A short, and an apology.
Posted 27 January 2012 - 08:07 PM
And now that such self-regarding doggerel is out of the way, here's something I submitted as part of a portfolio. I got a First on it, which surprised me, albeit pleasantly, but I wonder what you'll think of it.
Only This, and Nothing More
Back then the place to be seen was Giovanni’s. But Giovanni’s was always booked months in advance and you could never get a table if you didn’t know the right people. I spent nearly a decade in Hollywood and only visited twice – when I signed my first contract and was asked to fill up a spare seat, which, I later found out, was only spare because an associate producer had been caught with a prostitute in his car just outside the city and would instead be dining with the LAPD that evening, and once again when I had my first and, as it turned out, only, successful film. This was unusual – most of the people I knew had never been. They didn’t just let anybody into Giovanni’s, let alone the hacks charitably called screenwriters. We were above the ordinary people because we were involved in the industry, but the only colleagues deemed below us were the Mexicans they shipped up to be the extras. Screenwriters never met or mingled with the stars. I saw Bogey and Lauren Bacall once, walking through the lot after what I assumed to be a hard day’s shooting (a hard day, breaking off at three in the afternoon when we worked almost constantly!), but only the once and in any case I rarely visited the studios. There was no reason too – all I needed was a typewriter and some quiet, or failing that a pencil and paper. I worked in the background, getting through the long slog, taking months and sometimes years to come up with the final script that was often altered beyond recognition, destroyed sometimes, by the time the film was released. I got my name in the credits, occasionally even on the title screen: B-MOVIE Written by Hack Writer, Esquire, but this never led to the fame and the offers from virginal young girls and, crucially, the money, that the actors chewing through my words got. It was little wonder Giovanni’s was practically off-limits to people like me.
So instead we congregated at Bloomberg’s. Where Giovanni’s had silk curtains, tastefully understated impressionism on the walls, and valets in the toilets who expected a tip for handing you a paper towel, Bloomberg’s had some connection to the real world. There were photos of baseball players and silent actresses covering most of the chipped light blue paint, an outdated jukebox that everyone liked just fine, and a decent fillet steak for under a dollar. Bloomberg’s was the screenwriters’ spot – you would occasionally get some wide-eyed tourist from Oklahoma in his shorts below the knee and trilby at a jaunty angle to try and look like he belonged, and, even rarer, someone actually born and raised in Los Angeles, but mostly the crowd were all in the business. And, more importantly, none of them were hugely successful. They all made a decent living from it, but life in California even then was stupidly expensive. After you’d paid your rent and bills you barely had anything left over to keep your car running. But somehow they all made do until the next paycheque, assuming they were working on a picture at the time. Many, including myself, made a bit extra by selling short stories to magazines. What the New Yorker rejected –“we are afraid that your story ‘Pederast In Wartime’, interesting as it is, does not quite meet our standards of submission, although we implore you to keep writing” - always seemed good enough for Spot and Man and Spicy Tales. During the lean periods you could earn more money from the stories than from what was supposed to be your actual job.
Nobody knew who owned Bloomberg’s but the rumours had it that it was a mob operation. If you believed every rumour though, there were only about two businesses in the whole city that were totally innocent of any criminal involvement, and although you would sometimes see some young heavy-set guy in a raincoat come in and have a quiet word with the barman, he was more likely there to get some gin than to collect on the protection money. Carl, the barman, wouldn’t have taken any sh*t even if the mob had have put pressure on him – he had been through the First World War, hidden from the enemy in a pile of his dead friends. They thought he was dead too and left but he stayed there for nearly two days until he finally decided to get up and go. This was in July 1918 and he must have told this story three times a week, even thirty years later. He particularly liked telling it to the Okie tourists. Most of the regulars got bored of the anecdote – for that is really what it was: Carl told this horrendous tale in the same manner that you or I would discuss our child’s birthday party or how good the weather was for this late in the year. The only one who didn’t, the only one who paid attention every time, was the loner who always sat at one end of the bar, away from everyone else. By the time I finally decided to talk to him, I had been going to Bloomberg’s regularly – a few times a week or more – for nearly a year and a half, and I had never seen the loner speak, nor anyone speak to him. I asked Carl about him.
“Him? I have no idea.”
“Surely you must know something about him. He’s in here all the time.”
“Jim,” Carl said to me, “you’ve seen him same as I have for, oh, I don’t know, a long time. Look, I’ve been workin’ here for five years this March. He’s been here all the time. He comes in, points to the bottle of Jack behin’ the counter and gives me the money. I don’t know what th’ hell he does or who he is.”
