The producer drove east with all the windows down on Interstate 40 through the moon glow Mojave Desert. He checked his watch. It was 1:01 a.m., and he thought about all the chumps out there to the invisible horizon who’d dug their own graves.
He was ready to drive Pacific to Atlantic, to avoid the same fate. Hollywood was a history lesson. Now he hoped to end up in a small town. Maine, he imagined. That sounded good. Nice and anonymous. Maybe he’d write. Publish under a pseudonym. Use a woman’s name and remain underground as long as he could. Perhaps forever. Forever sounded real good.
The Ford was new but basic. It would get him where he wanted to go in simple proletariat splendor. He’d wait until New Mexico before he insured it. He laid his hand on the brown paper bag, content in his belief that the money could last a year or two if he was careful. Buy a house with cash like he did the car, and sit on the porch in the evening and make like it was all a Norman Rockwell print.
He got Barstow on the radio, the late night news. The LA crime Family had been up to no good. The body of a character named Rosy Cola, a mob up-and-comer, and two unnamed associates had been found in an alley with their throats cut. A professional hit the cops said. The wages of crime said the pious announcer. The producer wondered if it would be madness to write about it one day. Then threw his father’s razor out into the desert, leaving it behind doing sixty.
Hollywood California, in his office on the phone, a few days before, sort of in the late 1950s
“Thank you for calling Central Casting,” a cheerful switchboard operator said. “Call volume is extremely high, so I’m putting you on hold. One of our agents will be with you shortly. Thank you for calling Central Casting.”
“Son of a bitch,” Oscar Child muttered. “Goddamn bastard son of a bitch.” He picked up a sharpened pencil and twisted its tip into a note pad. “Fuck!”
In the near silence came the thoughts of a desperate man, who’d been placed indefinitely on hold: We all pray in the end, if not to God then to the End itself. (Oscar Child decided he preferred the latter, and composed his prayer.)—Dear End, you dirty son-of-a-bitch, let it be dignified when you finally knock on my door. You prick. Just a bullet or a quick toss out the window. Maybe a little something in a drive-by shooting. Please, no drawn out trip to the waterfront in the trunk of a car. No shit kicking preamble. No switchblades or icepicks.
Then there came a click.
The operator repeated herself, “Central Casting, The switchboard’s busy due to a high volume of calls. I’ll put you on hold and get right back to you.”
“No, wait. I don’t want to be on hold. I’ve already been on hold for ten minutes. Wait, no!”
Dead air all over again. Clicks and hiss and an overlapping ghost call, very faint and far away, a man’s voice, barely audible, shouting and crying, “Never in Burbank. I’ll cut my wrists first!”
Then the sound of a receiver being lifted out of its cradle and a woman coughing.
“Hello?” Child said, remembering to be cautious. These people were barracudas; they could smell fear. “Look,” he said, “we need a one legged woman. The right leg preferably, but a missing left’ll do if that’s all you’ve got. We can change camera angles if we have to.”
“What for?” said the woman on at the other end. Her chewing gum voice might have been familiar. Or maybe all dames sounded the same.
“A movie,” he said. “What else? This is Oscar Child speaking, the producer.”
“I don’t usually do the casting work, ‘cept in a pinch. But this ain’t no pinch. It’s just a rush call, so don’t go thinking I’m panicking or anything. Everything’s copacetic at my end.”
The line went quiet, except for the sound of other agents talking in the background.
Then the woman said, “Oscar Wild, you say? I’m checking.” Pause. “You’re not on my Rolodex, mister. Let me check the file cabinet. Wild, Oscar, right? Like that fag writer from a hundred years ago? I hope this ain’t no joke, fella. I don’t have time for joking around.”
“No it’s Oscar Child, Child. Willya just listen? We can talk about how much I hate my mother later. This broad we need’s gotta be an opera singer, too. It’s a Three Stooges feature, get it? It’s gonna be their big comeback. But that’s hush-hush, understand?”
“A one legged opera singer, eh? That’s kinky. Oh yeah, here you are, Oscar Child. You’re on the Rolodex, after all. A to C. But we ain’t got no dames with one leg that sings opera. I think we got a tap dancer, but I might’ve been drinking.”
“This is Central Casting, isn’t it?” Child said. “Aren’t you supposed to have a variety of experienced performers for bit parts? Who am I talking to?”
“It’s Rebecca Malinowski, Mr Child. We’ve worked together before, you and me. Remember, that circus comedy thriller with June Russell, before her bust went bust, with the riot scene in the second act with all the dwarves tryin’ to unionize but the circus owner’s a real fascist bastard and brings out the elephants and fire hoses, but the day’s saved by a strapping young and handsome but tragic quasi-socialist war hero whose probably a homo with a hula girl tattoo and a heart of gold? What was it called again?”
“Birth of a Socialist Nation.”
