a Maxim photo shoot. We had a huge fight about it. But I couldn’t … It was like, something sharp and crisp in me just turned to pulp whenever he was around. It was like trying to keep crackers fresh at the beach.”
He smiled at the image, then kept pushing. “But you stayed.”
“I liked it, some part of me liked it.”
“I don’t know. Maybe … you want the standard answer? My Dad was an asshole and that was my first relationship and I’m just trying to duplicate it. Right? That’s what a shrink would say.”
“Right - it’s familiar. So it’s comfortable. Supposedly.”
“I guess it makes sense. But I hate being that person. That girl on Oprah blaming her parents for her drug habit.”
“You have a drug habit?”
“No, no, no. I mean … well, does coffee count?”
“Anyway, my Dad and I worked things out a long time ago. We get along fine now. And that’s all so irritating, anyway, that whole idea. It’s a cheat. And it makes you look so puny. I have no free will. I’m just this creature my mother and father built.”
“That’s not what happens though. If you’re fucked up. You’re the person your parents wrecked. Wrecking stuff is easy. I can’t build a watch but I can make sure the one I’m wearing never tells the right time again. Just give me a chisel.”
“I don’t know, Mike. I don’t think it’s that easy to wreck people. Kids are pretty durable. Some people are just jerks. Take someone like Jeffrey Dahmer. It was so sad – his father wrote his mea culpa memoir, like he had to be the worst Dad in the world. But I don’t buy it. Some people are born autistic, or with fingers missing, or whatever. Dahmer was born crazy. Like those Columbine kids. I heard someone was suing the families. As if those kind of creepy monsters are the result of bad parenting.”
“Well … I think the point they were making is, if your kids are blowing up pipe bombs in the basement you should probably pay a little attention to that at some point, before they start actually slaughtering their classmates.”
“Okay, sure, I know - but what I mean is … ” She laughed. “Actually I have no idea what I mean. I don’t even remember what I was trying to say.”
“Right. It was just … he always seemed so shrewd. Like he knew me so well.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s always easier to believe an insult.”
“What you need is someone just as shrewd and believable who thinks you’re fantastic.”
She glanced up at him. He gave a small bow. “I volunteer.” He sensed her hesitation; he’d gone too far, said too much. He looked away. “I know. This is where you say, ‘You can’t feel this way about me, you don’t even know me.’
“And Robert Mitchum says, ‘Women always say that and it completely misses the point. The question isn’t ‘Do you know this person well enough to convince her that you’re qualified to love her?’ The question is: ‘Do you want to know her?’ Look - we start off in life and we know nobody. But we choose the people we want to know. We make those decisions somehow. So the only question that matters is - do you want to know me? Because I want to know you. Badly.”
Mike was amazed. “You saw that movie?”
“Solomon’s Seal. William Wyler. 1948. I love that movie. I own the script.”
“My grandfather wrote it.”
They looked at each other.
“He was a great writer,” Mike said.
“You’re not so bad yourself. I read your letter in the L.A. Times.”
“I was a little crazy that day.”
“We all were.”
“So how about the question? Do you want to know me?”
She said nothing, she just looked up at him as long as she could and then she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. He felt her mouth on his with an actual shudder of pleasure. The kiss went on and on. He could feel it behind his knees, in the soles of his feet. He pressed her to him and they kissed and kissed on that patch of sidewalk as buses and cabs grumbled by, and people passing on the sidewalk rolled their eyes or smiled or just looked down and paid no attention.
When it was over, Rachel said:
“I know you.”
They started walking again, through the garment district and Chelsea, always downtown. She told him about her Uncle Ray and what he had done on September 11th. She told him about her sisters and her parents. He talked about his crazy family. They had both spent most of their childhoods in New York, gone to schools that socialized and played basketball against each other, gone to the same movies and Broadway shows, eaten in the same restaurants and never crossed each others’ paths. They had friends in common, a business in common; it seemed like a spurious, ill-considered waste of time that they hadn’t met before. They had so much to catch up on now, so much to talk about, that it silenced them both; eventually they just walked south and absorbed the noise of the city and felt the sweet dirty air of their childhoods on their faces.
“Are we really doing this?,” she asked him.
“Well, judging from that kiss … ”
“But, it might have been a fluke.”
