Authors: Maureen O'Donnell
Thursday, March 30, 2000, 3:00 p.m.
A woman crouched behind the driver’s seat, naked under her open patent leather
trench coat. Chestnut-brown nipples, lush white belly. She smiled and parted her lapels to display a row of letters etched into her chest, bleeding:
. His name, scratched out in welts and stuttering lines of tiny red drops like dew. From the look of it, she’d used a safety pin.
My film—get her out of here. I’ve got to finish my shot list.
The StarBorn Studios car idled outside baggage claim at LAX—a Lincoln Town Car with a discreet gold studio logo, its windows tinted black. Not an SUV, like the one sent for him at LaGuardia last week, but a respectable luxury sedan.
Simon stood on the curb, his hand on the open car door. Sweat trickled down his back as a cool wave of air
conditioning breathed against his chest. “This is a passenger-load area only,” intoned a recorded voice. “Unattended vehicles will be impound-ed.”
“Get out.” He spoke to the woman, but the chauffeur’s shoulders tensed. The kid was probably sitting on a wad of twenties for
letting her in—a semi-nude woman, even a crazy one, couldn’t do much damage and might even be welcome. He doubted the studio had sent her. Not that it never dealt in flesh, but her wide-eyed stare, rimmed with green eye shadow, her teased hair, spoke more of amateur than pro. She must have seen his documentary on self-mutilation; its fans still cropped up.
Simon unslung his computer bag. Six weeks ago, he had been living on peanut butter and ramen, yet now
Hollywood conglomo-hemoth StarBorn Studios paid his travel expenses—an irony not lost on the studio, which had earned street cred and multi-culti brownie points when he’d signed on the dotted line.
Studio Hires Hollywood-Foe Director, Native American “Indie Lifer” Simon Mercer, to Direct Upcoming Feature
, a voice whispered in his ear, shivering his spine. Sunlight scorched the pavement and drained color from the palm trees, their brown-edged fans hanging still in the heat. Waiting for a breeze. Buses rumbled from the curb. Inside the StarBorn car, a dim cave of smoked glass and teen-princess R&B hits, the woman ran her palms over the leather upholstery. The cheap perfume of menthol cigarettes mixed with the grease-and-corn tang from a pair of crumpled fast-food bags.
“I’m an actress,” she said in a nasal
Midwest accent. Under her tan makeup and streaks of rouge, she had a sweet face—the type who tried out for cheerleader but never got chosen. “Your biggest fan. Please, get in. I don’t expect anything”
The burning in his stomach that had started at breakfast rose to his chest. She must have family, someone whose heart would break to see her
“I’d be perfect for your film.” Her words came in a rapid monotone spaced with deep breaths, like a child reciting a poem she had memorized. “You said you wanted someone unknown. It’s all over the Internet that you can’t find the right actress. I’m she.”
Simon started to close the car door. The woman reached for him, her wrist clinking with bracelets. What did she expect, hiding here bleeding for him to find after his cross-country plane flight?
He told the chauffeur to remove her.
“I thought you’d understand, you of all people,” she said.
The chauffeur, a chubby-faced white kid with a downy blond beard, opened the rear driver’s side door. He tapped the woman’s back, and as she shrugged him off, her coat
swung open. The color drained from Blond Beard’s face.
“Shit, lady, cover up! You’ll get me fired! Mr. Mercer, I didn’t know she—”
“Creep. Think you’re so spiritual,” she said, her eyes on Simon. “Anyone who’s been to your movies has seen your pathetic soul.”
The chauffeur lost his grip on the woman’s sleeve
as he pulled her from the car. Her flesh jiggled as she sat down hard on the asphalt, legs sprawled in the path of a passing shuttle bus. The bus driver blew his horn as the woman stood and hugged her coat closed.
“Everyone knows you post to your own fan sites. You wanted me to know you’d be here,” she yelled over her shoulder as she disappeared into the crowd.
