Reality Road Kill (work in progress!!!!)

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CHAPTER 3 -- A TOUGH NIGHT

Flash Flood is on the marquee of the Mann’s Chinese Theatre, in big red letters that scream “action thriller.” Paul observed that when a film is bad, the studio hosts a big premiere, and from the small size of the crowd, Paul knew that Flash Flood must be a terrible summer movie. Any event at the Mann’s Chinese is a cluster-fuck for all the news crews covering it, even the small ones. Paul finds his reporter, Cindy, fighting to hold a spot in the camera line while straddling the camera and gear bag.

“Are you the RTL reporter?” Paul asks.

“Yes,” she moans, “and the gear’s getting trampled!”

Paul kneels and slides the Betacam camera from between her ankles. He unzips the gear bag, slaps a battery on the back, hooks up the audio transmitter, tests the microphone and hands it to Cindy.

“We’re good to go,” Paul says, and just in time. The first guests are already walking up the red carpet.

The studio publicist sticks them at the end of the TV camera line right next to the screaming paparazzi, where it will be hard to attract celebrities. But Cindy is a good entertainment journalist and she came prepared in a low-cut dress with a zippered front that pushes her boobs out, and soon there’s a steady stream of young male TV stars agreeing to chat with her. The paparazzi scream at them, flooding everyone with a tsunami of flashbulbs. The other crews howl in protest, wanting the boys to talk to them, and the publicists are pissed that their news event is now being controlled by German television. Then the pushing starts.

Cindy interviews a hunk named Marco DiPippio who Paul frames in a tight chest shot. A screaming publicist yanks on his left arm, so Paul pans left -- and smacks his lens into the camera next to him. A dozen people push back, crushing him and Cindy against the metal barrier that pen in the paparazzi. Someone punches Paul between the shoulder blades, and the $50,000 camera slides backwards off his shoulder into empty air. In a microsecond, Paul turns, catches the camera on the way down, pulls it to his chest, spins in the air and lands on his back with the camera safe in his arms. He sees a flash of light as his skull bounces on the pavement.

When he wakes up, there’s plenty of open pavement around him. The camera is safe in his arms with the red tally light still on, which means the whole incident is captured on tape. His head hurts. Then he notices the circle of people staring down at him, and Cindy, scowling. A publicist breaks through the circle and kneels close to him.

“Do you have any kind of press credentials?”

Paul touches the back of his head. It’s sticky. “I think I’m bleeding.”

“If you don’t have credentials, you both must leave now.”

They leave without protest and make their way to the parking lot behind the theater. Cindy opens the tailgate of her sport utility vehicle and Paul slides the camera back into its case. His hair is wet, but the bump is still too huge for the blood to really start flowing. It just throbs. He ejects the one tape he shot.

“Just give me the hundred dollars, we’ll call it a night.”

“I don’t have a hundred dollars. You’re supposed to invoice them.”

“You guys paged me to do this two hours ago. The only reason I agreed was because I’d be paid in a hundred dollars in cash.”

“No one told me that,” she says.

“I just cracked my skull open to save your network from buying another camera.”

“This never happens with our regular camera guy. And I don’t even have enough footage to cut a story,” she says.

“How much money do you have?”

Cindy laughs. “On me? Right now? Maybe fifty.”

“I’ll take it.” Paul sticks out his hand.

Cindy smirks, laying the contempt on thick. She pulls out two 20s and a ten. Paul takes it and walks away. He knows they won’t call him again. It’s best now to just take as much money as he can and safely get himself and his car back to Maggie’s.

He walks down Hollywood Boulevard, feeling his skull throb with every step. He parked his Camry in the lot behind Musso and Frank’s Grill, figuring it would be safer there than out on the street. But when he reaches the lot he spots a familiar brown Cutlass Impala with two men smoking inside. He can only see their shapes – one is small and skinny, the other one is large. He gets his key in the front door lock as the guys emerge.

“Paul Franti?”

Paul doesn’t look up.

“If you’re not going to pay for the car anymore, the owners would like it back.”

Paul gets in and locks the door. The small guy comes up to the driver’s side, while the big guy hangs back by the right rear tire, cop style. Great, Paul thinks. They’ve probably got guns too. Paul stares straight ahead as the small guy taps on the side glass with his pinkie ring.

“We’re just doing our job, Mr. Franti, don’t make us chase you.”

“I’ll call the dealership tomorrow.” Paul starts the car.

The repo guy moves to block the car, but Paul pops the car into gear and zooms past him and out of the parking lot. But he goes into the street too fast, bottoms out, and smashes his head into the ceiling of his car, filling his brain with another white flash of pain. He makes it to the corner and turns left onto Hollywood Boulevard. He glances in the rearview mirror -- the Cutlass Impala is behind him, but they miss the light.