“That was quite the call,” said Rebecca Malinowski, “200 dwarves, I’ll say.”
“Yeah well you came up short and we had to fill in an awful lot of empty space with non-dwarves. Wound up shanghaiing winos off the street, and had ‘em running around on their knees. Had to pay them extra hooch, thanks to you, for all the scrapes.”
“And what a flop, huh?”
“It was meant to be a statement not a block buster.” He wondered why it sounded like he was apologising. “It was for, and of the people.” He was tired of apologising for Birth of a Socialist Nation.
“I heard it was financed with mob money, too. What a mistake, I’ll say.”
“Look, just say you got what I need.”
“Well this is a rare bird you’re asking me for,” Malinowski said. “I guess we could run an ad.”
“No we need her like yesterday. The whole damn plot hinges on it. But don’t get me wrong, everything’s just swell on our end. I’m not worried, really. How about just some gal with the one leg, no opera singing necessary. We can do a voice-over, even if it ain’t in the budget.”
“I don’t know. I’ll check the files and get back to you. You may be in a pickle, though. I’m thinking we may have to charge a little extra.”
“No!” Child barked. “I mean I’m a good customer. You said so yourself. I’m spending other people’s money here. You’re taking advantage of the situation. It’s un-American.”
“Hey, I was in the USO, fella. I spent the whole Second World War in Honolulu slappin’ sailors. Don’t tell me I’m un-American.”
“You’re killin’ me here,” said Child, “you know that? And just before they blow my head off, my last request will be for them to drop my body off on your desk so you can live with the result of your jacking me around like the fucking useless bimbo you are when you could have done your goddam job. Hopefully I’ll crap my pants when my brains splatter so I really stink up your office and make you wish you were more accommodating businesswise when you had a chance. Put that in your pig shit crapping mother fucking Rolodex and smoke it, you US Navy slut.”
“Hello?” Oscar Child shouted. “Fuck.”
After throwing the phone across the room, he went into his bathroom and opened the cabinet, and stood looking in. Reaching the end of one’s rope, he noticed, came with a spookily calming sense of deliverance.
He knew what he had to do, but had only a vague idea of how. The alley behind the automat, greasy and dim. How ever it turned out, he knew it would be his greatest achievement.
Sitting the lowest shelf in the cabinet was his father’s old straight razor. He’d never used it before. It scared the hell out of him. He stuffed it into his pocket and put on his jacket.
a month and a half earlier—the meeting that led to this whole mess
“So zip it and listen,” Rosy Cola said to Oscar Child, who hadn’t yet spoken. They sat together in the busy Finster’s Automat on South Main.
Rosy was a smallish man with a boyish face and soft hands, and tried to make up for it with a cigarette behind his ear, a book of matches in his hat band and a balisong knife in his sock. Finster’s was Rosy’s favourite joint, and he was a late night regular for dinner and off-the-radar meetings.
Two of Cola’s larger associates sat a few stools down, slurping back their Spaghetti Bolognese.
“Washing the cash,” said Rosy Cola, “goes like this. And remember, I’m tellin’ you this because you’re a tenderfoot, not because I like you. I don’t want no case for you ruining an excellent opportunity out of ignorance.
“With the washing of the moolah,” Cola continued, “I give you the dough that stinks because it’s ill-gotten, see? Then you transform it into semi-legit assets by putting it into your bank account and using it to make a movie, and then paying me back my investment plus the profits, real square kinda. That’s the washing part, simple. ‘Cept it ain’t really washing unless I get the clean dough back after it’s got washed. That’s where the pay-back part comes in. You with me so far, daddyo? Then after you pay me back my investment and profits, you pay me what you already owe me from before with the interest. Isn’t that great?”
“Of course, terrific, wonderful.” Child took a bite of his lemon meringue pie, and chewed stoically.
“Now I gotta tell ya though,” Cola said. “I gotta a niece, see? A real brainiac this girl is, and she says a situation like this is called a paradox. And if I understand her right, a paradox ain’t a sure bet. You see, you’re gonna do this for the Family because you’re a bum who owes the Family big time, but you’re also a bum because your films are flops and that’s why you owe the Family big time. That’s the paradox. But I don’t want no flop this time. I want a masterpiece, a cinematic achievement that’ll have the squares and the suckers linin’ up. I want it to rake in the wampum, capisce?”
“Of course, sure, real capisce.” Child gulped his coffee and burned his tongue. “But it’s really a distribution problem.”
Cola said, “I get it. You was black-listed. No one wants to touch you or your sick degenerate commy merchandise. But that don’t mean you don’t still owe my Family and me twenty-three grand.”
“That much?” Child said.
“That’s this week’s total,” said Cola. “But maybe I can get some other degenerate mooks I got on the hook to handle the distribution part.”