The whole thing recalled last night, when he’d found a spider in his shaving kit and shaken it free into the bathtub. Pity warred with disgust as the insect scrabbled and slipped on the porcelain. Up until then, it had crouched in the dark, biding its time.
when the People first came out of the ground, bound in cocoons with their eyes closed and their limbs folded,
his mother used to say,
Grandmother Spider brought them fire and taught them to weave.
A nice campfire story. He had crushed the spider with a book and washed it down the drain.
It’s all over the Internet that you can’t find the right actress.
it all over the Internet that he was now a studio man after years of independence?
He got in the back seat, which was as wide as the only couch he had ever owned.
As the chauffeur signaled to pull into traffic, Simon opened the window and hung his arm out. Asphalt shed ripples of heat, the sulphurous smell of scorched rubber and oil, of tires and exhaust. A teenage couple in matching black skirts, the boy with a ferret perched on his shoulder and the girl blowing a bubble of pink chewing gum, stopped towing their luggage to wave at Simon. His car idled at the curb, blocked in, as Blond Beard cursed and turned the air conditioning higher.
As Simon shrugged off his jacket, his hand brushed a cellophane-wrapped gift basket emblazoned with the StarBorn logo. It held a bottle of Cristal champagne, a turquoise and quartz dream catcher, black racing gloves tied by a red ribbon to a toy motorcycle. He tried not to compare these things to cheap glass beads and kegs of
whiskey. No doubt Fran’s assistant had picked out everything on her lunch hour, though the card bore the exec-utive producer’s signature.
As he took out a notepad to finish the shot list, his cell phone rang.
“Simon! How was your flight?” Fran rasped in his ear. “Good? Great, great. We just love how
is going already. You’re going to love Karen in the part, she’s perfect. And you, too, of course—the studio is so honored to have a young director of your heritage on board.”
“Lucky for me it’s fashionable to be indigenous.”
Creep. You think you’re so spiritual.
“Don’t be bitter, Si. I only got involved in casting for the sake of the schedule.
“You want her to play Julia. That’s one of the leads.”
The cellophane from the gift basket prickled his arm. The teenage girl, who had a red cross drawn upside-down on her fore-head, dragged her boyfriend toward the car.
Fran’s tone sweetened. “You can’t wait too long in this business. And you can’t give up on casting and play the role your
. Don’t get me wrong, that film was a great directing effort, and you were great as the lead. If you’re interested in more acting roles, just say so.” Canine yaps sounded in the background.
The teens followed the car as it inched into traffic. Simon raised the gift basket to the window, but it was too big to fit through.
He untied the bow and handed the motorcycle gloves and gift certificates to the boy: Gucci, Ducati Motor Sports, Beverly Hills Hilton.
“I have to go,” said Fran. “Mitzi is throwing up again, and the girl is here to do my nails. Simon, did you get the gift basket?”
“I’m looking at it right now.” He leaned out to give the Cristal to the teens. “Don’t turn into a Valley girl because of this,” he told the girl.
“Don’t hang up before you get a chance to talk to Janine alone,” said Fran. “Right, Janine; are you paying attention so you can learn how to keep him happy?”
“Yes, Fran. Hi, Simon!” said Janine.
During an early phone call with the producer, he had been surprised to hear her say “Gesundheit” in response to a third pers
-on’s sneeze on the line, but his agent of six weeks had explained that producers’ assistants listened in to take notes and update their bosses’ social calendars, to get a crash course in the Hollywood deal. Few assistants got promoted, but the bigwigs no longer had to ask their minions to make lunch reservations at The Ivy or to send flowers to a star—a nod or raised eyebrow now served.
As the teens hugged and the girl blew kisses, the burning in Simon’s chest receded. They reminded him of his own high-school days over fifteen years ago—the only native Goth-punk in southeast
“I almost forgot—you’re getting everything you need for
? You sure you don’t want a personal assistant on the set? She’d wrangle the press, bring you lunch.”