“So am I.”
“We should double check.”
He nodded. “That would be the sensible thing to do.”
So he pulled her into the vestibule of a discount electronics store and kissed her again, a thirsty feral kiss that instantly slithered out of control. For a second he was sure she was going to flinch away from him and clobber him just like Amy Silberling, the first girl he had ever kissed (in the Pharaoh’s tomb at the Metropolitan Museum, in the seventh grade). But Rachel returned the kiss just as hard. They stood flexed against each other, wrapped around each other, the dark glass alcove, surrounded by boom boxes and video games.
They pulled apart, out of breath, staring at each other, wild-eyed in the gloom.
“I loved your movie,” he said.
They both laughed.
“Do you always say the perfect thing?”
“No. Not really. Not until now.”
She stroked his cheek. “Maybe you just weren’t talking to the right people.”
“Maybe. Listen, I want to buy your movie for Paramount Periscope.”
“Mike – “
“I mean it. I want to pay you a million dollars and two percent of the gross. Does that sound fair?”
“You only paid Jim half a million.”
“Your movie’s better. Don’t tell Jim, but it’s true. What the hell – tell him. He knows anyway. It’s a career maker for both of us.”
“It this how it works? I don’t even have an agent right now.”
“Wasn’t that Sam Rasmussen I saw you walking with tonight? If he’s your lawyer you don’t need an agent.”
“Wait a second, though. Paramount already passed.”
“I know, but it’s okay. Periscope is so small and under-funded, they don’t care what we do.”
“But it is great! They leave us alone, we can do whatever we want. This is so strange. I was going to quit a few weeks ago. I’m so glad I didn’t. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to.”
“Do you believe in that stuff? Destiny and all that?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes. Tonight I do.”
He took her hand as they walked south along the western edge of Greenwich Village. At Eleventh and Hudson they paused in front of the White Horse.
“Dylan Thomas drank himself to death here,” Mike said.
“Yeah. And they let him do it.”
“They must have thought he was indestructible.”
“Listen, can we go in and get a drink? I want to tell you something and it might take a while.”
She cocked her head quizzically. He took her arm. “Let’s sit down.”
It was crowded and noisy inside. People were wedged three deep against the big wood and glass bar, but the kitchen was closed and there was an empty table near the juke-box. Mike ordered an Iron Horse stout; Rachel got a Kir. When the drinks were in front of them he said, “I’ve been wanting to tell this story for a long time. It’s been on my mind a lot lately. But there’s no one I can trust with it. The story is just too good to sit on - it would get out somehow. People blab. They can’t help themselves. But this is a secret and it’s not even my secret, that’s the real problem. But I want to do this. And if you really do want to know me, it could help.”
“Did you do something wrong?”
“I don’t know. That’s the point. That’s what I want you to tell me. Was I wrong or right? Did I win or lose? Was I smart or stupid? I just don’t know. But I have all these two word phrases running around in my head. Was I Top Dog? Did I Bottom Out? Was I Red Hot or Stone Cold? Big Time or Small Potatoes? Old School or New Age? Hard Core or Soft Serve?”
Rachel laughed. “Soft serve?”
He shrugged. ”Whatever. The point is I still have zero perspective on it.”
Rachel took another sip and pushed her glass aside. “Tell me what happened.”
“Well, let’s see … I blew the opportunity of a lifetime, trashed the careers of my two best friends, punched Douglas Troy and wrecked a movie at a total cost to the studio of something like forty million dollars.”
Rachel laughed. “That’s all?”
“Hey, I’m only one man. And I’m exaggerating. My friends are doing fine. The only career I really trashed was my own.”
“I heard about this. I read about it.”
“Yeah, well, I was famous for a while. My fifteen minutes. My problem is I hate bullies. I’ve had to deal with too many of them in my life. I let them push me around as a kid. So now I go into attack dog mode. Which can be dumb. They say bullies are all cowards and weaklings, but trust me, it’s not true. It’s like that old line, ‘Don’t worry, the rattle-snake is more afraid of you than you are of him’. Grown-ups loved to say stuff like that when I was a kid. What they didn’t say is the rattlesnake shows his fear by biting your ankle and pumping lethal venom into your leg and killing you.”
