He flicked his cigarette and climbed the stairs. The house was crowded, music simmered inside the dimly lit rooms; Coltrane. Chase abandoned her boyfriend, who sulked on the sidelines making calls on his cell phone while she meandered through the living room, kissing people on both cheeks, laughing, squawking, throwing her head back with a kind of self-possessed joy. He had to admit she was something to watch. She was like a version of Tweety Bird, the yellow feathers of her hair, the hooked nose, her birdlike stature, and yet there was nothing timid about her. She had a certain power, an edge that cut into you and made you want to be cut. It wasn’t beauty that made them look; rather it was her lack of it, the indifferent eyes, the dissatisfied pout. As he watched her it came to him that her entire demeanor, down to the slightest off-putting glance, was designed to inspire doubt and awe in her underlings, losers like him who ended up working for people like her.
“Hello, there,” a woman said, touching his shoulder. “What a nice surprise.”
He turned around. “Hello.”
“You don’t remember me.” She was short and compact, with freckles and pushy little breasts. Obviously, she had him confused with someone else.
“Of course I do.”
“How’ve you been?”
“Fine. It’s good to see you.”
Squinting as if in pain she said, “Forgive me. I’m terrible with names.”
“Hugh. Hugh Waters.”
“Ida Kent, hello again.” She shook his hand; hers was warm and damp.
“I’m trying to remember where we met,” he said, trying not to look at her breasts.
“Something at the Writer’s Guild,” she ventured. “Although I haven’t gone to anything in a while.”
“Working on anything good?”
“Of course not. But I’m getting paid, which is apparently all that matters.”
“God bless indecisive directors.” She raised her glass. “Uncertainty can be very lucrative—of course nothing I write ever gets made. I suppose my work has become a very tedious habit,” she said dramatically. “What about you?”
“I’m writing something on spec,” he said, because he’d heard other writers say it and it sounded good. “A thriller.”
“Nice,” she said. “I love a good thriller.”
The little group in the center of the room burst into laughter. It was the exclusive sort of laughter he remembered from his youth, the kind that made his stomach churn. Hedda Chase seemed to be at the center of it, her arms around a man in a white linen suit and fisherman’s sandals. Meanwhile, the man who had come to her house was standing off to himself, talking on a cell phone.
Ida said, “That’s Hedda Chase, from Gladiator—do you know her?”
“Yes,” Hugh said. “I know her very well.”
an asshole.” She nodded at the man in the white suit. “I don’t know why I came, I can’t stand him.”
“Nor can I,” he agreed.
“I got so screwed by him.”
“Join the club.”
She looked at him, her forehead tight. “I just wish things were different, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Some of the things that happen,” she said. “It’s just not right.”
“I know.” He held up his empty glass. “Do you want another?”
“I would, thanks.”
He took her empty glass and tried to find the bar. It was loud, hot. The music stopped and a moment later something else came on, sitars and drums. Hugh overheard someone saying it was the sound track for Bruno’s new movie. Parties with insurance people were much different, he thought. Hugh and Marion would sit politely on somebody’s sofa, sipping weak martinis and saying very little to anyone, and on the ride home they said even less to each other. At home, they’d undress in their dim bedroom to the nightly chorus of the neighborhood dogs. It occurred to Hugh that back home he was different—a different sort of person—and people thought of him differently. They probably thought he was boring, a real nerd. At this party, people looked at him with curiosity, as if they were wondering who he was or what he did or what he’d done, and, because there was always the possibility that he was someone important—more important, perhaps, than a few of the other guests, in fact—they smiled at him with interest, as if knowing
might be good for
. He felt pumped up; he filled his lungs with the good, sweet air of possibility, for that was what they all shared in this place, the thrilling idea that, under the right circumstances, anything was possible—it kept people going, it kept you in the game, whether you had the goods or not, and it was what most of the people in this town subsisted on.