We both looked down the bar at the loner. He looked older than he probably was. His skin was leathery and covered in red cracks from the drink. He wore a jacket every night that would have been pretty expensive once with trousers that didn’t match. He wore brown shoes with white socks. His hair was thin and pulled tight across the top of his skull. There was the feeling of defeat about him, the feeling that he had once been at the top but something happened and he had simply given up. It is a look you often saw in people who failed in Hollywood. Which is to say, most people who tried. I knew at once that he had probably been a screenwriter. Whatever he was doing then, it wouldn’t help his writing. I drank a fair bit in my time there, sometimes too much, but I never looked like him. Carl and I looked at each other and thought the same thing. We didn’t need to say it: that man has nothing to live for. For once, the melodramatic turn of phrase that cursed my screenplays seemed entirely accurate. I would have given almost anything to have been able to properly capture the loner’s gloom in a script. It would have won me an Academy Award.
I said to Carl, “Give me two of what he’s having,” meaning the loner, and had the shots put on my tab (Carl wasn’t supposed to keep tabs running, but he liked me, so let it slide). I looked around at the few others in the bar, feeling almost guilty as I sat down next to the loner and slid one of the drinks across to him, as if I had broken some sacred covenant of the Screenwriters’ Guild: thou shall look upon the weird, weary man at the bar, but thou shalt not approach him, or offer him alcohol. He nodded his thanks, eyes focused on my face for only a second before slipping away, and downed the whiskey in one, placing the shot glass very carefully down on the stained teak bar surface. He closed his eyes. They were absent – I can’t remember anything at all about those eyes. I doubt I could even had I been asked then, mere seconds after seeing them.
We sat in silence – awkward on my part, just silent on his – until I steeled myself (I actually had to steel myself, as if I was afraid he might be an escaped lunatic, or the guy who murdered the Black Dahlia) and presented him with my hand.
“I’m James Connolly, by the way. I’m a screenwriter.”
He opened his eyes and looked at my hand and then moved his gaze to my face, keeping it there for the first time, until he extended his own hand in a surprisingly firm shake. The corners of his mouth curled up in a smile that looked more like a smirk.
“You’re not an American, are you?” These were the first words I, and probably anybody else in Bloomberg’s, had heard from the guy in all that time.
“No,” I agreed, “I’m from England. Yorkshire.”
“Yorkshire,” he repeated, and then said again, “Yorkshire,” as if he liked the way it made his lips move. “That near London?”
“Er, not really.” I motioned down the bar to Carl for more drinks, even though I hadn’t even had a sip of mine yet, and he nodded. “It’s in the north, more than the south.”
“You’re younger than you look from far away. Why is your hair so grey already? I might not have much left but it’s still the colour it was twenty years ago.”
My hair turned grey naturally in my twenties for reasons unexplained. Carl set the drinks down and muttered, “Tab?” to which I told him yes. My friend the loner nodded again and, as before, swallowed the contents of the glass in one.
He winced, probably feeling the burn in his throat, and said, quite solemnly, “Why are you so far away from home?”
“I’m not far away from home,” I said, “I have a flat a few streets away.”
“No, no, I mean, ah, what made you leave England? Was it the war? You know that some kids ran away to escape the war. I would. God, yes. I was only ten when the last one started; you know, when the Germans sank our ship, the bastards?” I nodded although I admit that I wasn’t entirely sure than what he was talking about. “My brother went to Europe and lasted a week. Do you know, do you know, they, ah, they buried him in some field in Belgium. I’ve never been.” He lifted a shot glass and replaced it, disappointed, when he saw it was empty. I slid both of mine across. I didn’t really want them.
“I- I’m sorry about-” I started, but he interrupted, repeating himself.
“So why are you here instead of England?” he asked.
“I won a scholarship to study English in New England.” So much England and English.
“Did you, ah, finish it?”
I laughed, harshly: “No.”
He looked at his fingernails for thirty seconds before saying, “I’m Eddy.”
I waited for him to finish, “Eddy…?”
“Does it really matter?”
“I suppose it doesn’t.”
Eddy drained both of the shot glasses and waved his hand for more. Carl brought them and waited for the money. Eddy didn’t buy me one.
“I was a screenwriter once. That’s why I come here. I gave that up years ago though. You know what I do now?”
I waited for him to go on.
“I wash cars.” His strangled laugh was bitter. “I wash cars. With the rest of the unskilled masses. I’m clever, you know. I went to Yale. I really did! I was like you, studied English. I got a good degree and thought it might do me some good coming out here to get into movies, you know? So I left my family in Maine, who I haven’t seen most of them for, oh, fifteen years now, and came here. And it was good.”
He paused for breath, and I said, “So why are you washing cars?”
“Let me finish. It was good, for a while. Longer than a while, in fact. I made good money, more than you make from writing now anyway, because there were less of us, and we got on. We sometimes shared ideas. We didn’t get any credit if one of our ideas was taken by somebody else and made into a film, but we didn’t mind, because they were our friend. And they would do the same if you took one of theirs’. So it was all good. And then it got better. Have you heard of Mary Oliver? I married her.”