Rachel drank some more Kir. The noise and chatter of the bar settled around them. The jukebox was playing In the Mood.
“Start from the beginning,” she said.
Mike set his palms against the edge of the table and tilted his chair back.
“The beginning. My friend Bill Terhune sneaked onto the Warners lot, found Douglas Troy in the commissary and pitched him this script Jim had written. A father-son time travel thing called Unfinished Business. Did you ever read it?”
“Jim is pretty secretive about his screenwriting.”
“It’s a good script. Bill knew Troy would love it: he gets to play the alcoholic Dad who saves his son and redeems himself. There’s a couple of good speeches. He gets to nail the girl and beat up a bunch of young guys. Tailor made. Bill actually had the script with him. He made some joke about being prepared and it turned out they’d both been Boy Scouts. Is that perfect? So they chat and compare merit badges and the next thing you know Jim and I are driving out to Burbank to meet with the studio people and the stars. It was wild. One minute we’re two losers drinking coffee and bitching about Hollywood on my little deck with the glamour view of the Buick dealership on Westwood Boulevard. Then Bill calls. I guess it makes sense. My Dad used to say things happen fast or they don’t happen at all.” He took another gulp of his stout. “They tried to push us around at the meeting. But Troy stuck up for us. Bill was ecstatic but I could tell it didn’t have anything to do with creative solidarity or any of that stuff. Troy just gets a kick out of humiliating studio executives. Which I understand, believe me. Still … ”
“You said ‘stars’. Who else was there?”
Mike stared at her. “Good question. Let me just say this first. My family goes back a long way in Hollywood. You know my grandfather, obviously. My Dad’s a producer. And my Mom … well, everybody knows my Mom. Okay … this is a little weird. In 1951 a producer named Buck Haigley gave my Grandfather’s name to the House Un-american Activities Committee. The two of them had worked together. They’d never been friends, but this was especially nasty. Thirty years later his son Jack was starring in a movie with my Mom. My Dad produced it.”
“I know this part of the story. Jack and your Mom fell in love on the set.”
“And they got married and had a kid and Jack made her quit acting. And my Dad never recovered.”
“She really quit the business, just because Jack Haigley told her to?”
“Hey - it was paragraph seven in a twenty page pre-nup Actually, it wasn’t so bad for my Mom. My Dad was so obsessed with her career, agonizing over every contract and analyzing every review, badgering directors for extra close-ups and complaining about the lighting on her – to Conrad Hall, for chrissake. I think she liked the idea of a man who didn’t care about any of that. It was a relief. Besides, she had a son to raise.”
Rachel nodded. “Rick Haigley. I guess I should swoon or something.”
“Come on. He’s so cute.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. Whenever I wanted a girl, he got her, or if he neglected to get her right away he made sure he stole her as soon as he could. He had kind of a hectic schedule, so it took a couple of weeks sometimes. But he always got around to it eventually. Just for fun. Fortunately I only had to deal with him during the summers. I lived here with my Dad most of the time. He was two years older than me but he looked twenty five when I was fifteen. He was bigger and stronger than I was. He almost drowned me in the swimming pool once. It started out as a game: I had to get out of the pool before he could swim to the deep end. I almost made it, but he caught my ankle and dragged me back in. I blacked out under water. They had to give me CPR.”
“He was a wild kid. He stole cars and totaled them. He’d do head-on crashes with his friends and let the airbags inflate. He told me it was a better rush than coke. He wanted me to try it.”
“No, I never shop-lifted or went gay-bashing in West Hollywood with him, either.”
“He sounds horrible.”
“He was evil. He liked doing bad things just because they were bad. He certainly didn’t need to shop-lift. He had a thousand dollar a week allowance. But he was charismatic, even then. You wanted him to like you. You wanted him to think you were cool. Anyway. You asked about the other stars at the meeting. There was just him. It turns out Troy wanted him for the son. I hadn’t seen Rick since my mother’s funeral, so it was kind of a shock.” He sighed. “Anyway, that’s me and Rick: three generations of bullshit. Maybe our kids will patch it up. If we ever have any.” He finished his beer and leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “I’m getting sidetracked here. I want to tell you about Troy. My Dad used to call big movie stars like him ‘necessary monsters’. I can vouch for that now. He did a lot of awful things and it just got worse and worse. The first thing was, he made me fire an assistant because she brought him the wrong coffee.”
