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"There was a time, and I was there."
Wisps of steam rose from the hot tub, where two perspiring movie producers were discussing world history.
"It's Pebble Beach, and Cliff is in the cabana getting a knob-job from this girl from the Bay area...."
"That's not the way I heard it."
"Sure, we busted right into the cabana waving champagne bottles and shouting, 'Surprise!' ..."
The hot tub was sunk in a redwood patio, connected to a large, Moorish-style house; the house was bordered by flowers, palms, a pair of old oaks, and a little stream that ran through the sloping canyon. Other guests wandered there, and the stream slipped quietly by, human forms reflected on its tranquil face; on the far bank a large Doberman stalked the edge of a high wire fence, to insure that the mood of tranquility remain unbroken. Anything that came over the fence was his.
The party's host, David Caspian, walked up a stone path through the cactus garden; like his attack dog, Caspian had a lean, muscular physique and shared as well the animal's suspicious air, for his agent walked beside him, speaking about a deal. The agent, a penguin-shaped individual, was dressed in an expensive jogging suit in which he'd never run five steps. "Did you read the script I sent over?"
"It's in the compost bin, Myron." Caspian pointed toward his vegetable garden. "Bad scripts make good mulch but it takes two years."
"You didn't like the character?"
"Sentimentality is the wave of the future, David." Myron Fish dogged along beside his client. Caspian placed his hand gently on top of Fish's head. "Myron, it stinks."
"We'll change the script. We'll have you meet the abused child after she's had counseling."
Caspian continued walking; his last picture had been a sweet one, in which children had upstaged him, and drawn out of him the gooiest performance of his career, for which he'd received an Oscar nomination. Myron Fish now sought every opportunity to recreate the formula.
"Children are an endangered species, David. You could do a lot for them."
"Agents are an endangered species, Myron."
"They can't kill us off, we breed too fast."
Caspian and Fish walked toward the house; red roof tile gleamed, and walls of yellow adobe reflected the sun's brilliant glare. Sliding doors framed a sunken living room, where other guests were enjoying a slice of Caspian's life. He slid the screen open for Fish, and they stepped into the crisscrossed conversations:
"He's been existing from development deal to development deal but all he's developed so far is an ulcer."
"It's a living."
"Well, now he's going to Disney, with an office on Goofy Lane."
A massive stone fireplace graced one side of the room; on the other side, a wall had been swung open and a bartender was inside the niche, mixing drinks, a spotlight shining down on his gleaming black hair and white jacket. Waiters carried drinks and food around the room, keeping the fuel flowing smoothly as the guests refreshed themselves and continued to talk. There were big stars, little stars, would-be stars, hangers-on, and an assortment of suits from the studios.
"... a wonderful new position at Universal, in three years I'll be having a triple bypass."
"... we've received very glittering comments."
"He doesn't want glittering comments, he wants numbers."
"And roses floating in his toilet. He's unrealistic."
In each corner of the room electric eyes were clicking, resetting themselves, watching over things.
"David, they're offering you big points, you're crazy not to take it. I'm talking real percentages, not producer's net."
"Over here I think we have some toadstools," said Caspian, pointing to the buffet table.
"Ok, I'm through pressing you. Hope and heartwarming human material don't interest you, I can't understand why, but I'm not going to push any longer. Someone else will make America laugh and cry healthy tears. Someone else will collect the Oscar." Fish walked off clutching a peanut dish and Caspian circulated, out of the living room and into the high ceilinged entrance hall, where other guests were talking.
"... on location in a very uptight Polish city and a teamster backed a Rolls-Royce into the sacred statue of Maria Theresa."
"... have you ever noticed her hands? The cracks are filled with guacamole dip."
Caspian opened the front door and stepped outside. Parking attendants had lined the road with automobiles and now stood idle in the drive, wearing sultry looks and waiting to be discovered by agent, producer, or crazy lady. He walked around the side of the house to the herb garden. His cat was resting in the aromatics, slitted eyes raised to the sky, where a hawk was circling, its wide wings barely moving as it floated on the warm currents. Caspian gazed upward, his own eyes slitted against the sun. He knew the habits of hawks; he'd found a mountain top that was in their migratory route, and on one particular day every year he was able to watch hundreds of them at a time, riding the mountain winds.
