CHAPTER 12 -- THE STORY CHANGES
Paul rides the bus downtown for yet another long night of work. Three weeks has gone by and Paul has found his rhythm. He starts work at 5:30 p.m. and works until sometime between 2 a.m. and dawn, depending on the kids. Then he does maintenance on his gear, stow it in the white van, and takes the bus home.
Half the week he manages to crawl into bed with Maggie for a few hours of sleep before she has to get up. The rest of the time he gets home after she’s already left for work. On his one day off a week, he sleeps, eats, and washes clothes.
“You’re like my golden retriever,” she says, scratching his head as he lies on the couch one Sunday afternoon. “I just have to worry about feeding you, that’s it.”
They’ve had sex once in three weeks, vanilla sex that felt more like unclogging a drain pipe than making love, and then it was back to work for both of them. The truth is, their relationship is on hold until the six weeks are up, and Maggie seems happy without him. She has her life and her friends, and he is just a warm body that appears and disappears without incident, which suits her just fine.
When he gets off the bus, a Silver Lexus is waiting for him. Joel Cuvney steps out. It is never a good sign when the network executive shows up on set--if the vats could be called a set. Either there is a problem that he thinks he can fix, or he is bored and wants to change things, just because he can.
“Paul! How’s the job so far?”
He has a hundred complaints but none that Joel will ever address, so he keeps them to himself. He looks towards the vats and sees that the white van is gone.
“When I showed up Dwight and Victor drove off together somewhere. I think they want to get away from me. We were supposed to have a meeting, but they just drove off.” Joel whines like the cool kids don’t want to play with him.
“They probably went to get something to eat.”
“Did the kids eat pancakes and get high again last night?”
“Yes, they did.”
“You know how many hours of tape we have of them sitting in that damn pancake house? What kind of story is that?”
“I’m sure Dwight will be able to edit it down into a good documentary.”
“But it’s not a documentary!’ Joel screams at him. “It’s a nonfiction movie! Why don’t you people see that?”
“Hey, I’m just the audio guy,” Paul says.
“This is mundane boring bullshit!” Joel screams, precisely because Paul is the audio guy, and low enough in Joel’s mind that he feels he can yell at him.
“Ever hear of Roots?” Joel yells. “That started as a movie-of-the-week, but they ran it as a daily strip, and it changed television. We could be doing that here. Instead we’re going to end up with two hours of crap.”
Paul rocks on his heels, wishing the white van would come back. It’s 6 p.m. and the kids must be awake by now.
Joel lights a cigarette, takes a long drag, steps off the curb and stands in front of Paul. He blows smoke. “It really is crap...don’t you think?”
It all becomes clear. The producer wants him to say that the director’s work is crap. Joel needs an ally against Dwight, and he is offering Paul the job.
“Before I answer that, can I ask you a question, Joel?“.
“What happened to the last audio guy anyway?’
“He just didn’t work out. He was always complaining.”
“Complaining about what?”
“Chest pains from overwork. He collapsed one night and we let him go home early. He went to some doctor who told him he had a heart attack. Now he’s trying to sue us, the bastard,” Joel says, tossing the cigarette away. “So, what do you say? This is crap, isn’t it?”
Paul doesn’t know what to do. Normal etiquette says that a crew member never sides against the director; there had to be solidarity against anybody in a suit trying to compromise the work. But then again, this is hardly a regular shoot and Dwight and Victor treat him like crap. What kind of solidarity is that?
“I haven’t been here the whole shoot but I’m having trouble following the story.”
“Exactly!” Joel yells, dancing on his feet. “Dwight says that he finds the story once he’s in the edit bay, but I don’t believe him. We’ve already shot 500 hours of footage, and it’s them eating pancakes night after fucking night!”
Paul has a choice; he can stay an audio guy, and just mention that the sound is good, which is all that matters. Three weeks from now he’ll be done, he’ll have his five thousand bucks and he’ll never have to see these people again. Or, he could cross the line and be more. He has opinions, he can tell a story, and when he succeeds there will be plenty of producers like Joel in his future. This could be good practice. He should talk to him and see where it goes.
“The kids have a tough time and their lives are really sad, but their struggle doesn’t really fit into a natural story arc with a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s the same thing over and over, and nothing is going to change unless these kids get challenged dramatically with a crisis. An inciting incident.”
Joel looks at him wide-eyed, as if he Paul had just found his long-lost brother. “That’s perfect. You hit it right on the nose.”
The white van appears from around the corner and parks in front of the brewery. “Eyes are on me, I better get to work,” Paul says. He leaves Joel salivating on the curb and walks to the van. He opens the back door and reaches for his gear. Victor lies flat on his back on the mattress, boring a hole through the top of the van with unblinking eyes. It’s probably his version of sleep, Paul thinks.