“How was it wrong?”
“Every way. It wasn’t the brand he liked, it was made in a drip machine. There was skim milk in it instead of cream.”
“So he made you fire her?”
“How could he do that?”
“Easy. I gave her a month’s severance pay and a letter of recommendation. For what it was worth.”
“I’m sure it was worth something.”
“Maybe. Troy made her introduce herself, and told her she’d never working Hollywood again. But I don’t think he has the attention span to carry out a threat like that. So she’s probably safe. I’m going to make a point of hiring her some time. So let’s see … the next person to go was the DP, Rafe DeMarco.” Rachel’s face bunched up for a second as if she was downwind from an open sewer line. She caught herself; raised her eyebrows and tried a smile.
“You know him?,” Mike asked.
“I fired him, too.”
“Well he’s kind of a jerk, but he’s brilliant. And he became pretty good friends with Jim. He even offered to work on a movie if Jim ever made one. At the time I thought it was bullshit, but I saw his name in the Promiscuity credits. So he’s loyal anyway. Troy had some grudge against him, so that was that. What else? He refused to test with his co-star and then refused to work with her when he saw the first day’s rushes. So we had to re-cast the part on location. That was fun. There’s more. Oh yeah, his limo was late one day so he tried to set the Sherry Netherland hotel on fire. He probably figured the arson investigator would just ask for his autograph and leave him alone. That’s what happened with the cop who was giving him a speeding ticket ion the FDR. That’s an insane way to live. No wonder he’s crazy.”
Rachel took his hand across the table. “How did you deal with it?”
“Let me see. I would say I used the ancient Shao-Lin monastery technique of totally fucking everything up. I started with appeasement. Maybe I was supposed to stick with that.”
“The Neville Chamberlain approach.”
“Well, the Winston Churchill approach turned out to be worse. But then again, he had the two biggest countries in the world on his side, not to mention the prose style and the cigars. I had nothing. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t expect anything. First-time producer versus major movie star. Who was going to take my side in a fight like that?”
“I was supposed to have ordered identical trailers for Rick and Douglas Troy. But Troy’s was six inches shorter and one day he decided he wasn’t coming out until I had gotten Rick to switch. Rick is a car freak. He obsesses over RVs. He must have been bragging. Between that and the girls who mobbed the shoot screaming for Rick and ignoring him, Troy was fuming.”
“So what did you do?”
“I begged. But begging is never enough with Rick. There was some stuff of mine he’d always wanted, and he made me trade. I drove into the city to get the stuff, comic book stuff, some signed issues and original art that he’d always coveted. Driving back out to the Bronx that afternoon I felt like the worst was over. But I was just kidding myself.”
He ordered another round and Rachel got up to feed the juke-box. She chose a Dave Brubeck set: Polly, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Take Five. Mike went to the bathroom and when he came back some guy in a narrow-lapelled jacket and a t-shirt was leaning over with one hand on the table, talking to Rachel. He had a dense, perfectly trimmed beard and there was wiry hair on the back of his hand. Rachel smiled and tilted her head in Mike’s direction. The guy looked up and pushed off. Mike watched him make his way back to his friends at the bar.
“I told him my hot-tempered husband was coming back in a second. You scared him off.” She blushed at his look and said to the table, “Well, it sounded more authoritative than ‘my grouchy boyfriend.’”
“Don’t worry. It sounds good to me. Even ‘grouchy boyfriend’ sounds good. I could have been the ‘moody new acquaintance.’ Or, at the bottom of the pile, the ‘grumpy stranger.’”
She laughed. “No, no, it could be worse. How about the ‘cranky stalker’?”
“Yeah. Or the ‘petulant serial rapist’”.
“Okay, that’s far enough. You got me. Now sit down and tell me the rest of the story.”
He hooked out his seat and took a first sip of his stout.
“I found out what was going on from the continuity woman on the picture. She’s a nice lady. No one had ever seen her angry until that morning and she’s been working in this business for twenty years. That morning we were shooting in front on this Off-Track Betting parlor on Broadway and 94th Street - ”
“Wait a second. When was this exactly?”
