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We walk across a parking lot filled with a large herd of fancy cars. A mammoth Mercedes SUV is parked beside a miniature Mercedes convertible with the top down. They look like a car cow and car calf.
"This is where the western set used to be," says JAMIE STONE, whose ancestors were named Stein. "They tore it down and turned it into a parking lot when they stopped making westerns."
"Maybe it's time they rebuilt it," I say, "now that they're making westerns again."
"Chick, forget the plural," she says. "They're making western. And we're lucky they're doing even one. I can't believe you talked them into it. Or wrote them into it. Or roped them into it."
"Lucky for me I didn't know enough not to write one. God loves a dumb country boy, you know."
"Dumb like a coyote."
"You know, I miss that old western set."
"You never even saw it."
"I miss it anyhow."
I miss lots of things I've never seen. I miss my great-great-great-ever-so-great-grandfather Jimmy Goodnight, who will be the hero of our movie. And I miss my great-great-great-ever-so-great-grandmother Revelie Goodnight, who will be our heroine. Jimmy grew up on the Texas frontier, but Revelie was Boston-bred. According to the script and history, Jimmy Goodnight invented ranching in West Texas, and so you could say he invented the cowboy as well. He even promulgated what he called the "Code of the West." After his death, Revelie cured Texas tick fever and raised their son, my great-great-great-grandfather Percy Young "Pyg" Goodnight, who carried a silver gun made by Tiffany. I miss Jimmy Goodnight's great Home Ranch, which has long since been broken up and sold off. I miss Jimmy andRevelie and Pyg and the Home Ranch and the real Old West and the unreal Old West sets in Hollywood. I miss the values. So I am going to try to bring all that back to life as a movie.
I'm glad I'm making my first movie with Jamie Stone, who is about five seven, blond, green-eyed, and as many have told her too pretty to be a director. It isn't just that I like most of the movies she has directed. It is more that I feel totally relaxed with her. When I am with her, the constant tremor in my hands doesn't stop, but at least it slows down. I wonder why I feel so comfortable with Jamie. And I feel comfortable with no one man, woman, or child.
It has been that way ever since I met Jamie that first time, at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, for breakfast. Even before the eggs arrived, I knew she was going to direct my movie. Of course, she said she was going to direct a movie based on a recent bestseller, but I somehow knew she wouldn't. I didn't try to sell myself or my movie. I knew I didn't have to. I even praised the bestseller and asked lots of questions about how she was going to translate it to the screen. But I already knew for sure that that movie had better start looking for another director. How had I known? I wish I knew.
After our breakfast together, Jamie went home, finished reading my book, and that very afternoon formally committed to directing my movie. The book, a biography of my family's founding father, Old Goodnight, was something I managed to write while holding down a job as a reporter for The Washington Post. I worked on it on my days off and whenever the city editor wasn't looking. I was surprised when Hollywood started calling. What piqued the moviemakers' interest it turned out were the parallels between Jimmy Goodnight's story and the legend of King Arthur. Something that had always fascinated me, too. When Paramount bought the book, I quit my job at the Post in order to try to write the screenplay, which was a lot harder than I expected. When I showed the results of my efforts to Jamie, she probably had second thoughts about agreeing to be my director. Anyway, that was the day she informed me that most screenplays are not written in the past tense. We decided to start all over and write the script together.
We still haven't finished the screenplay, but I am already on my way to meet the Paramount casting director. I can't believe it and yet I'm not surprised at all. I wonder what casting will be like. Will the pretty actresses want to sleep with me in order to get a job? No, of course not. Hollywood has outgrown that cliché. The studio is so big that it takes us almost ten minutes to walk from our office on the west side of the lot all the way to the administration building on the east side.
"That's it," says Jamie.
The boss building looks like the set of a movie about Henry VIII. It is faux Tudor, with white stucco walls crisscrossed by dark wooden half-timbers. My sense of well-being, of relaxation, of comfort, begins to evaporate. Now I am going to have to meet and talk to other people. Entering the casting office, a suite of two rooms, one large and the other small, another cow and calf, I can feel my mouth going as dry as West Texas.
"Chick, meet Marion Douglas," says Jamie. "She's a legend."
"You're tall," says MARION DOUGLAS, who is short and plain. "Nobody told me you were going to be tall."
I am just under six six with curly red hair.
"Oh," I say nervously.
Reaching out with a damp, trembling hand, I clasp her dry, firm hand. Of course hers is firm because, as a casting director, she has met thousands of other people, thousands of strangers. If she really is a legend, she might have met millions. She has gotten used to strangers. Having grown up in the small town of Spur, Texas, where I knew everybody, I am afraid I never will. Why don't other people notice how frightening strangers are? It isn't just that they might be dangerous; it is more that they make me feel so insignificant. I have never heard of them, and they have never heard of me. I am an amoeba in an ocean of strangers.