The hawk made a long slow loop out over the hills of the canyon, and Caspian followed with his eyes, toward peaks that he knew intimately. Hardly a day went by that he did not go up into the hills and wander; the terrain was stark and unsparing, the fierce power of the sun in every rock, plant, snake, bird, or animal that resided there. He was an experienced amateur naturalist, but all his knowledge of the life of the hills was accidental, for he went there not to identify and classify, but to meet the unidentifiable, a nameless, always changing feeling in himself which the land created. He enjoyed his hours in the hills, and was jealous of them should he be forced to surrender them for dubious activities such as this garden party he was throwing today. The hills were looking down on him as he hosted the Hollywood gathering, and he felt embarrassed about it, as if he were betraying a trust—but then, the hills had seen countless generations of jackasses come and go.
The hawk was gliding back from its circle above the hills, and he watched its return over the trees of his property, and saw its beak open in a call—but the sound of his party drowned out that haunting, rasping cry. Suddenly, the hawk dropped into a dive, Caspian saw its spindly legs extend, talons outstretched, and they seemed to point directly at him.
He leaned away, and a vague dream flashed, but it was gone before he could grasp it. The hawk's claws vanished and the bird caught an upward current. He watched it spiraling away over the hills, and the feeling returned, of a predator met in a dream.
He walked through the garden, and then to poolside, where dreams of rapacious beings were replaced by the sight of Julius DeBrusca; the producer was seated in a deck chair, expounding on the arcana of filmmaking. "Guilt in this town is a wonderful, wonderful tool. Paramount just fired Sy Bullit, and out of guilt about it they're going to make three pictures he's had hidden away for just such an emergency." DeBrusca gazed at his circle of listeners. "When the finger of God points from the clouds and says, 'You're next,' you'd better have a property or two stuffed in your shoe."
He gestured with a half-eaten burrito toward Caspian and Caspian walked on, to the garden buffet table, where a screenwriter was loading his plate with food. He peered up at Caspian. "May I talk to you privately?"
Caspian looked around the empty table. "There's no one here but us, Ed."
"You owe me four thousand dollars." Ed Cresswell was a thin, spectral man with a face too pale for California, as if he shunned the light of day. "I'm sure it was an unconscious error, but by sending me a check four grand short, it probably means you think I'm not worth what you're paying me."
Myron Fish appeared at the end of the table. "Do I hear business being discussed?"
"Myron," said Cresswell, "you're looking very trim in your jogging suit."
The roly-poly agent nibbled a cracker. "Monkey glands, Mr. Cresswell, have you tried them?"
"Where are they?" Cresswell looked around the buffet table, fork hovering.
"We've discovered an error in bookkeeping," said Caspian. "I owe Ed four thousand dollars."
Fish took another cracker. "Never pay writers. I hope you haven't?" He looked at Cresswell's plate. "How do you stay so thin?"
"Through constant worry. About agents."
"Perhaps I'll open a reducing salon," said Fish.
Cresswell shuffled off with his plate, a look of permanent defeat in his demeanor. Fish turned to Caspian. "What kind of neurotic trash are you having him write for you? Are there any children in it?"
"We won't be able to raise a nickel. People want to see you in family entertainment." Fish's voice lost its bantering edge. "There's very little margin for error in this town, my friend." He turned and crossed back through the garden.
Caspian remained at the table, trying to calm the wave of fear that Fish had so expertly set in motion—Fish, master of manipulation, who knew just what shot would plunge his client into the waters of uncertainty. Caspian chewed compulsively on a series of weird, dainty sandwiches to deflect his attention from the image that held him, the recurrent nightmare image, an image based in hideous truth—of the thousands of aspiring young actors who arrived by the busload every day in L.A. Down the steps of the bus they came—wonderfully handsome, viciously aggressive, and all of them perfectly capable of playing the parts he himself played.
While he—he had a few grays hairs now. He could no longer eat as much as he wanted because it all went into the love handles of his midsection.
He put the plate of weird sandwiches down, grabbed a cognac on ice from the tray of a passing waiter—except he couldn't drink as much as he used to.
But the image remained in his brain—the busloads of new faces that the fickle studios and the media salivate for. What is untried is better, for anything can be projected onto it—new faces with new expressions; new young actors who were naturally plugged into the new style of moving, speaking, breathing. Young guys with bodies like iron, who'd had the benefit of the very latest in exercise equipment.
Calm down, you don't need a Nautilus machine. You've got ten major films behind you. That should be good enough to get through the afternoon with.
Except you're forty-five, said the voice of Myron Fish, in a posthypnotic suggestion programmed into him time and time again by the little agent, who had never lost an opportunity to keep his client on the defensive, for agents must always keep everyone on the defensive.
And the agents, of course, were right. They were always right.
Caspian picked up another sandwich, and had swallowed it before he'd even had a chance to chew it.
