SEQUELS ARE AS OLD AS MOVIES THEMSELVES, IF YOU COUNT A SERIAL LIKE The Perils of Pauline. The first sequel to win the Best Picture Oscar, though, was The Godfather Part II in 1974. The first one to be nominated in that category was probably The Bells of St. Mary's in 1945, the sequel to Going My Way, which won the year before. Bing Crosby repeated his role as...
Sorry. Occupational hazard.
A year ago, I had discovered the most sought-after "lost" film, the full version of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. I thought I would like being a movie detective. After all, it beat just being what I was: a "trivial man," a person devoted to finding, hoarding, and recounting arcane movie informationin other words, a loser, I think it's generally called.
Word of my discovery had spread through the "trivial" community like a virus that caused self-loathing. From obscure fan Web sites to tiny film festivals to dusty memorabilia stores, it was rumored that I had found, then given upwithout even seeing!Ambersons. In the trivial world, which is populated by people even less socialized than I, the rumor led to incredulity, awe, and (of course) jealousy and hatred.
My little newsletter, Trivial Man, which I publish out of my jammed apartment on West Forty-third Street in New York and subsidize through typesetting work, suddenly exploded in popularity, which meant it actually sold a few copies. I began to receive phone calls from trivial people seeking my deductive services, people not accustomed to navigating in the real world.
"I've got a movie I want you to find," they'd say.
"For how much?" I'd ask, now priding myself as a professional.
Then there'd be a pause, and then I'd hear a dial tone.
I already had something over many of my colleagues: I was presentableimagine Zeppo Marx crossed with John Garfieldhad even, amazingly, been married, and still stayed in contact with my ex-wife, Jody. If you can't deal with the present, you can always depend on the past. In our own ways, Jody and I both knew this.
It was during one of Jody's usual phone callsto ask me who was playing whom in an old movie we both, by chance, happened to be watchingthat the whole thing began.
"You mean, the bandit?" I asked, muting the volume. "Akim Tamiroff." Then Call Waiting, a recent upgrade to my phone system, clicked in. "Hold on. Hello?"
There was a pause. I heard a voice I recognized. It was old, and it was downbeat.
"Roy? It's about your mother."
I don't mention my parents too often, and for good reason. Neither has the faintest idea what I'm doing with my life. Make that singular: my mother doesn't, my father's dead. But before he died, he didn't have a clue about it, either.
It always surprised me about my mother, because she loved movies, so I'd assumed my obsession had some genetic basis. (My father, who worked in insurance, never liked to leave the house for any reason, let alone movies. His usual review after seeing one consisted of three words: "Piece of crap.") My mother, however, persisted in hoping that my vast store of trivial information could lead to gainful employment, marriage, and DNA propagation. No such luck.
"What do you do with a thing like that?" she'd usually ask after I'd made the mistake of sharing some little-known fact with her, like, for instance that Maggie Smith had replaced Katharine Hepburn in Travels with My Aunt. "Why don't you write your own column?"
"I put out my own newsletter," I'd reply. "I sort of do that already."
"No, I mean, you know, for real."
I assumed she'd be encouraged by my discovery of the complete Ambersons, and the idea of dealing with her ("What do you do with a thing like that? Why don't you join the FBI?") caused me to stay mum.
Now Mom was the one who was mum.
Apparently sheas my aunt informed me on the phonewas no longer speaking. There seemed no physical problem; it was apparently a head thing. It wasn't unprecedentedonce, my mother had hidden under the kitchen table all afternoon; another time she'd been found wandering the neighborhood in her nightgownbut this event, or so my aunt believed, was a keeper. No amount of medication mattered. My mother was no longer a moving picture; she was a still.
"But what do you want me to do?" I asked Aunt Ruby, as I followed her down the stairs. I hadn't been in the old family house in the Westchester suburbs since Thanksgiving; now it was March.
"Help pay for the upkeep," said my aunt. She was a frighteningly practical and direct woman, a registered nurse, and my mother's only other relation. She referred to her kid sister as if she were no different from the familiar, crumbling home we were in. That was life to Ruby: we all just became a question of maintenance.
"Well...for how long?"
"For as long as it takes."
"But" I stammered lamely, "she's only seventy. She could live another twenty years."