“What? It was – hold on a second. Sometime in September, ’98. Late September. Almost exactly three years ago now. Why?”
“I was living there. My apartment was right around the corner. I watched that shoot. I probably saw you and never even knew it. That is so weird. I almost applied to be an extra. That was part of what made me decide to go to L.A. I realized I wanted to make movies, not watch other people make them.”
He smiled. “Good decision.”
“The best ever. Until recently.”
“You’re fishing, Gersh. Just tell me the story.”
“Right. Well this woman, her name was Emily Culhane, she had a huge fight with Troy and walked off the shoot. She came to my hotel that night to explain. It was late, I was asleep, she was banging on thedoor. I pulled on a bathrobe and let her in. I got her a glass of water and she told me that Troy had been forcing all these different women to show him their breasts. Just … flash him on demand. A girl from craft services was the first one. She wanted to be an actress. She was terrified. He actually touched her to ‘make sure they were real.’”
“I had no idea how to handle it. It turns out he had done it to a lot of girls, including Kate Adair, who was starring in the picture. Apparently this had been going on since the first day. Emily had decided to stay out of it. But he cornered her, too. She refused. He threatened her and she still refused. Then she ran away. You see, she was a beast cancer survivor. She had recently undergone a double mastectomy. Her husband had left her when she was diagnosed so … no one had seen her since the operation.”
Rachel shivered. “Mike, this is – “
“You know my Mom died of breast cancer. So that was it for me. I confronted Troy in his trailer the next day. I told him to apologize. I told him to sign a notarized statement promising that this bullshit would stop. Of course he refused. I told him I’d fire him unless he signed.”
“Oh, Mike! You said that?”
“I told him him we could re-shoot his scenes in less than a month. It would go fast with a professional actor on the job. He told me I couldn’t fire him because he was going to quit. He was going to wreck everything unless I apologized to him. On my knees. I told him he couldn’t push me around and he actually pushed. So I pushed back. Then we were fighting. We knocked things over, we were flailing at each other. Neither of us knew how to fight. He knocked the wind out of me and split my lip but I got one punch in to his throat. That ended it. I told him he was fired and walked out. There was a big crowd in the street. I said ‘Shooting is cancelled for today.’ And I left.”
“And that was it?”
“Troy never apologized?”
“He never stopped either. I’m sure he’s still doing it. But not on my movie. Because there was no movie, after he quit.”
“There must have been something you could do.”
“Well, there was one thing. I knew that if I could get Rick to stay on the picture we could re-cast the father. There’d be delays and expenses but we could go on. The problem was, that meant going to Rick and begging again.”
“But you did it, didn’t you? You had to do it.”
“I did it. He was staying in my mother’s old apartment on 65th Street. He was on the phone with his agent when I got there. He took his time getting off the phone. He was brutal. I’ll never forget the ;last thing he said to me that afternoon. ‘I’ll give you one piece of free advice before I go, Mr. Producer. When you know which actor is the bankable one? Don’t give him the short trailer.’”
“Ugh. What a jerk.”
“That would be a polite way to put it. But I was stupid to expect anything else. I’ve known him all my life.”
He finished off his stout and put a twenty on the table. “Let’s get out of here.”
Back on the street, in the mild gritty breeze, Mike said, “Christ, I feel like I’ve been talking all night.”
“It was less than an hour, actually. And it was interesting.”
“So, what’s the verdict? Did I fuck up? Was I Quixote and the windmill? David and Goliath? Or just some homeless guy throwing candy wrappers at Donald Trump?”
“Well, those aren’t great analogies. The windmill wasn’t animate. And I don’t want to sound mean, but David actually beat Goliath, didn’t he? As for the homeless guy, I don’t know. Most of them would throw at empty bottle of Thunderbird.”
They crossed Eighth Street and started walking east. “If winning means standing up to Troy and telling him the truth about himself, and sticking up for those women,” she said, “then I guess you won, sort of. But you didn’t really get through to him and he never showed a moment of remorse and you did wreck the movie and put everyone out of a job. So, I don’t know. Maybe it was a Pyrrhic victory.”
“That sounds good. I guess. Where does that phrase come from, anyway?”
