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JUST BEFORE DARK, Greg turned the television face to the wall. Which admittedly was childish of him, but at least he wasn't out to get anyone's attention. He was deliberately all alone on this, the first Monday in April—for the third year running, in fact. He sat at the dining room table and wrote out envelopes. He hadn't gone out all day, so as not to have to negotiate with a grown man's line of credit. He figured to avoid in the process any chance collisions with the past.
And all outside his windows, the world didn't blame him. The spring air was stopped cold in a white haze over Hollywood. He couldn't have seen a thing if he'd wanted. The sun broke through at last, like an afterthought on the lip of sundown. All of a sudden, the sky pumped up into orange and rose. Greg glanced at the big arched window, caught off guard by the colored lights—on edge, somehow, as if a tornado had started to blow out of Beverly Hills. He got up and went to the terrace, to see what it all might mean, and happened on the way to pass across the Sony's line of vision. It was then that he paused to flip it around, as if it ought to be ashamed.
Out on the terrace, he glowed like a peach in the setting sun. He ought to have known it would never rain on Oscar night. It didn't dare. At this very moment, everyone in the industry was on his way to the Music Center, and they had to know whether or not to wear their lynx, or to put the top down on the Corniche. The westering sun, Greg thought as he leaned against the balustrade, was a sign of benediction. Later on, he would say the day was rotten with signs, had anyone cared to take a look. But who had time to? One day a year, Hollywood had to make a seven o'clock curtain, so the rest of the world could watch. The city shimmered now with the air of being source and center, like Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. If anything else was fated to happen in the next few hours, a minor war or a market crash, well, that was its own hard luck. The Oscars preempted life at large.
Frankly, my dear, Greg thought, I don't give a damn.
He put an arm around the neck of the plaster sphinx and, trying to look as placid as it did, faced west to the ocean. He could have recited the winners in certain categories all the way back to the late twenties. There was a time when he had it all prepared who to thank when they gave him one of his own. Deep in his closet, he had the tuxedo he'd worn to his high school prom, and it hung at attention even now, waiting out a nomination. All of this before he failed. When he failed—didn't make it, as they said out here—he turned his back on movies once and for all. Wouldn't go, no matter what was showing. The golden age was done. In the new Hollywood, the Academy Awards had all the magic of a stockholders' meeting at ITT. Greg knew he wouldn't make a ripple, withholding his support. Neilsen wasn't gauged to register the silence on his Sony. But he stood on principle. Shoulder to shoulder with the sphinx, he tried to keep his mind on higher things.
Still, the whole thing hurt. He'd gotten fairly good at tearing his eyes from the titles in lights on theater marquees. The longing and remorse had abated some. Lately, he'd come to think he was practically cured. After all, he was only thirty-two, and he looked as if he'd settled in to look the same for twenty years—his body hard from tennis, sandy hair, and dreamy gray-green eyes with a haunting frown between. As if he were about to see things clearly, all at once. He stood five eleven and a half—in boots, six one. Got laid a couple of times a week, though rarely twice in a row. He generally came home late from the beds of strangers, because he liked to sleep sprawled out and keep his mornings to himself.
In the next ten days, he would pay out taxes on his last year's gross of twenty-four five. He even lived in a penthouse, sort of. In a building, to be sure, that had gone downhill—its common space grim as the Y, its apartments let to transients—but Hollywood Egyptian, all the same. If you shut your eyes till you got there, the eleventh floor was Grand Hotel, and Greg had the southwest quarter. With balconies off every room, and windows cookie-cut in a dozen shapes and sizes. There was ironwork and plasterwork, and an acre of Roman tile laid down wherever it would stick. All in all, he'd ended up in a reasonable life. It amazed him, therefore, still to feel the sequined taunts of Hollywood. Yet they welled up about him on Oscar night like two-bit music, till they scalded away the thick of his skin.
The doorbell called him back. He patted the rough right flank of the sphinx and turned toward the terrace doors. Ordinarily, he scarcely would have heard the bell. If he wasn't expecting someone, he didn't want to get involved. It must be the kid in 2C, bringing him up the book. As he came through into the living room, he locked the doors behind and shut out the sunset show. He was full of a sorrow cheaper than tears, but knowing it didn't diminish it any. The kid downstairs was safe. At least he had no ticket to Greg's other lives. Gary, was it? Jerry? Something with a y.
Until late last night, they were just two neighbors who met now and then in the lobby and passed the time, while they waited out the arrival of the weary, moaning elevator. For the longest time, Greg never dreamed the kid was gay. Then, two or three days ago, he asked if Greg had ever read Walden. That right there was the clue. It sounded so fucking Platonic, somehow. And Greg, who was not the reading kind, demurred as best he could. How was the kid to know he took a certain pride in not being philosophical? He liked life on the surface, and didn't need books at all. But he couldn't turn down a present either, now they'd gone so far. As he reached for the door, the name leapt into his head: Harry.