“No, thanks. I’m anti-lackey.”
“Oh, and thanks for doing the film festival while you’re here. It’s good exposure.”
“I’m not doing it for you. I’m promoting
You’re such a funny man, Si! I’ll talk to Steve about getting you to do a comedy for us next. Wait’ll you see your suite; it’s the one Stallone used to ask for. You don’t get to stay in rooms like those doing indie pictures. Now we’re hoping you’ll mention
to the press at the festival.”
“Mention it in the same breath as I’m promoting a ‘fuck
Hollywood’ film. Sure.”
“Simon, I’m a fair woman. I think you know what benefits you too. We didn’t have to work preproduction around your pro
-motion schedule. All we’re asking is that you add one little thing to your dance card.” More yapping and a slammed door.
“I’ll leave you with Janine.” She put him on hold to the strains of Kenny G.
The StarBorn driver muttered as he cut off a shuttle bus. In the outside mirror, Simon watched the black-clad boy jog behind the car, waving as he clutched the ferret to his chest.
A young woman’s voice, lilted with Generation Y upspeak, took over the line.
“Simon? It’s Janine. I’m still working on getting your office done? I ordered the sound system you wanted, but I couldn’t find a non-custom-made studded . . . studded leather desk. And I checked, and there’s no such thing as a Fabergé”—she pronounced it Fab
gé—“egg with a death’s head on it. Is there something else you wanted instead?”
“It’s true,” he had told Tom last month over the phone. “No one in
L.A. will say no to your face.”
“Cancel the sound system,” he said, “and get me two wood
-en Sunkist fruit crates—no, two sawhorses with a plywood board on top, a folding chair, and a black dial telephone. Got that?” He shifted the phone to his other hand as Janine murmured over what sounded like papers rustling. “Janine. We’ve been over this. I don’t need an office, just a livable trailer on the studio lot.”
“But that would look so bad! Fran got you a suite at the Royal—”
“Thanks, Janine.” He turned the phone off and sheathed it in a duct-taped black case at his belt as the car headed for the Santa Monica freeway.
Even though I’ve lost you, I promise I will do justice to your story.
What would Tom say about him now?
levered his sunglasses on and slouched, picked at the frayed threads in the knees of his jeans. Outside in the noon-time glare, strip malls and chain restaurants gave way to theaters, luxury hotels, and boutiques with gold lettering on the windows. Sunset Boulevard was nothing like the sedate streets of Boulder, where he’d been living. Tour groups followed their guides, point-ing and waving maps as they crossed the street. Car stereos thumped out rap music.
The woman from the back seat
. . . her lost, glassy-eyed expression recalled the photos sent by a teenage girl whose letters he had answered years ago—the incident that taught him never to give a personal reply again, no matter how distressed the plea. Within a week, that girl had shown up at the editing studio with her suitcase, announced herself to the receptionist as his fiancée, and would not leave until the police came. Then there was the man who tucked love letters under Simon’s door and watched his apartment with binoculars. That ended with a restraining order. “White people,” Tom often said, “think they can get the life and the people they see on TV. The rest of us know it’s a tease.”
When the last screening of the evening ended, the film festival audience crowded into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel ballroom. The room, a restored 1920s Spanish Colonial space that dripped with fluted white molding and slender pillars, had the freeze-dried chill of vintage air
conditioning. Clouds of cologne competed with whiffs of the banquet from across the hall. Simon saw only two other brown faces, and one belonged to a waiter. The female guests, poured into backless, strapless, or ripped variations of skin-tight black, wore their hair artfully messed. The men had tans. Two women dressed as cigarette girls handed out press kits, their lipsticked mouths rounded into smiles. On a stage beneath the chandeliers, a couple with matching pink hair and facial piercings ate fire and swallowed swords. Flashbulbs strobed, sparking laughter and conversation.