“Lost Angeles: Writers on the Storm” is an excerpt from Jim Cherry’s novel The Last Stage.
We pulled up in front of a u-shaped apartment building that opened into a courtyard, the address the writer gave me. Jimmy and I walked up to the apartment. It looked like I was expected, the inside door was opened and I could hear the TV show The Price is Right coming from inside. I knocked on the screen door, loudly. A woman came to the door, she was in a bathrobe and looked to be in her mid to late 40’s. Her hair was disheveled, she didn’t have any make-up on, and she was swaying a little.
“Michael?” She asked.
“Yes, I’m here to see Tory Pearson.”
“I’m Tory. Who’s this?” She asked, looking Jimmy over.
“Jimmy Stark, the star of Family Muse, remember that show?” This didn’t seem to impress her.
“He’s kind of my entourage.” I said.
“Come on in, “ she said, as she flipped the latch on the screen door. The apartment wasn’t that big. There was a desk in the middle of the room with a typewriter on it surrounded by a mess of papers. A cigarette smoldered in an ashtray, next to it, a half filled glass of whiskey. A crack ran up one wall behind a picture that was askew it gave me a queasy feeling, like we were perpetually in an earthquake. Sitting in a chair opposite the desk was a barrel chested man intently watching the TV, he was also dressed in a bathrobe, but his was open, belted at the waist with a leather belt. His hair was gray and black, Bryl Creamed back, there was a bluish tint to it. His beard was stubbly gray. There was something Hemingwayesque about him. “This is Joe.” She said, introducing the man. Jimmy sauntered in behind me.
“Hey Joe!” Jimmy said.
“Oh, shit.” Joe said, seeing Jimmy, then he took a slug from a glass sitting on a tray in front of him.
“You know each other?” Tory asked.
“Yeah, he played the lead in Tender Fury.” Joe said, brusquely.
“It is after all, a small company town.” Jimmy said, sarcastically.
“And drove me up the wall.” Joe said, offhandedly.
“Yeah, but I was nominated for an academy award.”
“Fucking actors,” Joe rumbled, “can’t even start to be anybody, without a writer writing it.”
“You’re in the movie business, Joe?” I asked.
“Joe wrote the novel Tender Fury.” Tory said.
“I loved that book!” I enthused, “it’s a classic!”
“The movie screwed up my book.”
“How’d they do that?” I asked.
“They tacked on a happy ending and got it wrong!”
“Hollywood is heavily into wish fulfillment,” Jimmy said.
“You should know,” Joe said belligerently. “Hollywood loves the happy ending, but in Hollywood you can’t have the happy ending. From the starlet who ends up a hooker, to the seemingly happily married star who suddenly gets a divorce and marries his 26 year old co-star.”
“They’re just supplying what everybody is looking for,” Jimmy said. “And what they can’t find.”
“The problem is they’re supplying an answer they don’t take in their own lives, they love the bucolic small town middle America virtues; the exact opposite of the choices they made. The city is built on this fault.” Joe said and swallowed some whiskey from his glass. “All I have is the truth, and the truth is you’re not going to get the happy ending, not if life has anything to do with it.”
“Are you out here writing a screenplay?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“No, I write books that others make into movies. I’m a writer in the old fashioned sense of the term, L’escritor.” He said, with a flourish, writing in the air with a finger.
“Are you working on anything new?”
“Read, breed, or retreat, I’ve chosen retreat.” He said, finishing his whiskey. He turned his attentions back to the TV, with some relief on my part. I turned my attentions to the business I’d come for.
“Tory, have you written anything I would know?”
“I wrote the book Breaker and the screenplay for the movie, do you know it?”
“No, is it fiction?”
“Nonfiction, it happened to me and my husband, he was a cop. I was kidnapped and a lot of people died. The episode really screwed up our lives. It made all the papers.”
“I must’ve missed it, what happened?” I asked.
“It’s hard to explain if you weren’t there. I mean, he wasn’t my husband when it all started but I fell in love with him, and when it was all over, and I discovered he’d betrayed me. But where else could I go? Maybe I let circumstances control me, but who else could understand? After all the horror, I chose love. It was a life or death situation, good versus evil, black and white. When you’re pushed together like that how can you not help falling in love? Love conquers all, right?”
“It sounds pretty intense.” I said.
“It was, but it was really only a few minutes out of our lives. Moments that were a little too real, if you know what I mean,” she said, taking another swig from her glass of whiskey. I shook my head knowingly. “But you know there are really only a few moments in our lives where life and death is decided. Moments which either make us heroes or reveal us to be what we are, human, afraid.”
“That sounds about right,” I said.
“That’s from the book,” she said finishing her whiskey.
“I remember the movie now. You don’t look like the girl who played you.”
“She was beautiful wasn’t she? Even after she was supposed to be kidnapped and tortured. The irony is when I met her she wasn’t beautiful, she looked a bit plain. I guess in L.A. you just need the potential to be beautiful. The potential to be something other than yourself.”
“All stories are true sooner or later, boy” Joe said, obstreperously interjecting fron his chair. “Unless it’s science fiction or some crap like that.”
“Then reel life takes over, if you know what I mean,” Tory said. I must not have looked like I knew what she meant. “Like reel, as in a movie.” I shook my head yes. “And you go to all the glamorous parties, the premieres and you don’t even notice the clock is ticking on your fifteen minutes of fame. The question is, what do you do when the movie’s over? What are you supposed to do in that sixteenth minute?”
“Uh, yeah.” I said. I didn’t know what to say and was trying to think of ways to change the subject again. “How long have you guys been married Joe?”
“Joe’s not my husband,” Tory said. “My husband is probably out trolling the bars hoping one of the girls who played Jimmy’s sisters on Family Muse comes in. So, Michael,” she continued, “what’re you looking for a writer for?”
“I need someone to write my story,” I said.
“And what’s that?” She asked.
“MY story, the true story of my life. I want it to be the story of an everyman who comes from no where and makes it big. I want it to be a real Horatio Alger story!”
“People don’t want to hear the truth, they want a story they can believe is the truth,” Joe bellowed.
“Shusssh,” Tory hissed at Joe, before turning back to me. “I just have one question, who are you?”
“Who are you? And why would anybody want to read YOUR story?” She forcefully expelled a cloud of smoke in my direction and propped her arm in the air, agitatedly flicking the cigarette between her fingers.
“I’m in a band, I sing.”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard…”
“Hold it right there,” she said, “if you don’t know if we’ve heard of your band, how do you expect anyone else to have heard of it?” She sounded irate, then the expression on her face relented a little, “OK, let’s try this. Do you have a literary agent?”
“Do you have an advance from a publisher for your story?”
“Do you have any interest from a publisher?”
“Well, how do you propose to pay for my services?”
“Half interest in the book upon its publication.” She looked over at Joe, deeply concerned, who was finishing off another glass of whiskey.
“Let me get this right, you want me to write a book on spec? That means speculation.”
“You know,” he started to say in his oversize tones, “you look neither blank enough to write a story upon, nor interesting enough to write about!”
“What if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain?” Tory asked.
“I’ve never backed out of a deal in my life.”
“I have books published. My work has market value,” she said. “Let me give you some friendly advice, when you’re ready to have a biography or an autobiography written, writers will be coming to you. Until then, go see a movie, read a book.”
“Hey kid!” Joe bellowed out the door, as Jimmy and I walked to the car, “all stories should end in death, the death of the hero. Give us a call when you’re dead!”