His legs are shaking. The pain now flows through him and makes him so angry he punches the dashboard. Eight years ago, he couldn’t have imagined himself in this situation. He had a life, money in the bank, he was fresh out of school with a future as a filmmaker, an award-winning short movie under his arm, ready to bend Los Angeles to his will. And here he is, eight years later, terrified, his sweat and blood staining the seat of a used car he can no longer afford.

Paul turns onto Cahuenga into bad traffic. He glances in the rearview mirror. The Cutlass is back there somewhere, closing in. He feels like O.J. as the cars inch forward in slow pursuit.

What kind of life is this? But what would he do instead? Give up and go to Law School? Get an MBA? He is 30, it might be too late to change. This is why he hates Los Angeles traffic; it gives him way too much time to think.

Paul keeps turning down darker side streets. He needs a place to hide -- he can’t risk them following him back to Maggie’s and knowing where she lives. He passes the ugly concrete buildings on Seward and spots The Darby Sound Company, with the gate open and the lights on, which means Big Andy is still in there mixing. He turns in and parks.

Perfect, he thinks. I’ll just sink into a deep plush sofa in a darkened audio booth and let Andy’s latest hip hop mix lull him to sleep.

Paul rings the doorbell and steps back so Andy can see him from the upstairs window. Andy waves just as Paul sees the Cutlass drive by. He hears the brakes screech. The car is coming back.

“Andy! Shut the gate!”

Andy shrugs through the window and points at his ear. He can’t hear him.

“Shut the gate so I can keep my car!”

Andy hits a button and the gate inches forward. Paul runs and pushes the gate in its track to help it along. The Cutlass roars back, slams into drive and tries to drive inside but the gate locks in time.

The repo guys get out and Paul sees their faces for the first time. They are around his age and already embrace their roles in life -- the beefy guy with the goatee wearing the motorcycle jacket is the Enforcer, and the small guy in the black suit is the Businessman.

The Businessman holds up his hands. “Is it worth it to exhaust yourself like this? We’re going to get the car anyway.”

“Sorry. I’ve got to keep this car. I’m dead without it.”

“Next time, don’t make us chase you. It gets everybody’s adrenaline pumping, and that’s how someone gets hurt.”

The repo men get in their car and drive away. Paul hears crickets and smells night blooming jasmine. That was a movie moment, Paul thinks, and he files it away. And they were very polite, considering what he’s put them through.

Upstairs, Andy greets him with a hug and Paul feels all 260 Midwestern pounds of him, with his cornhusker hair and his baggy hip hop outfit. Andy, his best friend from college, and his only friend left from that brief time when they thought all things were possible.

“Are you doing speed? You’re way too skinny.”

Paul frowns. “No, I’m not doing speed. I’m anxious and starving to death. And tonight, I got this bump...”

Paul tilts his wounded head for Andy to see. Andy winces.

“How big is the bump?” Paul asks.

“It’s a walnut. But it’s stopped bleeding, so quit touching it.”

“I need to lie down.”

“You can’t sleep. You might go into a coma or something.”

Andy puts him in an office chair, opens the first aid kit and rips open a roll of gauze which he wraps around Paul’s sticky head.

“Things change, huh Andy?”

“Yup. Things change.”

They’d driven out from Andover College together. Paul had an agent then and started going to meetings, all because he did a short film everybody loved. Andy had wanted to make films too, but found mixing and audio work easier, which Paul had looked down on as settling for less.

But while Paul had slaved on his art in the eight years since, Andy had worked nine-to-five, and met all kinds of people. Now Andy is mixing sound for commercials during the day and producing music demos for bands at night. He even owns a field audio rig for news shoots and documentaries. He is on a creative path and has money in his wallet, while Paul is two steps above a street person.

“How late are you mixing tonight?”

“Until dawn. The band’s due any minute. When you rang the bell, I thought you were them -- they’re called XXX-Tra, four brothers from UCLA spending their parents’ money, pretending to be ‘gangstas.’ One even went to the Berklee School of Music.”

“Can I stay?”

“Sure, you’ll be my assistant. Work off some of that debt you owe me.”

Andy pats the bandage. It’s not holding, so he tapes down another layer of gauze. A white helmet slowly takes shape.

“Funny you stopped by. A producer called today, some guy named Joel. He’s looking for somebody to do audio on a network special. He’s renting my rig. If you want, I can pass your name on to him.”

“Audio?” Paul asks. “If anything, I’m a shooter. I don’t know audio.”

“Fine. Turn it down then.”

Paul reconsiders the offer. “A network special, huh?”

“Yup, except there’s never anything special about a network special. And it’s a ‘reality show,’ so you know it’s a shit load of work, chasing people through the streets with a camera and a boom pole.”

“But it’s a job.”

“Exactly. And if you want a job, I’ll recommend you.”

The bandages are still loose. Andy takes off his knit cap and pulls it down over Paul’s head, holding in the entire white and red mess. The buzzer rings.

“XXX-Tra is in the house. Let’s get to work.”

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