Oscar Child chased a crumb round his plate with his fork and said, “With all due respect, Mr Cola, I’m an artist, not just a business man. I’m not a machine. Besides, no one’s sending me scripts anymore.”
Rosy Cola stared back, quiet for a moment, unused to backtalk, visibly disappointed in Child’s negativity and straining to keep the murder out of his eyes. Then he grinned and looked down at his untouched tuna fish sandwich and glass of milk.
“There I can help,” he said. “I gotta nephew. He’s got a corker of a script for you, a real masterpiece all ready to go. The squares are gonna love it. It’ll star the Three Stooges, see? Larry, Curly and Moe. Their manager says they’re ready for a comeback, and my nephew’s script is golden. It’s a romantic historical drama with a message, understand? The Stooges wanna go straight and do some dramatic work. The script’s spicy hot and ready to blast-off, baby. You just have to raise the cash and put it all together.”
“But I thought you were making the investment,” Oscar Child said, “with the ill-gotten dough.”
“I already have. I bought my nephew’s script. Cost me ten grand. The kid knows how to bargain. I’ll give him that.”
“Ten grand for a script?”
“Now you see why success is an absolute necessity,” said Cola.
“Look, Mr Cola I’m broke. The standard Hollywood money’s out of the question. The studios and the legitimate lenders won’t come near me.”
“Then I guess you’ll need another loan. I’m ready to write the cheque.”
“In a manner of speakin’.”
“I’m not a good risk, Mr Cola. I think you know that.”
“But there ain’t no one in town who recognises my nephew’s script writing genius, but you will because what the hell else you gonna do? You’re the guy, see? You gotta read it. It almost sings. Sal, bring over the script.”
A couple of stools down, one of the big men put down his fork, rummaged through a satchel and then held up a stained, dog-eared and unbound type-written stack of pages. Then he reverently placed it in Cola’s small soft hand.
“Just listen to this,” Rosy said. “This is the opening where he’s setting the scene. It goes like this: The pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova is on the air. Poolside, there are cabana boys and a marimba band plays the Mexican Hat Dance. Happy hotel customers sip rum and pineapple cocktails, as dancing chiquita girls greet our three stars.
“Waddaya say?” said Rosy Cola, beaming like an imbecile. “Pretty damn classy, huh?”
Oscar Child said, “But how can the pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova be on the air if the marimba band’s playing the Mexican Hat Dance? And what’s a chiquita girl?”
Rosy Cola’s imbecilic beam faded.
“You listen to me,” he said, gulping back his milk and slamming the glass down on the counter. Then lighting the cigarette from behind his ear, he drew so hard that half of it disappeared first drag, and he inhaled like it was his terminal breath. “I don’t gotta do this. You’re just some pinko fucking castrato that owes me money, just like all them other deadbeats whose graves I had them dig themselves out in the desert. I could mail your intestines to yer fucking Aunt Tilly in a plain brown parcel, and there’re people in the Family who’d like that.”
“But not just anyone can write a script,” Child pleaded. “There has to be a basic talent. It’s not only an art, but a science. There’s serious technique involved. Technique that has to be learned. Some scripts take years to research and develop, to write and workshop, and then be rewriten again and again. How many scripts has your nephew written?”
“Just this,” Cola said, lovingly stroking the pile of smeared pages. “He’s only twenty years old, just breakin’ into the business.”
“Then he’s still a youngster. Let him go to school. UCLA has a great program. I know people on the faculty. I can get him in, even with a third grade education.”
“Don’t be a smartass. He’s got grade five.”
“I want a business plan by Monday?”
“Monday? Which Monday?”
“The Monday after Sunday.”
Rosy Cola nodded.
“That’s only four days away. It’s impossible.”
“Your own hole in the desert,” Cola said. “Think about it.”
“And I want production in full swing within the month. Actin’ and directin’, the works.”
Child said, “You don’t understand the business, Mr Cola.”
“Franky,” Rosy Cola said, and one of the big men got up, pulling the napkin out of his collar.
“Okay,” said Oscar Child. “Sure sure, alright.”
“Here’s some green to get you started.” Rosy slid a paper bag over to Oscar. “Get receipts and keep ‘em.”
Cola and his boys got up and went to leave by the backdoor, through the kitchen. But before they went behind the counter, Rosy said, “Hey Franky, waddaya call a fella sitting alone in an automat with a bag full of mob money and no choices?”
“I don’t know boss,” Franky said. “What do you call a fella sitting in an automat with a bag full of mob money and no choices?”
“HA! A Hollywood producer! You get it?”
Franky laughed and slapped Rosy Cola on the back. “Sure I get it! That’s a good one, boss!”
Cola said, “I already told ya, Franky. No back slapping.”
* * *
Now on the highway chasing the moon across the Mojave toward freedom, Oscar Child remembered and hoped he’d have a chance, himself, to tell that joke one day.