As he assembles his gear, he spots Dwight and Joel inside Joel’s Lexus, screaming at one another. No sound escapes, but the chassis moves whenever Dwight bangs his fist on the dashboard. Dwight leaves the car and slams the door, ending the meeting. Joel rolls down his window and yells. “I’m getting everybody dinner! Come on, Paul, I need your help.”
Paul freezes and looks at Dwight, who shakes his head to say no.
“No way, I need Paul here.”
“It’s on me! Come on, do you want food or not?”
Both Dwight and Victor stare at him, waiting to see what he’ll do. Paul looks at his director. “It’s your call, Dwight.”
Dwight waves his hand with disgust at him, signaling that he can go. Paul shuffles to the car, feeling like a Mafia informer hopping into a police cruiser in front of his gangster buddies. He sinks into the leather seat and Joel spins away.
They go to McDonald’s and Joel uses the drive-through and hands the bags to Paul. That’s the extent of Paul helping to get dinner, but Joel keeps asking questions.
“So, who’s the main character here?”
“Trent is the obvious leader. All the storylines flow from him--”
“That’s obvious,” Joel interrupts. “I want to know who jumps out at you.”
“Duncan has the charisma. He’s a loose cannon, but there’s something exciting there if you can figure out how to use him.”
Joel nods and smiles. Paul feels like he just passed some kind of test.
“Interesting...I’d like to see your film. See what else you’re up to.”
Joel parks next to the white van. Paul stares straight ahead. “I’ll get you a copy,” Paul says as he grabs the hamburger bags and gets out. Joel drives away.
“I guess he’s not staying for dinner. What did you tell him?” Dwight asks.
“I said you are a mentor, artist and my inspiration.” Paul thrusts his bag of food at him. Dwight glares at him...then smiles. Paul jabbed him with a joke and Dwight had allowed it, which means he is one step closer to being accepted. The three men stand on the curb munching their hamburgers next to the open van.
“I can’t believe I’m eating this corporate crap,” Dwight mutters. “That cheapskate would go to McDonald’s.” Dwight reaches inside the van and pushes up the sliders on his mixing board and brings up the sound on the hidden microphones inside the vats. Nothing but static...the kids are still sleeping. It’s 6:30 p.m. and nothing is happening yet.
Dwight pushes up the volume on the microphones in another room and panting comes out of the speakers. Dwight isolates one microphone as panting becomes groaning.
“That’s Jodi,” Paul says.
“Sounds like Trent’s working that broken middle finger of his,” Dwight says.
“He’s working more than that,” Victor says, and he and Dwight snicker.
It makes Paul hate them even more. Dwight the purist, who insists on remaining detached from his subjects, is laughing at them. Listening to two homeless kids making love on a filthy mattress is the closest to sex Dwight and Victor were going to get. Paul wants to shout at them that he doesn’t need to eavesdrop, he has a real sex life with Maggie --although it’s on hold right now, and Maggie doesn’t mind. Instead, Paul holds his tongue.
Dwight and Victor wolf down the last of their hamburger buns, another meal eaten in five minutes. Dwight lowers the volume for that room and raises up another fader so he can eavesdrop on Ilima and Duncan.
Duncan and Ilima giggle, then Ilima whispers. “Get away from me! It’s so ugly, put it away...”
“Duncan has no clue, but he’s trying, God bless him.” Dwight says. “Let’s try to shoot this, we still haven’t gotten any decent sex on tape.”
Paul doesn’t feel like shooting voyeur porn and hopes the kids will finish by the time he and Victor get in there. Paul checks his gear as slowly as he can and clips his audio rig into place across his shoulder and hips. The thick padded leather shoulder strap is still damp from his sweat the night before. Victor grabs his camera and they ease up the creaky fire escape and enter the building without a noise.
Crouching low, they tiptoe between the carpets of broken glass and through the main vat room. Victor hits the “record” button on his camera, then motions for them to creep forward to the kids’ living area. Paul holds his boom out, sniffing for sound. They get to the door of the first storage room and Victor eases his camera in, spying…
“Yo!’ Duncan screams in their faces and runs away, giggling.
Victor is thrown off-balance and almost drops the camera. Ilima stays under her blanket on her pallet, laughing and coughing.
Trent and Jodi walk in, fully dressed. “Let’s go get some pancakes!” he yells.
Duncan and Ilima dash around pulling the rest of their clothes on and within moments the group tumbles out of the building and heads down the street.