I hadn’t but said I had. It was obvious what was coming and I didn’t want to disrupt his flow. He still had the knack of a storyteller. It might sound trite but it felt almost as if he were the deep voiced narrator of a radio morality play. It was impressive coming from such a pathetic looking man of just forty or so, who looked fifty or more. I had to keep reassuring myself that I wasn’t mistaken – this man really only was five years older than me.
“God, Mary… Mary was beautiful. I mean, all men say that about their wives, but she really was, you know? We were great for a few years. We were going to have kids and grow old together, that old chestnut. She got pregnant.”
“And what happened?” I said, already knowing the answer.
“She died. The kid came home for a week and then he died as well. I couldn’t really focus on my work – understandably, I thought, you know? – and I got fired off a couple of script jobs and you know how it is here: you screw up a couple of times and then you’re nothing all over. I thought about going back home but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. So I tried to stay in movies. They were all I knew. But I screwed that up as well. I started drinking after Mary and the baby and screwed some things up. So I got let go from those jobs as well. And finally, here I am, washing cars. All because of what happened to Mary and the kid.”
I didn’t really know what to say, so I just said, “Do you want another drink?”
He did and after they had been delivered and dispatched, he said, “Do you have a girl?” Somehow I had been expecting the question.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose and said, “What’s her name?”
I hoped he wouldn’t sing “Amazing Grace” – he was getting close to drunk now – and thankfully he didn’t. Instead, he said, “Appreciate her, you know.” It was an instruction veiled as an aside. “Appreciate her.”
“Yeah.” I was suddenly very interested in a patch of varnish on the counter that was coming off. I grasped the little flap of gauze between my finger and thumb and pulled. It came off and I let it travel slowly through the air, travelling on a tiny breeze as somebody opened the door and went home. I only looked at Eddy again when I realised he was struggling to read his watch. I did it for him.
“It’s ten to twelve. Almost midnight.”
“Thanks.” He pushed himself up. “Guess I’d better be getting home.” I wondered where home was, and said, “Are you sure you’ll be alright? I can, er, call a cab if you want.”
He shook his head and thanked me, but he could make it himself. His rocking movement as he stood on the spot made me think otherwise but I didn’t say anything.
He suddenly said, “Have you read Poe?”
I had; in fact I had written an article on him that had been published in my university’s journal. I said, “Yes.”
“As have I,” he said, needlessly. “Do you know whom in Poe I am like?”
He actually said “whom” – the drink and the years may have been hard on him, but the influence of the quality East Coast education in him was hard to erase. I shook my head.
“The narrator of The Raven. I’m stuck lamenting for something I can’t change.” He quoted from memory, loudly enough that Carl down at the other end of the bar gave him a funny look: “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted, nevermore!” His face contorted in a smile that wasn’t a smile.
I just looked at him. There was nothing I could say.
“The difference is, of course, that he had his Lenore, whereas I had Mary. And Mary doesn’t rhyme with nevermore.” He laughed to himself and turned away. He moved a couple of feet towards the door before turning over his shoulder and saying to the room, but really to me, “Don’t be like me. Don’t.” The same sad non-smiling smile touched his face and before he went through the door, he added, “You know?”
I continued to visit Bloomberg’s until I was blacklisted and returned to England, where I made a far better living than I ever did in California. Eddy was always there, but I never spoke to him again, and eventually came to not even think of him as Eddy, but just the loner, as he had been for the eighteen months before I had finally spoken to him. Now though, he was not the mystery loner, the loner without a motive – he was the loner who had had become so through unhappy circumstance, and this weighed heavily against him whenever I thought of him, and was a big part of my now active avoidance of him. This was extremely petty of me, but in much the same way that the friends of a terminal cancer patient will slowly and quietly stop calling round, I wasn’t sure what to say to him, or what to do around him. He was just always there, sitting heavily at the metaphorical bar in my brain.
The loner was still there at the bar the last time I ever went to Bloomberg’s, but although I made Carl – Carl, who had used the bodies of his best friends for camouflage! – come dangerously close to tears with my leaving, and shook the hands of fifty or more people I had never even seen before, let alone met, I still couldn’t bring myself to say farewell to the loner, and for his part he made no attempt to say goodbye. I married Grace, but not until we moved to England. I’m not saying that this was because I was seized with the motiveless desire, for some bizarre, pointless reason, to have the wedding as far away from the melancholy, unhappy loner as possible, but it might have been. You know?
Posted 28 January 2012 - 04:51 AM
Yours is the first piece on here I've read in a while, as I'm more of a lurker than a poster these days, so I'm a bit rusty when it comes to giving decent feedback - so bear with me. But I've got to say I've missed your excellent prose and style of storytelling, and of course the type of stories you like to write; there's quite a vivid atmosphere amongst your work that makes it easy to picture in my mind's eye, and this is no exception. And as far as shorts go, this is a solid body of work. You should be proud.
I hope you'll frequent this place some more; it's quite refreshing to see people writing again in these parts.
Posted 29 January 2012 - 08:08 PM
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