Many of the women were beautiful. They were like rare and unusual birds. They were not available to him, he knew. And yet, he was happy just to be near them. Unlike the sourpuss women from work who smirked at him with the superior knowledge of some inexcusable personal embarrassment that he had yet to discover, the women at the party simply smiled. It occurred to him that he was not the sort of person who usually encountered a smile. Rather, expressions of dismay or distrust seemed to be the norm. At work, especially, crammed inside the elevator with an assortment of familiar strangers, many of whose expressions at half past eight in the morning seemed terribly, terribly complicated, the nonnegotiable smile was a complete anomaly.
He found the bar and fixed himself a drink and one for his new friend: Ida. Turning back into the living room, he saw Hedda Chase walking off with the host, hopping as she took off her heels while hanging onto his shoulder in what he imagined was an uncharacteristically delicate gesture, because Hugh was absolutely fucking certain that a woman like her, a woman in her position, had very few delicate qualities. He watched her narrow heels as the two of them descended the stairs like a pair of teenagers in search of recreational oblivion. Hugh brought the drinks back into the living room and handed Ida her martini while she completely ignored him. Of course he understood, in the way all subordinates understand these things, that Ida was talking to Someone Important, her face over-bright and buzzing like an almost-dead lightbulb. He excused himself and walked in the direction of the stairs. She wasn’t really his type and, anyway, he’d lost track of his subject. The house was interesting, all cartoon angles and Starburst colors. People were dancing. Most of them had taken off their shoes. Watching them, it occurred to Hugh that they were like some jiggling religious cult—they all knew the steps by heart; the nonbelievers watched forlornly from the sidelines. Downstairs, the air smelled like those candles they gave you when your pet died, tinged with cherry and cinnamon. It was not a good smell. He found himself in a dim hallway and overheard Chase and their host talking in a nearby room. Gently, he pushed open the door and the motion seemed to startle them. Abruptly, the room went silent. They stood there looking at him without expectation, blank-faced. In the moments that transpired a story not without scandal erupted among all three of them, and then their faces changed subtly as if to affirm the possibility, the speculation. Hugh said nothing and then Bruno cleared his throat with purpose and said, “Down the hall on the left.”
Driving back to his motel, he thought about his conversation with the other writer, Ida. As he was leaving the party, she’d pushed a piece of paper into his hand and mouthed over the noise
. She’d said she’d gotten screwed. It was something that happened to writers, he thought, it had happened to him. He’d been back in Montclair, waiting for his check, when the phone call had come. His agent’s whiney-voiced secretary had explained that his producer, Cory Rogers, the veritable
of Gladiator Films—who’d begun his career making B movies on shoestring budgets
and was proud of it
—had dropped dead of a heart attack—a sudden and unfortunate turn of events—“he was in his seventies, you know,” the secretary offered sympathetically, “his
seventies, actually.” Now this other person—this
—had stepped in and dumped his movie. “It’s not unusual for projects to go into turnaround,” was how the secretary had put it. “Especially in situations like these.” Hugh pictured his script turning through a meat grinder—and now the project, which had been slated for production in late September, was a heap of shredded papers in the trash. Exactly why it had gotten trashed was unclear to him. After a bit of coaxing, Beck’s secretary admitted that Ms. Chase had hated the script. “She didn’t like the premise.”
“No?” He tried to recollect what the word
“I’ll fax you her letter if you want.”
In his tiny office at Equitable Life, where he’d unwittingly entrenched himself as an underwriter—something to hold him over, he’d explain to people, until his real career kicked in—he’d watched the white page emerge from the squealing grin of the fax machine. Hedda Chase had written it herself, on studio letterhead, in the inflated syntax of an Ivy League brat:
an idiotic premise, inane characterizations, a thoroughly implausible ending!
Frankly, she’d said, the experience of reading the script was akin to passing a kidney stone.
And let’s not forget the misogynistic overtones!