“Pyrrhus. He was a Greek general who beat the Romans. But he lost most of his army and was badly wounded and his village was sacked … I don’t know all the details. It was bad, though. And supposedly he said, ‘One more such victory and Pyrrhus is undone.’”
“I know the feeling.”
The Village was crowded. The usual wsteel drum bands, classical trios musicians, gangs of transvestites, guys offering fliers for massage parlors saying “Check it out” to everyone who passed were conspicuously absent. The café tables on the sidewalk were mostly empty. The place was in mourning, you could feel it. And Rachel was pulling away from him a little. There were omissions in his story? Had she sensed that? Rachel was watching him as they walked, dodging past a man with a Bernese Mountain dog on the leash, and a kid in baggy jeans on a skateboard. She was assessing him, adding things up. The phrase ‘do the math’ came to mind; this suddenly felt like a tax audit.
They were walking down MacDougal Street beside Washington Square Park, when she finally spoke.
“Jim tells me you’re married.”
He decided to deflect her. “No,” he said. “I’m divorced.”
“An hour ago.”
“No I mean it.”
“Well, there’s still some paperwork to do, but not much because as far as I’m concerned she can have everything.”
“No, I’m serious, Mike. I was listening to that whole story and you never mentioned your wife’s name once and I mean she must have had something to do with your life while this was going on. You chose not to tell her about Emily Culhane for some reason and she’s the first person you’d expect to tell. She must have freaked when you blew your career out of the water, but you didn’t say a word. It’s like she’s a non-person. If it was really over you’d have talked about her in the past tense. You’d have joked about her the way Jim jokes about his ex-wife. He talks about his marriage all the time. But you don’t. So … what is this? What are we doing here? I’d really like to know because it’s starting to feel a little weird.”
He struggled for an answer, knowing he had had to say the right thing. Only the perfect words could rescue this moment. They walked on in silence. There was a siren somewhere, cut off suddenly. They must have gotten to the scene of the accident. Time was running out. He had to say something.
“Rachel – “
“No, it’s like you really are a stalker or something. You’re following me around, keeping track of my movements, reading all my stuff, manufacturing this idea of me. You are. You’re a stalker.”
“That’s ridiculous. I don’t follow you around. We keep turning up in the same places. Which makes perfect sense. You make films and I buy them, so we both go to film festivals. I’m not following you to the Laundromat. I’m running into you at a screening. Besides, people only get stalked after a relationship. You can’t pre-stalk someone.”
“Yes you can. That’s what celebrity stalkers do all the time.”
“Right. But you’re not a celebrity.”
“I am to you. That’s the whole point. I’m the perfect thing: your own special private home-made celebrity to stalk. Oh God – hold on a second. That was you on the phone. You’re the producer guy who called Stacey’s apartment looking for me. Aren’t you?”
“I wanted to talk to you about Sabotage.”
“How did you get that script?”
“Elaine Littleton gave it to me the day I got fired. Since I was such fan. She was just going to throw it out otherwise. Which is studio policy and totally sucks, by the way. Listen, can we talk about that script for a second? It might help you understand what’s going on, and – “
“I think I understand it just fine.”
“But you don’t even know me? Remember? Let me explain this. There is an explanation, Rachel. And it’s the thing I wanted to tell you the most, anyway. Come on. It won’t take long.”
She took a breath and let it out. “All right.”
“Good, okay, let’s start from the beginning. At first when I read Escapade I wished I knew you, but I was glad I didn’t, too, because writers are never as wonderful as their characters. It’s always a disappointment, or, I don‘t know. It’s supposed to be. I was thinking about that sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay -- ”
“You read Millay?”
“Sure, doesn’t everyone?”
“No. Almost nobody does.”
“Well, I think she’s great. She says somewhere, I might not have this perfect, ‘Oh, friend, forget not, when you note in me a beauty that was never mine, how first you knew me in a book I wrote; how first you loved me for a written line.’ She was writing that to a lover, though, so it must have worked out all right. I mean – that guy wasn’t disappointed. Then I was leaving Travis Conklin’s house, I had just given him the Escapade script and Todd Richter’s girlfriend drove up. I saw her hands on the steering wheel – your hands - and a flash of your hair and I thought I would love to know a woman who drives like that. That dry skid was just so cool. I was almost in love right then and there. I knew it was absurd, but my marriage was so bad at that point … I used to kid myself that I could fall in love with the picture of Aunt Jemima on the pancake box.