This time the kids end up at Daisy’s, an old downtown diner whose sign is a buxom hillbilly girl bursting out of her rag dress. The waitress doesn’t mind if they smoke inside, so the kids eat pecan pancakes and ham, then smoke an entire pack of Marlboros between them.
Each is so different from the other, but this is what they share, Paul thinks. No matter how bad things are, they can always agree on how much they love pancakes and smoking. It isn’t much, but it’s something.
It makes Paul wonder what keeps Maggie and him together. For a long time, it was sex -- they had sex when they were happy, sad, bored, or angry. It was a response to everything. Now that isn’t enough for Maggie, she wants something more. She wants a sense of direction and purpose. Paul does too, but he’s not sure if he’s ready for a big commitment.
Maggie senses this, although he denies it when she asks him. Sex had gradually been replaced by ceaseless talking, especially after he moved in. No matter how much he tells her he is only there until he can pay off the creditors, she still wants to talk about the relationship. That one action -- “moving in” -- speaks louder than any words he can ever say. As long as Paul isn’t honest with himself or her, Maggie will keep her distance. They haven’t seen a movie, read the paper in bed, or shared coffee in the morning in weeks. A wave of self-pity hits him – these homeless kids have more true love and affection than he has right now.
Even though he is in debt and working nights as they drift further apart, Paul decides at this moment that he and Maggie must stay together, whatever that means.
Victor elbows Paul -- he’d let the boom drift into frame. Paul jerks it up and focuses back on the conversation.
The kids argue about whether it’s okay to eat the strip around the edge of the ham, or whether you should peel it off. Then they eat all the sugar and NutraSweet out of the packages, and argue about which tastes better. They argue about whether to shoplift or to panhandle, and whether to buy beer, speed, weed, or more pancakes. Ilima coughs and spits green phlegm into her paper napkin and shows it to everyone, and they all groan.
Ilima laughs and then is hit with a fit of deep resonant hacking coughs. Her face turns red, then purple as she fights to get control. The waitresses stare at her. Victor gets on his knees and pushes in for a tight shot, framing her face from below. She jumps up from the booth and runs into the bathroom, shutting the door in Victor’s face.
The waitress walks up. “You need to get her to a doctor.’ She puts the bill on the table and stares at them, but Trent and Jodi looks down away. The waitress walks off.
“We can bring her to the free clinic,” Jodi says. “They can give her something.”
“Ilima doesn’t like doctors,” Trent says.
“Maybe we should bring someone to the vats.”
No way. The vats stay our secret. If some social worker finds out we’re in there, then they’ll kick us out or other people will figure out how to get in there with us.”
Duncan chews on a paper napkin, wads up a spit wad and shoots it through a straw. It hits the picture of the Hillbilly girl hanging above their booth right on the eye.
“She wants to go to the hospital,” Duncan says.
“She does?” Trent asks.
“That’s what she says. Except she’s not sick enough yet. She wants to get so sick that they let her stay a week, sleeping in a big bed, watching TV and eating Jell-O all day.” Duncan shoots another spit wad and it hits the hillbilly girl’s other eye. Trent and Jodi look at each other and nod. It’s a strategy that makes sense to them.
Ilima returns and sits. She seems okay except her face is ashen.
“You should have your own room. We’re going to dig out all the trash from the next storage area down the hall, and that’ll be your own space.” Trent says.
Ilima beams with their love and acceptance.
“Let’s get out of here,” Trent says.
Back at the vats the kids clear out the storage space further down the hall. They yank out pieces of pipe and carry them to the main staircase in the vat room and toss them down the stairs, listening to them clang and boom against the cement. They haul out cans of hardened paint and garbage bags full of old paper. In the very back under all the mess they find an old refrigerator with the door missing, with wire racks inside.
“Cool, you’ve got some shelves,” Jodi says.
They drag her pallet down the hallway and position it in the middle of the room, and then bring in the three-legged red chair that they found in Hollywood, along with candles and a flaming mason jar. The room has no trash or bad smells yet, so it looks almost livable.
“There. You have your own room,” Jodi declares. “You can sleep all day and all night if you want. No cigarette smoke and no noise. You can get healthy.”
Ilima giggles, then coughs deep and rough, like a walrus. “I like it,” she says. “But I wish I could really decorate it.”
“Let’s tag the walls then,” Jodi says, and runs into her own room and comes back with a felt tip marker and a can of spray paint, which she hands to Ilima and Trent. She steps over to Paul and pulls two sharpie markers from his shirt pocket (it happens so fast that Paul has no time to stop her) and hands one to Duncan and keeps the other one for herself. Trent shakes the spray paint can and draws his “tag” repeatedly -- a Capital T with the r…e…n…t…twisting out beneath it. Ilima draws her name a dozen times, always dotting the eye with a circle or a happy face. Victor gets a behind-the-shoulder shot as she switches to unicorns, which she draws in large graceful loops. On one unicorn, she draws the horn to look like an erect raging penis.