"Otherwise, I've heard great things about you," says Marion.
"Me too," I mumble uneasily.
Okay, I know I am lying, but I suspect she's lying, too. So we're even, aren't we? But I realize she is a better liar than I am.
"Everybody on the lot is very excited about your movie," Marion says.
All right, she is a much better liar than I am.
"That's good news," I fumble.
"Let's all sit down," Marion says.
In an unfamiliar room, I never know where to sit. Uncertain, I watch as Marion lowers herself into a well-padded chair and Jamie drops onto a couch and crosses her pretty legs. I wonder: Should I sit by Jamie or take the other chair? It seems an important decision. Fortunately, Jamie pats the cushion beside her. Grateful, I rush to join her on the couch, and exhale.
"I've got two stacks of pictures for you," Marion says. Bending forward, she picks them up from the coffee table, one in each hand. One stack is much thicker than the other. "These are the girls who can act," she says, shaking the smaller stack. "And these" she shakes the bigger stack "are the girls for your esteemed producer."
"What?" I ask.
"Don't ask," says Marion. "We'll start seeing people tomorrow, okay?"
As we walk back across the parking lot the great car corral I am still shaking my head.
"Is she serious about the girls for Buddy?" I ask.
"I'm afraid so," Jamie says. "I hope you're not too shocked."
"But I thought that was just a Hollywood myth. Or only happened in the old days. Or, I dunno, was some outmoded cliché."
"There's a lot of truth in clichés. Not that I recommend them to a writer. I guess Buddy's something of a throwback. I'm sure plenty of people think I had to sleep with him to get this job. Nothing I can do about that."
I am surprised to find myself getting prudishly angry. "You mean the casting department is pimping for Buddy Dale?"
"I guess that's one way to look at it," Jamie says. "Of course, unfortunately for them, those girls are going to make the ultimate sacrifice in vain. Like the poor Johnny Rebs at Gettysburg. He's just gonna mow them down."
"We should warn them."
"I know what, we'll hire a plane to skywrite up and down the beach."
"This isn't funny."
"See, Chick, I know from your book that you expect people to have codes. Not everybody does."Copyright ©2006 by Aaron Latham
I go home to my cousin, the daughter of my father's baby brother, Uncle Johnny. She lives in an apartment that resembles a television set. It is a single-room box with one glass wall facing the lights of Los Angeles. This box is perched on the side of a hill in Laurel Canyon: It has a multimillion-dollar view for Wal-Mart rent. The glass wall has no curtains. The people down below could watch us like a television show if they cared to.
"Hi," says SHARON.
I'm not surprised to find Sharon at home. She is usually at home. She is an out-of-work actress. Where does she have to go? But I am surprised to find her in bed with a good-looking cowboy. I call him a cowboy because he still has his cowboy hat on.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I say, retreating back out the sliding glass door.
Closing the door, I race back up the stone steps to my car. Driving up and down the Sunset Strip, I tell myself over and over not to think judgmental thoughts about Sharon or the cowboy either. She's grown. She's entitled. He's entitled, too. She's a woman, he's a man, enough said. But I am still strangely shaken. What did I think: She was a virgin? Forget it. None of my business.
An hour later and low on gas, I return to the cul-de-sac, park once again, and slowly walk down the stone steps making lots of noise. I'm sure he's left by now, but just in case . . .
I am surprised once again: The cowboy is still there, but at least he is no longer naked. He wears a cowboy shirt, Wrangler jeans, and scuffed boots. He still has his hat on. He is good-looking with a strong straight nose, light brown hair, Skoal tobacco in his mouth, and a satisfied look on his face.
My cousin Sharon sits beside him on the couch. Sharon has long, walnut hair that falls in an inverted V from the part in the middle of her forehead. She was the prettiest girl in Spur, Texas, and is now one of the prettiest in Los Angeles. She reminds me of Audrey Hepburn with breasts. She has the long graceful neck, the fine features, and cheekbones that stand up high like the mesas back home. Her eyes would make cornflowers and blue jays jealous. When she heard I was coming to Los Angeles to make a movie, she invited me to share her space and her rent.
"Chick," Sharon says, unembarrassed, "get used to Chris Crosby." It's an expression from the Old West that she wouldn't have used on just anybody. "Chris, this is my cousin that I told you about. Mr. Beginner's Luck."
CHRIS CROSBY gets up and shakes my hand in a way that lets me know he is stronger than I am. It almost hurts but not quite.
"Glad to know you," Chris says. Not a cowboy to beat about the bush, he adds: "Maybe you could put in a good word for me. I'm a stuntman. I'd love to work on a movie about Sharon's great-great-great-ever-so-fucking-great-granddad. That would be very special."