My mother was no vegetable. Lying silently in bed, she still showed a hearty appetite and flicked efficiently through TV stations. Her eyes had even sparkled a little when I walked in. Still, none of my small talk had brought a response.
"Twenty years or even twenty-five," Aunt Ruby agreed, unhelpfully.
"Well, she's got health insuranceMedicaredoesn't she?"
"These days you can never have enough."
This was true. I myself at thirty-sixthe time everything "starts to go," my aunt once remarkedwas uncovered. I was running out of reasons to resist. "But things are just starting to pick up for me."
"Good. Then it shouldn't be a problem."
I stopped at the front door. "You have no idea what might have caused her to become like this?"
My aunt only shrugged. "Something must have rubbed her the wrong way."
For Aunt Ruby, the comment summed up diseases, accidents, even death itself. It made a funny kind of sense, yet I had to keep fighting this lost cause.
"Look, let me know if she says anything, okay?"
"Don't worry, Roy. You'll be the first to know." It was the only time I had ever heard Aunt Ruby laugh.
I had no siblings, so I had no choice.
As usual, remembering trivia was my way to deal with anxiety. Standing outside the house, I remembered that the original stars of Sons and Lovers were supposed to be Alec Guinness and Montgomery Clift. The film was finally made with Trevor Howard and Dean Stockwell.
The picture had been nominated for the Oscar; my fate would be less prestigious. Just as I was on the verge of a new career in detection, I had to do something that I'd never done before, something truly frightening. I had to get a real job.
A WEEK LATER, I WAS STANDING ON THE STREET, HOLDING A BAGUETTE AND a balloon.
Trivial people take all kinds of part-time, low-paying jobs, some more humiliating than others. Through contacts, I'd managed to secure employment at the Farmer's Market in Union Square. Here, upstate farmers sold produce to gullible urbanites willing to shell out exorbitantly for organic goods. A friend who'd been laid off from a film journal had been helping out at several stands and tipped me off to similar opportunities. I could do pickles, pretzels, or bread. The latter was a staple and so seemed the least demeaning.
"U-shin sent me," I'd said, mentioning my friend.
Annabelle, the young lady farmer at the Nature's Meal booth, had a pretty face the color and texture of a leather belt. She looked at my pale skin and slender frame with amusement.
"Okay, pavement boy," she said. "Here you go."
Then she handed me the balloon and the loaf. She pinned a button on my chest that read RISING BREAD, FALLING PRICES! Her bakery, located in Millwood, two hours from Manhattan, was having a sale.
"Just stand there," she said, in a gruff and grizzled rasp. "And look pretty." Then she shook her head in dismay, as she might have at a newborn calf too weak to survive.
I was secretly hoping that my city ways and her country manner would cause romantic sparks, as in a Tracy and Hepburn film. But Annabelle quickly moved away from me and arranged some zucchini and pear muffins.
As I stood there, mortified, I recalled that Spencer Tracy had been replaced by Gregory Peck in the movie of The Yearling. The whole film had been remade from scratch, just like, well, a burnt loaf.
Then, to my horror, I saw Abner Cooley.
Abner, of course, was the original trivial person success story. His Web site, PRINTIT!.com, had grown from a homemade operationdone, literally, out of his parents' house on Long Islandinto a grassroots phenomenon. It mostly featured negative gossip on forthcoming films secretly slipped to him by bitter studio underlings. Frightened and annoyed executives had seduced Abner with consulting jobs, and then he'd parlayed his popularity into a book deal and a TV hosting gig. The latter came courtesy of his boyfriend, Taylor Weinrod, recently promoted to V.P. at Landers Classic Movies, or LCM, the old movie cable network.
As his success hadyou'll pardon meballooned, so had Abner. Never a sylph, he now threatened to topple over from his own girth, and a wispy blond beard, as ever, couldn't give shape to his face. Formerly obnoxious, he was now unbearable, and never more so than today, when he saw me...and my balloon.
"Milano!" he said, with barely disguised glee. "What a pleasant surprise!"
Abner had never forgiven me for my Ambersons coup, and seeing me in my current position clearly warmed his overgrown heart.
"I'm sure it is," I said.
"A loaf of bread, a red balloon...you could be the star of, what was that French film?"