“Anyway, after I got fired, I took Sabotage and read it at night. I hid it from my wife – from Janet. That’s her name. I say it in front of you just to prove I can say her name in front of you. Janet. I felt like I was cheating on her, just reading it. The script has problems in the third act, I wanted to talk to you about it, that was why I called, but I thought it was great. And there was this one moment, between Meitner and Nicole’s father, after the Seder, when he says - ”
“Abolish your life.”
“Yeah. But he goes on, he says, ‘There is no compromise between the way you’re living and the things you want.’ That stuck with me. I looked at my life and it added up to zero. It was like I’d made this long elaborate trip, from being a kid: ‘growing up’, which sounded so special and great. For years, everything I wanted to do was for grown-ups only: red wine, sex, Academy screenings. And driving, of course – that was the big one. Then suddenly I arrived, I was married I had a car and a wine rack and a condo in Westwood and it was nothing. It was just this shabby stupid prison I’d built for myself like those Japanese prisoner of war camps in the jungle where there were no fences because there was nowhere to escape to. I mean … if you can imagine a Japanese POW camp with Ikea furniture and cable, where you get to shop at Fred Segal’s and eat out a lot.”
She smiled. That was progress.
“So then I saw you in the street in Park City and I had no idea who you were and I just fell madly in love at first sight with this total stranger.”
“I wanted to talk to you. But you drove away.”
“I peeled out. Are you kidding? I was married and this was just too strange. I was falling in love with every woman I saw. With parts of women – those hands on the steering wheel. Then I watched Development Hell and you stood up to talk and I realized the girl in the street was the director of that short and she was Todd Richter’s girlfriend, which meant she was the girl in the car, and the girl who wrote Sabotage, and the Sour Grapes column. All the girls. All the women. You were all the women, Rachel. Then I saw you at the party … ”
“I saw you too. I loved it that you bought Jim’s film. And the way you did it, quoting Mahogany. I sort of love that movie. ‘In that case, mister – you got my vote!’ I know it’s corny but I love it anyway.”
“’Success doesn’t mean anything unless you have someone to share it with you.’”
“And actually, I’ve found that failure isn’t anywhere near as satisfying if you’re alone, either.”
He had her smiling again.
“Why did you leave the party?,” she asked.
“I was chicken. That look was too intense. But halfway back to Conklin’s place I decided to take a quick shower and go back and finally meet you. I don’t know what I had in mind, but when I got back to Deer Valley Janet was waiting for me. She had flown in as a surprise. She had no idea what a surprising night it almost turned into.”
“Did you have a good time?”
“I faked an orgasm. For the first time ever.”
“I thought only women did that.”
“Yeah – that’s why men get away with it.”
They had turned back north and were walking uptown on Fifth Avenue now, between the big slumbering prewar apartment buildings. “Before I left Los Angeles,” Mike went on, “we had a huge fight. It was kind of – the last fight. I don’t if Jim’s told you about the deal he has going with Bill Terhune – “
“Just some hints.”
“Well, it’s a big foreign financing arrangement, like creating a mini-studio. Jim wanted me to be part of it. Janet hit the roof, she just lost it. She hates Hollywood anyway, the risks and the sleaziness of it - but there’s another side there. I mean, good movies get made. That’s a fact. Last year I saw Three Kings, Fight Club and American Beauty in one weekend. Okay, that was unusual. Obviously it’s hard to make a good movie. But this was our chance to do it, without the Elaine Littletons of the world getting in the way. Janet thinks it’s a pipe-dream. I’m delusional, Jim is dumb and Terhune is a con artist. Etcetera. So I told Jim no. Then, tonight I was looking the one sheet for Escapade outside Alice Tully Hall and that was it – that was the answer I didn’t have with Janet. She’s wrong, because despite having no money and the creepy agent boyfriend working against you and being rejected everywhere, somehow you got that movie made. That’s the proof of everything I’ve been saying to her for years. This is possible. This can be done. You just have to be stubborn.”
“I had a lot of help.”
“Well, that’s what I want to do. I want to help you make more movies like Escapade, better than Escapade; as good as Sabotage and better than that, even. Lots of movies, a whole career’s worth.”