"Please," Sharon says. "Please, please."
"Okay," I say, not meaning it.
"That's your way of saying 'no.' I'm serious," she presses. "Promise me you'll help out. You've explained to me why you can't help me, nepotism and all that bullshit, but you can at least help Chris. He is fortunate enough not to be related."
I sag under the implied accusation. "I'm so sorry, but I really couldn't . . ."
"So you owe me, put in a good word for Chris."
"Uh, well, all right, but a writer's recommendation doesn't mean much."
"But you'll do it?"
I hesitate and delay and shift feet several times. "Okay, but don't expect too much. I'm just the writer. That's all."
"But you promise to do what you can?"
"I know you believe in some kinda code. Do you promise by that code that you're not just blowing smoke up my ass?"
"Okay, I swear."
"Thank you, thank you," says Sharon. "Now all I have to do is get cast."
"But . . ." I say.
I don't finish the sentence because Sharon and Chris are kissing in such a way that I feel I should flee the apartment once again. And do.
After another half hour driving around the neighborhood, I return to the apartment to find Sharon thankfully alone.
"Hi," I say, trying to pretend I'm coming "home" for the first time. "I'm working for a son of a bitch."
"You mean a bitch of a bitch, don't you?" asks Sharon.
"No, not Jamie," I say with a CHUCKLE. "I mean Buddy Dale."
"What did he do to you?"
"Nothing to me. But he's got the Paramount casting department pimping for him."
"I'm not surprised."
"I've heard rumors."
Sharon, who is six years younger than I am, has been in Hollywood almost a year longer than I have. She has done a half dozen student films, mostly USC Film School minimovies. One was a UCLA would-be feature, but the film student ran out of money halfway through. Plus she has done a thousand auditions.
"Did you ever audition for him?" I ask.
"I wish," Sharon says.
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do. Then maybe I could work on the movie with you and Chris. Wouldn't that be perfect?"
"That's my specialty: dreams."
We order a pizza from Domino's and watch television inside the TV in which we live. She doesn't mention getting Chris a job on my movie more than a hundred times.
I can't sleep. Stretched out on a Salvation Army couch, I keep opening my eyes and staring out at the lights of the city. I expect those lights to go out one by one until the town is dark, but as far as I can tell none of them ever fades to black. Doesn't anybody in Los Angeles sleep? It occurs to me that some of those lights probably belong to screenwriters who are busy writing while I am trying to sleep. They are getting ahead of me. Maybe I should get up and get busy, just to keep up, but then I would disturb my cousin, who is snoring softly in her bed. It is really just a mattress laid flat on the floor. I close my eyes, but they are soon open again. And all those screenwriting lights are still on and winking at me. Plus I am bored. I should get up and write, but what would my fingers say if I did get up? What if they didn't say anything? What if my fingers were dumb and just sat there staring at me?
Feeling my trembling becoming worse, I get up slowly and quietly off the couch. I am still chastely dressed in my blue jeans and a badly wrinkled shirt. I prefer to sleep in my underwear but not in my cousin's one-room apartment. Tiptoeing, I creep to my suitcase, where I have hidden my secret vice. I take them out and look at them, enjoying their familiar feel, and then I start twirling them.
These are the batons my parents gave me for Christmas long ago. Cheerleaders' batons. Lead-the-marching-band batons. They look like giant Q-tips. When I unwrapped them that Christmas morning, I was too young to know that boys didn't twirl batons. By the time I found out or had it forcefully pointed out to me by the other boys I liked twirling too much to give it up. From then on I twirled in secret as I am doing now. I find twirling calms me down. Standing here, spinning in the dark, I can already feel the tension flowing out of my fingers into the batons. My hands stop shaking, and my mind starts working again.
I find myself thinking: Why not take another run at the all-important ax scene? It has been giving Jamie and me so much trouble that we have skipped it, promising ourselves we'll solve it later. Maybe now is later. Here nobody is watching, not even my lightly snoring cousin, so nobody will know if it doesn't work. What do I have to lose?
Putting my batons away hiding them once again I feel around in the dark until I find my backpack. Unzipping it, I pull out my Toshiba laptop, the big one with the fifteen-inch screen. Trying to move quietly, I carry it to the small table where the pizza box still yawns open with a single slice remaining inside. I put the computer on the table, open it, and push a silver button. Running on battery power, the screen illuminates and brightens the small room. It isn't as bright as day, but it is twice as light as before. Sharon turns over on her mattress.
I put my hands on the keys. The trembling does not return. I open the file that contains our script in progress and stare at the big screen. Now is the moment. Either my fingers will talk to me, or they won't.