"For Christ's sake," said Edna Temple, barreling by in a housecoat and slippers, "we thought you must have died."
She didn't wait for an explanation. She padded across the foyer and left the fine points, as she often did, to Sidney Sheehan. Greg knew not to close the door just yet. He peered around at Sid, who stood in the hall and waited on ceremony.
"We blew a tube," he said pleasantly, right into the teeth of Greg's slow burn. "In the middle of Mildred Pierce." As if that was enough, he shrugged and jaunted along in Edna's wake. A shrug was by way of Sid's signature.
"Sid! Sid!" she called, to hurry him. "Greg's had to punish his television. I wonder what it did. You think it did a weewee on the carpet?"
"I told you to leave me alone," Greg bellowed, prepared to rail till he was hoarse. He cornered them standing on either side of the set, too old to pick it up and face it front again. "Of course you think you're adorable, don't you? Have a few laughs with good ole Greg. Can't you see I don't want cheering up? I told you—tomorrow morning I'll be the same as ever. You can do without me for twenty-four hours."
"But Greg," she begged him, "this is an emergency. It's got nothing to do with you. They're running these terrific clips of all the old best actresses. Can't we argue later? We already missed the bit from Kitty Foyle."
"Really? Sid said Mildred Pierce."
"Did he? Well, whatever." She shrugged, as if to dismiss a technicality. But she squinted at Sid as well, to let him know she'd go a lot further on her own. Sid lifted his chin and swallowed. The knot on his skinny tie did a little shrug.
"You're lying, aren't you? Your set's not broken at all."
"No," said Edna simply, one hand plumping the hair at the back of her head. "Besides, we got two. In case we don't agree."
"But we want to watch it in color. We have to," Sid said feelingly. Like he'd never asked a favor in his life, till now. "We'll keep it so low you won't even hear it."
He wavered, of course. He owed these two more than he ever let on. The summer before, when they landed in his life, they shook the hermit off his back. He'd had his share of lovers and amateur therapists, naturally, but not what you might call proper friends. Friends were usually people who got so close they tried to change him. But here he spent twenty, thirty hours a week with Sid and Edna, thrashing about in the madness that lay in heaps in his dining room, and he never seemed to tire of them. The rest of his life, sooner or later, put him to sleep with his eyes wide open. After so many years spent mooning in theaters, Sid and Edna began to seem like an ace in the hole of the real world.
"While you're deciding," Edna said, and reached around behind the set and snapped it on. It played to the wall without taking a breath, manic and jangled and dumb. Edna nearly disappeared, trying to reach the channel knob. She turned it to NBC with a second sight, and now they all listened to the noise of the crowd as the stars pulled up at the Music Center. An aura of arc lights and red carpet crackled in the air of Greg's apartment. It seemed the temperature itself began to rise.
"All right," Greg said, relenting fast. He crouched to the box and swiveled it round on the table, then nearly jumped away, as if the light from the tube could burn him. "But promise me this—you'll leave me out of it." He started to back up, as if to make his way to the safety of the dining room. Terrified, really, but they didn't see. They were already pulling up chairs. "Not a word about who wins," he said, "okay?" But not as if he expected much compliance. "I'm going to work on my taxes."
When he bumped up against the filigreed iron gate that divided the two rooms, he held onto the grille with both hands behind his back. The sting of failure tightened about his heart, as sharp as ever. All he had to do was flee the Oscars, and he'd be fine. And yet he was torn—caught in a fatal wish to be with the others. The part of him that still could breathe looked longingly at Sid and Edna, taking it easy a few feet off.
"Taxes," Edna sniffed ironically. "Isn't he fancy?"
"I never paid 'em," Sid said proudly.
"When I was waitressing," she said, "we never declared a tenth of what we made."
They weren't exactly talking to Greg, nor even to each other. They were more or less thinking aloud, airing their most firmly held opinion as to taxes, because taxes was what had come up. In fact, they had an opinion of everything, and kept at their fingertips every course of action ever taken, which they grabbed at the chance to tell in brief, whenever the context went their way. As if they needed to see how it sounded, now that the years had intervened. In any case, they'd taken him at his word. They sat intently, side by side, like space men bent at a radar screen. They let Greg be.
He fell back deadweight against the grille, and the gate swung in, to the high cool dark of the dining room. He did a sort of sleepwalk to the table and slumped in his chair, which tipped and rocketed on its springs. As he rode it out, the phobic state began to pass. From here on in, he thought, he'd better spend this half of April far away. He was asking for it, staying here. He could be flat on the sands of Maui even now, and still it would only be midmorning. He could hike to an inaccessible bay, where even a battery radio only picked up static. Surely a man could find the will to live without an Oscar.