Because at age forty-five, there was the little matter of sex appeal on camera. His sexual energies had ceased to be straightforward. He no longer knew how he was coming across on screen to the major movie audience in America, people ten and twenty and thirty years younger than himself. Did they think he was cold soup? Quaint? Corny? Old-fashioned? A joke?
The raw vitality of young actors on a set depressed him immeasurably, because he couldn't play the physical combat scenes the way he used to. Once he'd been able to punch with the best of them, but now the stuntmen had to take it easy with him. Did it show on camera? Three bad films and an actor's career was over. That was the formula. Three flops and you go make films in godforsaken places where you can still get your price—like Guam. And then you sign a ten-year contract to advertise antacid tablets. And then you hire a ghost to write a lying biography about you.
And then you die.
He turned his back on the buffet table, sucked his gut in, and walked on, to where a studio vice-president in charge of advertising and publicity was drinking himself into a stupor. The executive began speaking as if he and Caspian were in the middle of a conversation. "None of the directors look at the ad. Their eyes go directly to the bottom to see their name in the credits. Is it spelled right, is it big enough. Actors are no different. Let me tell you about the most bizarre presentation I ever made." He put the glass to his lips, drank, lowered his voice. "Guy Lockwood was in intensive care at Cedars of Sinai, preparing to die. But he had a likeness approval in his contract for any image we ran of him in our ads. So I had to take the entire campaign to the hospital. The family had gathered, waiting for the final curtain call. At the appropriate moment, when he opened his eyes for three seconds, we ran in with the ad and showed it to him. He approved it with what had to be one of his last gasps." The vice-president swayed in front of Caspian, eyes glazing over, and Caspian reflected on poor Guy, concerned to his dying breath, to his last goddamn gasp, with how he looked. So that he shouldn't lose popularity. So that some young punk didn't try to muscle in on his reign. So that his next role was assured. In actor heaven. Or somewhere.
Caspian turned, and saw his wife across the lawn, making her rounds of the party, a number of the afternoon's guests coming from her corporate advertising world. He caught her eye and she made her way toward him. "If I can go wrong, I do."
"I made a crack about somebody manufacturing pants for oversize women. And standing in the group over there is a man who manufactures pants for oversize women."
Carol Caspian was barely five feet tall, with curly black hair streaked blonde. She wore a cream chemise with flame cuts along the hem, revealing her shapely legs; she lowered herself onto a lawn chair, wrapping her arms around her knees. "What the hell, I'll just go take a bath in my wok."
Caspian pointed at the buffet table. "Have you tried the dip?"
"That's why I'm so tired, it set off a string of orgasms." She put a hand to her hair, fluffing out her short curls. "Isn't that the guy from the Hollywood Reporter? The one who looks like a retired French satyr?"
"Go over and be nice."
"I'd prefer the hypocrisy of a lovely note." She pivoted in her chair, her gaze sweeping the circle of guests in the yard. "Don't turn conspicuously, but there's a young woman here from the agency, very bright, very chic, the art director brought her, and she wants my job."
"Is she good at what she does?"
"Don't look over your shoulder, please, I'd rather she thought we were totally ignoring her, which we are."
"I'm sure you've got nothing to worry about. Nobody could do what you do."
"I'm not worried. I just tell everyone she wears Jockey shorts."
Carol remained curled in her chair, and Caspian continued along the garden path, reflecting now on his wife's insecurities, which dovetailed so perfectly with his own, and intensified them. Their marriage was a perfect match—a pair of nervy egotists running scared at the top. Why am I talking to myself this way? Because of this goddamn party, which Myron made me throw so that he could talk to Julius DeBrusca. A party to which I am obliged to invite certain young actors, so it doesn't look like a geriatric convention. I have a houseful of them at the moment, not to mention a pool and yardful, and it's gotten me crazy. Which is also what Myron wanted. So that I'd sign to do a film I didn't want to do.
He ducked in under a bower of grapes that formed the entranceway to a door nearly concealed by leaves. He opened the door and entered, into the shadows of his office. He switched on a stained glass lamp; rainbow light shone on his massive oak desk. He opened it and took out his corporate record, where he found that he had in fact underpaid Cresswell. Why? Because, just as Cresswell suspected, something in him didn't want to pay. Because Cresswell was writing a thoughtful script, of the kind the studios never want to see. Because, in this town, a good script is a bad one. Because, as Myron says, we won't be able to raise a nickel. So I'll plow my own money into it, it'll fail, and I'll be selling antacid tablets ten years before my time.
Excerpted from The Exile by William Kotzwinkle. Copyright © 1987 William Kotzwinkle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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