"The Red Balloon?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, unpleasantly. "So, fallen on hard times?"
"I'm just helping out a friend," I lied.
Just then, Annabelle called over, "Hey, what's-your-name, watch your loaf! It's trailing in the dirt!"
Exposed, I cursed under my breath and said nothing more. Abner chuckled, his cheeks expanding, his eyes disappearing.
"How generous of you," he said.
I could have told him the truthAbner would be chastened by my helping out my mother; God knows he'd lived long enough with his own but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction. So I didn't take the bait.
"Well, I'm sure you'll get back on your feet in no time. Now," he said, mischievously, "may I have some miche?"
"You'll have to ask her," I said, through my teeth, and gestured with my balloon at Annabelle.
"Actually, what am I saying? It'll only go bad in my fridge. I'm flying out to L.A. tomorrow."
Though I hadn't asked him why, he went on to explain. "Maybe you read the trades. I've been hired to adapt The Seven Ordeals of Quelman."
My only response was silence. Here was the most famous and beloved cult fantasy novelfour sets of trilogies, actuallyof all time. And Abner Cooley had been hired to write the script! I had never been able to finish the first book. I had no interest in, intention of, or talent at being a screenwriter. Still, I was boiling with anger at the injustice.
"Good for you," I choked out.
"Yep. They decided to go right to the source for once. The producers want a few changes that might not sit well with the fans in geekville. But"he shrugged, cavalierly"that's the difference between film and book."
Film and book! Abner wasn't even using the proper plurals; he was talking like one of the studio scum he had started his career by skewering. He had fully completed his duplicitous journey to the other side, where people made a living wage. And geekville? Where did Abner think he got his own birth certificate?
"Good luck with that," I nearly whispered.
"Thanks. It'll be twelve films in all. They'll release the first one next Christmas, then three a year until the end of the decade."
Abner heard the sarcasm in my voice and, if anything, it made him even more smug. "Look...there's nothing wrong with doing what you're doing. We all need to eat."
"Some more than others," I blurted out. I knew the remark was beneath me, but I didn't care. I realized that I was gripping the baguetteonion sourdough, I thinklike a club.
"Hey, street life!" Annabelle yelled over at me now. "Quit flirting, and make that sale!"
The furious look in my eye made Abner cancel his order. With a muttered, "Good to see you, Milano," he walked away as fast as his giant legs could take him.
There was a brief, embarrassing pause. Then Annabelle, smelling of bread dust and denim, was suddenly at my side again.
"That's not exactly what I'd call good salesmanship," she said.
"Look," I answered, just about at patience's end, "I thought I was only supposed to look pretty."
"Oh," Annabelle said, "I say that to all the girls."
Then, with a sunburned little smile, she walked behind her booth again.
I stared after her. Despite her disdain for me, in her cruel, craggy, cowgirl way, Annabelle was growing more attractive by the minute. I noted with approval how she filled out her jeans. This job might not be so bad, after all.
When I turned back, I was staring at Abner's big face again.
"Look, Milano," he said, breathless now. "How'd you like to come work for me?"
The twist of personality had come so fast, I shook my head to clear it. "What?"
"There's something I forgot to tell you."
"And what's that?"
"Someone," he panted, "is trying to kill me."
ON A BREAKFOR WHICH I HAD TO BEG ANNABELLEI HEARD ABNER'S story.
We sat in a diner on Park Avenue South at Seventeenth Street, which was cheaper than anything he could now afford. And even though Abner spoke with a new beseeching neediness, he still insisted on separate checks.
Before he started, he looked around for eavesdroppers. "Here's the thing. The Quelman gig isn't exactly the joyride I'd been expecting."
I listened with reluctant sympathy. My tolerance for Abner was already limited and today he was adding a new unpleasant color to his palette: self-pity. Still, it was new.
"You know Prince Corno?" he asked.
His wide hands shaking, Abner slowly unfolded a printout from his pocket. It had been reproduced from a Web site called Quelman House: All Things Quelman. There was a fuzzy photo of Abner, with the word traitor stamped on it. The article below featured the headlines: COOLEY UNCOOL, SAY NO TO HOLLYWOOD DESECRATION, and, in smaller print, HE SHOULD ONLY HAVE AN OWL.