“Can you give me a new ending for Sabotage?”
“No. But I’ll know it when I see it. Which could be helpful.”
They were crossing 14th Street. The light changed and they had run the last few steps ahead of the traffic. Rachel took his hand as they sprinted to the curb. She was still holding it when they slowed to a walk again. It was a thrill; much more so than he first time. That had been a flirtation.
This was a reprieve.
“I guess you still want to know - why didn’t I mention Janet,” he said after a while. “I didn’t want her here. I didn’t want her to be part of this night.”
“There really wasn’t much chance of that.”
“No, but … I figured if I could keep her out of it, I’d just go back to L.A. and sign what I had to sign and listen to what I had to listen to and walk away and never have to trouble you with her at all. She’d just be a mistake from a different lifetime. Something to talk about in the past tense. To joke about, like Jim. Because that’s the real truth. No matter what happens or doesn’t happen between you and me. I can’t go back to that now. I’m not living that way any more. It’s over.”
She squeezed his hand a little tighter.
“One more question?”
“Why didn’t you tell her about Douglas Troy?”
“I knew what she’d do. She would have gone on the rampage. She’d have called the L.A. Times and NOW and e-mail the story to all her friends and post it on all the feminist web-sites and breast cancer websites an the story would have been on Hard Copy and maybe even Dateline and ten years later there’d still be some jerk saying to Emily Culhane, “Whoa, you’re the breast cancer lady!” And I really didn’t want that. Janet wouldn’t have cared. I’m sure she would have thought Emily was lucky to strike a blow for the Cause. There were other reasons, too. I didn’t want to give Janet that big a weapon in the battle to leave Los Angeles.”
Rachel let go of his hand and took his arm in both of hers.
“I don’t think she’s the right girl for you, Mike.”
He glanced across and down at her: wide set eyes, hair scattered on the breeze, her body, light and slim, pressed against the black silk. The rush of desire he felt was so strong it blocked his throat. He was shivering as if it was cold, as if he had a fever. But the night was warm and he had never felt healthier in his life.
He finally managed to speak. “That’s exactly what my father said.”
“He sounds smart.”
“He’s great. But you’ll see for yourself. I want you to meet him tonight.”
She smiled. “Meeting the parents? Isn’t that moving a little too fast?”
“Be practical, Rachel. We should have met when we were twenty. We’re ten years behind before we even start. So the faster we move the better. Listen. My Dad is shooting tonight at Ground Zero,” he told her. “Maybe we could meet him there.”
Rachel nodded. “It’s almost morning. We could bring bagels and coffee.”
“And Danish and OJ.”
“’A wide variety of provisions.’”
“Wow. A girl who can quote William Saroyan, just like that.”
“And a guy who notices.”
They wound up filling two shopping bags with take-out coffee and baked goods and took a cab as close as they could get to the site. Mike had his laminated ID and in any case the cops on duty on Barclay and West Broadway recognized him.
“Your Dad is shooting next to the Building Four near Liberty Street,” one of them told him. They picked their way across the rubble under the acid glare of the giant work-lights. Rachel found herself crying, not just at the horror of the blasted landscape, but at the efforts she saw all around her, the men who had been working through the night, and all the other nights, the stoic struggle to put this jagged chaos into some kind of order that we could live with.
Max was quitting for the night when they found him. He and Albert Otto and Ted Killen were packing up the equipment. Several firefighters were taking a break, talking to them. They were all cold and tired and delighted at the prospect of hot coffee and food. The coffee was actually tepid but it didn’t matter. They sipped it gratefully, watching the cranes moving and the arcing fire hoses flooding the smoking pit.
They all ate quietly and while they were taking their quick meal, the lights shut off with a clang. The first pink light of dawn lit the heaped masonry and the ash-lined faces and the cross of girders that presided over the ruins. The place seemed less freakish, suddenly; less like an alien planet and more like a simple scene of human tragedy, a set of problems being acted on by the force of human will and energy. You could see the future: the site would be cleared, some memorial would be built, life would stumble on as it always did. Rachel took Mike’s hand and squeezed it. One of the firemen raised his paper cup.
“Here’s to starting over,” he said. They drank to that.
And then they began.