Greg leaned forward across the cluttered table and drew the stack of envelopes toward him. Then he rummaged in the long drawer level with his abdomen, searching out a certain folder. He didn't hear a sound from the television, but couldn't entirely forget what was going on, since Sid and Edna were whispering madly. On the other hand, he'd done enough complaining. He took a dozen photographs out of the file, reached for his felt-tip, and began to sign. "Sincerely, Barbara Stanwyck," one after another. Then, by way of variation: "Greetings from Hollywood, Love, Barbara." The picture was a shot from Stella Dallas. Stanwyck wore a wide hat and a wide smile, one of which she was hiding behind.
It was really Edna's job that Greg was horning in on here. The division of labor was strict: She did all the ladies, Sid did all the men. Doubtless Edna would find Greg's signature work too cramped and cautious, incompatible with a name once written in lights. Greg was mostly left to the accounting work—publicity, banking, and postal rates. But not tonight. Taxes were a shade too gray and common, somehow. He needed to be in the thick of an outsize dream, whatever dream he wished. Stanwyck was just the ticket.
He'd fallen into mail order quite by chance. From the stroke of puberty on, to the day he went over the cliff at thirty, he was always shooting a movie in his head. He was his own most passionate apprentice, preparing the way for the grave and complicated artist he planned to be at twenty-five. At seventeen he took to sporting scarves indoors, with a clipboard under his arm, somewhat after the manner of a shot of Cukor on the cover of Life. In the suburbs north of Chicago, along the lake, it might have gone over as chic, but he lived too deep in the city. The wearing of berets could only mean one thing: Greg Cannon was a fairy. Tight-assed and wholly alone, he got back at the bullies and toughs for the names they called him by standing apart entirely from the animal mess of sex. He shook the immediate wilderness—high school, no money, no car—by living his real life somewhere else, in the silvery dark of a movie house.
At seventeen, Greg would have been in a state of rapture to think he would one day autograph Stanwyck's picture. He wouldn't have given a second thought to the moral dimension at all—whether or not it was right to deal in phony artifacts, purveyed to innocent rubes at six-fifty a throw. On the contrary. Until he was twenty-five, he figured a film like Stella Dallas told a brand of naked truth you couldn't find in Illinois. In his formative years, he stuck with The Late Show all night long, while down the hall his workaday family dreamed in the properly Freudian way. The studio films of the thirties and forties served him much as a liberal education was supposed to, in the sense that it gave him something to say about anything at all. Of course, his College Boards were very low, since relative clauses and algebra had never made it big at MGM. Still, Greg at seventeen would have defended the morals of himself at thirty-two, most nobly. His was an essential service, after all. There were people lost in the middle of nowhere. They needed a dose of Hollywood something terribly. Besides, who was to say the autographs he sold weren't real, if the buyers out there thought they were? To Greg, an artifact was nothing more than how it made you feel.
By the time he finished the batch of Barbara Stanwyck orders, he realized he was signing a still from another picture. He couldn't place it right away. She looked a bit the way she did in Sorry Wrong Number, lonely and trapped, except here she wasn't in bed and didn't have both hands glued to the phone. Almost without thinking, Greg's hand shot out to the folder and patted it nervously, as if to measure its thickness. The moment gave him sudden pause—to think he'd used up all of what he had of Stella Dallas. Ever since the day he sank his savings in these stacks and stacks of photographs, buying out the back room of a camera store on Sunset, he'd never yet run out of any item. He'd vaguely assumed his stock was inexhaustible, but then, he hardly could have predicted how the whole thing would snowball. At the beginning, he could do the week's business Sunday morning, over a bloody mary. Now they were sending out a hundred and fifty packages every Friday. He'd even had to liberate a shopping cart at Safeway, just to truck his orders to the post office.
"Honey," Edna said, appearing at his elbow, "we're going to faint if we don't eat. We gotta stick to a schedule, see? Sid, he can't stand fluctuation."
She nodded over her shoulder, as if to say it was out of her hands. As to dinner, she didn't appear to be after anything fancy. Greg shouldn't lift a finger. She'd rather be left to herself in the zinc-lined kitchen, where she'd root around, carte blanche, among the tins and dry goods, throwing together enough for three.
"What's this from?" he asked her suddenly, holding up the shot of Stanwyck looking raw and anxious.
"Don't she look great?" said Edna, beaming. "Like she don't fool around with love at all." They seemed to be intimates, she and Stanwyck, in matters of the heart. "And while you're at it, please get a load of the shoes. Now that's what you call high heels."
Excerpted from The Long Shot by Paul Monette. Copyright © 1981 Paul Monette. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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