So I open another file, this one just entitled "think," and start typing:
Try to think about the big scene when he locks arms with destiny . . . I hate words like "destiny" . . . think about the ax . . . what does he think? . . . no, idiot, you can't do thoughts in a movie . . . what to write? . . . Cut to the interior of Goodnight's brain? Ha . . . Should it be a close-up? Ha ha! . . .
I think for a moment and then type:
Switching from the "think" file back to the "script" file, I start typing faster:
EXT. COUNTY FAIR AFTERNOON
JIMMY GOODNIGHT pushes his way through a boisterous crowd of big farm boys. At the center of the mob, he SEES (POV) an ax that is stuck in an anvil. It is surrounded by the debris of failure: broken ax handles left behind by all the strongmen who have tried to pull it out and had no luck. Jimmy approaches a CARNY MAN.
Excuse me, mister, I'd like to give it a try.
The Carny Man LAUGHS. His laughter is contagious. Soon all the big men and strapping boys are LAUGHING, too. The merriment grows and grows as the news spreads outward from the center of the crowd.
Here's my nickel. Git outta the way.
Okay, kid, try not to hurt yourself, okay?
HEARING LAUGHTER and JEERS, Jimmy steps up to the anvil, drops to his knees out of respect, and then addresses the mass of iron.
Excuse me, O Great Anvil. I have great respect for your strength. Uh, I hope you also have respect for my weakness. I couldn't possibly take your ax away from you, so I won't try, but I hope you will give it to me willingly. You see, I need it a lot worse than you do. I need your ax so people will stop laughing at me.
The crowd continues to LAUGH and mock.
BIG FARM BOY #1
Look, he's prayin' to it!
BIG FARM BOY #2
It looks like he wants to hump it!
BIG FARM BOY #3
He's makin' love to it!
I need your ax so they will respect me.
Jimmy gets up off his knees, rises to his feet, places his hands on the wooden handle, and pulls gently as if helping up a girl who has fallen down.
JIMMY GOODNIGHT (CONT)
Ax, you will never leave my side. You will be my constant companion. If you help me, I will help you. You will no longer be a spectacle. You will no longer be pawed by strangers. My home will be your home. What do you say?
The anvil begins to loosen its iron grip. Jimmy gives the slightest tug and draws the ax from the anvil.
The crowd swallows its mean laughter and seems to choke on it. Jimmy smiles and raises the ax high over his head. The crowd falls utterly quiet and everybody starts backing up to give more room. Somebody at the back of the crowd CHEERS. Then other voices take up the HURRAH. The cheering becomes a mighty YELL.
"What?" gargles Sharon. "Who's there?"
I resent her interrupting me at such a crucial moment, but at the same time I am secretly relieved. Now I have an excuse to put off facing well, not the moment of truth exactly, but something like it.
"It's me," I say. "Your cousin. Remember? I live here now."
"Oh." She lifts her head and yawns. "You mean you didn't break in to assault me."
"Me too. Don't forget about Chris."
"Maybe I should get my own place."
"No. Well, maybe. No, don't do that."
"Go back to sleep."
"I'll try, but I doubt it. Not with that click-clicking going on."
"I said I'm sorry. And I won't forget about Chris. I'm almost done. Anyway I hope so."
Sharon puts her head back down and turns her back on me. Oh, great, now I have to hurry my way to the end of a difficult and important scene. I don't need the pressure. Who asked her to wake up anyway? Well, I suppose I did with my clicking.
I have to refocus. Maybe a bite of pizza will help. I have a theory that any sensory input helps the imagination. The bite tastes good. Okay, here goes. Now it is time to do the impossible. Now I will attempt to cut to the interior of my great-great-great-ever-so-great-grandfather's mind, his brain, his unphotographable inner self:
Blinking, Jimmy stares up at the ax in his hand, at the sky, at the sun.
Horses whinny. Roosters crow. Bulls snort and kick up red dirt. A donkey brays. A red-tailed hawk screams high overhead. Mice squeak, grasshoppers leap high in the air, spiders stop their weaving and look around. Prairie dogs come up out of their burrows to see what has disturbed the universe. A turtle hurries. A baby cries in its mother's arms. An old diamondback rattles its tail. A single drop of rain falls out of the pale blue sky and hits me right between my good eye and my bad one.
We HEAR the donkey, the hawk, the mice, the rattler, the baby crying. Then Jimmy lets out a SCREAM that begins as a war cry but ends in LAUGHTER. He shakes his new weapon at the heavens, and bees BUZZ loud about his head.
I close the computer and go back to bed or rather to couch. The other screenwriters' lights are still on, but I close my eyes and dissolve in sleep.Copyright ©2006 by Aaron Latham