In fact, the letter went on to complain that the script’s entire premise was anti-female. The violence he’d so precisely conveyed was, in her opinion,
over the top
. His agent, Miles Beck, had told Hugh not to take Chase’s letter too seriously, things like this happened all the time in the business, he’d said. “You just have to suck it up and move on.” Beck assured Waters that he’d try to set it up somewhere else—but after several months of “trying” nobody else wanted it and the agent admitted that Chase had a big mouth. “These are uncertain times,” he’d muttered, sheepishly. “Word spreads pretty fast in this town. For some godawful reason, people trust her opinion.”
Hugh couldn’t help thinking that Beck did too; he’d discerned a twang of pity in the agent’s tone as he’d rushed Hugh off the phone.
Hugh knew he shouldn’t take it personally, but he couldn’t seem to help it. The disappointment festered in his mind.
“I guess we won’t be moving to Hollywood after all,” Marion had said, almost gratefully.
It had taken Hugh five years to finish the screenplay, squeezing in an hour or two at the computer after work. Unlike some of his writer friends, he hadn’t gone to film school, but had taken night courses at the local community college. Hugh had fond memories of the cement block building with its submarinelike corridors, the fast-food-bright room where the class met around a Formica table that pretended to be wood. His classmates were an assortment of misanthropes: the disenchanted housewife; the fledgling private investigator; the bored tax attorney; the cancer survivor; the bitter widower—and him. When they had gone around the table at their first meeting, he had described himself—with pride—as being an underwriter with untapped ambitions. And it was true, wasn’t it? The instructor, a balding ex-hippie with sideburns that looked like Band-Aids, had a disarming stutter that made him speak very slowly. As a result, his words had surprising weight and meaning and at the end of each class Hugh experienced small and powerful revelations, as if he had just been to church. He would walk to his car, heady with optimism.
At home, he’d watch movies late into the night in his basement, long after his wife had gone to bed, sucking hits from a bong he’d had since college. He had an extensive collection of film classics. There was
Dersu Uzala; The Passenger;
He had watched
numerous times; it was his favorite film. He could watch it again and again, marveling at the elegant pans of the African desert, the swells of emptiness, the persistent wind. He knew the dialogue by heart; the actor’s gestures. He could almost taste their cigarettes, their gin. Watching Jack Nicholson in that stifling hotel room—Hugh would give anything to be there now—he could almost feel the sweat rolling down his back. The bleach-white walls disrupted only by the occasional spider—it was how Hugh felt about life—that the real dangers were the slippery interlopers that went unnoticed, the subtle influences that were like termites of the soul, before you knew it there was nothing left. And then later, with Maria Schneider, her understated hips, her breasts, her almost boyish swagger.
What are you running away from?
—and Nicholson’s answer—
turn your back to the front seat.
She turns, watching the road spill away—letting the past go—letting freedom overtake her—the seduction of the unknown—as the camera rises up into the shimmering trees. Always at the end of the movie, Hugh felt a sense of loss. As he climbed the two flights up from the basement, he’d question his existence. Lying awake beside his sleeping wife, he’d study the web of shadows on the ceiling of their suburban bedroom, as though trying to crack some obscure, divine code.
He knew plenty about film, he studied carefully, but no one would ever guess. At work, his colleagues baited him, “How’s that screenplay of yours coming? Any calls from Hollyweird yet?” Or, derisively, at a cocktail party, “So, tell me, Waters, are you
writing that script?” Hugh was the first to admit that finishing it had been nothing short of a miracle. With discreet pride, he’d presented the script to his screenwriting instructor, offering the stack of pages like the white sheet cake his wife had baked on his fortieth birthday. His instructor liked the script and offered to give it to his agent, Miles Beck, who, remarkably, succeeded in selling it. Cory Rogers, Hedda Chase’s unfortunate predecessor, had paid him an enormous sum, which had helped Hugh and his wife immeasurably after years of sacrifice—they’d moved out of their cramped apartment in the city and bought a house in Montclair; his wife had bought a Subaru. That had been the last Hugh had heard, and then Beck’s secretary had called to give him the news. Hugh had tried to call Chase, but she was always out at meetings. “I’ll leave word,” the male assistant assured Hugh in a bored, irritable voice, but Hugh doubted she ever got the messages because she never called him back.