“This one’s named Duncan,” she laughs. Duncan just smiles.
Jodi draws the Anarchy symbol then writes a poem: Sweet like a bird,
Hacks like a Camel,
Ilima has her own room!
Duncan is the slowest. He watches Ilima closely and tries to draw her portrait, but it’s not very good; it’d closer to a cartoon then an actual likeness.
“I’m no good at this,” he complains.
“Don’t draw pictures then. Just draw your name,” Jodi says.
Duncan throws his pen down and walks out of the room.
“It’s okay, it just takes practice,” Jodi promises.
Victor gets a shot of Duncan through the doorway, sitting forlorn and self-pitying in the next room, the light playing off his face from the flaming glass jar. Ilima walks into the room and touches his shoulder from behind, comforting him.
A movie moment, Paul thinks. And the lighting is good too. In fact, the whole evening has been full of moments. The kids are doing something besides eating, stealing, begging and taking drugs. They’d created a living space for Ilima, drew art on the walls, and expressed concern for one another.
Victor’s headset buzzes. He gestures to Paul that they are on break and they retreat to the fire escape. Dwight is waiting for them at the bottom of the staircase with a huge grin on his face.
“Finally! We’re in the groove! That’s some good scene material!’ Dwight says to Victor. Then he turns to Paul and spits. “Except you broke the rules.”
“How did I break the rules? I thought we were doing fine in there.”
“You gave Jodi two sharpies to write on the walls.”
“I didn’t give them to her, she took them,” Paul protests. He turns to Victor.
Victor shrugs. “I didn’t see it; my eye was to the camera.”
“I don’t see how it matters that much,” Paul says, smiling. “It was Jodi’s idea to draw, she already had a felt tip and a spray can...two more sharpies, how much difference does that make? Plus, we got some great scene material from it.”
“You’re not supposed to engage them. It affects the reality of the situation. They could have argued about how to share the two pens, they could have fought, anything could have happened. But you interfered,” Dwight says softly, smiling in a patronizing way. “Can you see that now?”
Paul doesn’t appreciate the lesson. “We interfere with these people every time we walk into the room with a camera! Did you want me to fight her when she took them?”
Dwight’s smile turns to a scowl. He walks back to the van.
I’m blowing it again, Paul thinks. His need to be independent is sometimes too strong, he realizes, and it keeps him from getting what he wants. Big Andy swallowed his pride for years and took orders from stupid people who told him that they were in charge, but now Andy oversees his own productions and is moving forward with his career.
But Paul can’t tolerate that; he walks out of jobs or barks back at inept bosses whenever he feels he’s being treated unfairly, and now he’s doing it again and alienating the one guy who can help him get out of debt.
Paul and Victor pee, drink water and eat protein bars. Victor pats him on the back, his first friendly gesture towards him in three weeks of shooting.
“Come on, break’s over. We only have a few more hours to go.”
Back inside the loft the kids light up more candles and share the last of their marijuana. Ilima puts her hand out to grab the joint as it goes by.
“If you smoke it, you finish it,” Jodi says. “I can’t afford your germs.”
“I need it to sleep tonight. It’ll make me feel better.”
They try playing a card game but give up because they’re too stoned. Trent and Jodi start kissing and petting on the ratty red velvet couch, which makes Duncan and Ilima giggle. Victor starts shooting close-ups of lips and roaming hands, until Trent and Jodi sneak into the next room.
Victor creeps forward and shoots through the doorway as they start making love. He doesn’t dare creep any closer; this is the first real sex they have on tape and he doesn’t want to risk ruining the moment. Then he moves back into the main room and gets shots of Ilima and Duncan listening to Trent and Jodi moan while pretending to play cards. Duncan reaches over and tries to kiss Ilima.
“I have to go to bed,” she says. Duncan watches her go and then moves to the windowsill and plays with one of the lit Mason jars, running his hands in and out of the flames.
Dwight’s voice buzzes through Victor’s headset. Victor signals that they were done and heads for the fire escape while Paul pauses for a moment in the main room to power down his gear. Duncan looks up from the flaming Mason jar and catches his eye and smiles. Paul smiles back. Then Duncan points to the back of his head -- to the same spot where Paul has his scar -- then flashes the thumbs up. Paul then points to his face -- to the same spot where Duncan has his scar -- and flashes the thumbs up back. Duncan’s face lit up with happiness.