CHAPTER 7 -- A NEW JOB
Paul, wearing just shorts, sits in a kitchen chair with a sheet around him while Maggie uses the electric razor to shave his hair down to stubble to match the shaved patch on the top of his head. She is having fun, which makes it fun for Paul. The pizza and beer helps too, along with the fact that he has a job.
The phone call made all the difference, Paul thinks. He came home expecting to be crucified, but the bloody sheets scared her. Then she tortured herself over the message he left -- she guessed that he must have been hurt in the morning and didn’t tell her and regretted not being nice. And then he came home with good news about work, and things got all lovey-dovey.
He let his mind drift to the job...his invaluable input would save this show...then he’d be recognized for his genius and attract the attention of the network honchos...then they’d offer him directing jobs, he’d get in the union, and he would finish his film. The film would get great reviews, his movie would be a hit and he’d get a three-picture deal...
The razor clicks off. Maggie pauses to assess her work.
“It’s still a little uneven. I should really just shave you bald.”
“Bald will happen soon enough, we don’t need to be rushing things.”
Maggie touches his head, enjoying the bristles. “I’ll bring out the shaving cream, a razor, lots of towels and warm water...it’ll be sexy.”
“Only if I can shave you first.”
Maggie giggles. He grabs her baggy boxers and pulls her to him. She grabs both sides of his fuzzy head and inhales her desire through her teeth. He pulls her down for a kiss and she more than meets him halfway.
“I like how you look with short hair,” she says when she comes up for air.
“Really? And how’s that?”
“Like a bad boy. Especially with that scar on your head.”
Paul drops the sheet and spots his reflection in the dark kitchen window. It takes a moment for him to adjust. He looks better, like he went through something and came out stronger on the other side.
“I look like a war veteran.” He finishes the last inch of another Corona and grabs the broom to sweep up his hair.
“You’re just going to wake up to a mess in the morning and be pissed.”
She grabs the broom from him. “Oh yeah? You think so, Zipperhead?”
His opens his eyes wide in mock insult. She backs away in mock fear. He growls. That’s the signal. She turns and runs, but he catches up to her at the bedroom door. He grabs the elastic of her boxers and yanks the cotton down over one butt cheek just as she dives for the bed. She lands face down, with her bottom in the air, laughing hysterically into a pillow. He launches himself on top of her and gives her big beautiful ass a healthy slap.
Then she executes a surprise scissors kick, catches him in a vise grip and twists. She’s suddenly straddling him. The giggling stops. Together they yank his shorts off and don’t even bother with her boxers. She just yanks them to one side, grabs him and slides him inside her. They both sigh. They’re home again, after a very long time.
The next morning the phone wakes them up. Maggie answers.
“Hello? Now? It’s 7:30 in the morning...okay, he’ll be right out to get it.” Maggie hangs up. “There’s a runner from the Producer’s Lab out in front of the building with a delivery for you.”
Paul stares at the phone, resenting it. He pulls on some jeans and a baggy sweatshirt to cover his morning erection. A surfer dude with a cell phone strapped to his waist stands on the other side of the iron gate. Paul pushes open the door and signs for the tapes as the guy grins behind his Oakley sunglasses.
“Tell the lady I apologize for the interruption,” he snickers.
Paul ignores him and goes back inside. Maggie is already up, the kitchen floor is swept and coffee is brewing, which means there is little chance he can lure her back to bed. He rips open the box and inside are four VHS tapes labeled CASTING -- ABS Movie of the Week Project. Each tape had a different name -- Trent, Jodi, Ilima and Duncan.
“What is it?” Maggie asks, handing him a coffee mug.
“It must be the four kids from the show.”
“Were they cast? I thought they were real.”
“I guess they’re both. They’re real but there was a casting process.”
“Great. This’ll be better than Saturday morning cartoons,” Maggie says. She grabs the tape labeled Trent and sticks it in the VCR, plops down on the futon couch and zaps the remote. Paul slides down next to her.
Trent comes on screen -- African-American, light-skinned with dark black eyes, thin and wispy, with brown hair in dreadlocks. He’s sits in a chair and leans against a cement wall, just balancing on the chair’s back legs. A glaring light source glares down from above -- probably a bare light bulb just off-screen. Trent looks smart, jaded, bored and awkward all at the same time. He lights a cigarette and inhales deeply.
Dwight’s voice asks a question. “Will you tell me the story?”
“The one about traveling across the country from New York.”
“The whole thing?”
“Whatever part you want.”
Trent flicks the ash off his cigarette. “I’m originally from Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. but I haven’t been home for a long time. For a year, I was living on the streets and crashing on my friends’ sofas, because whenever I would go home my Dad and I would kick the shit out of each other. I sliced his face open with my ring and he broke my middle finger.”
Trent flips the camera the bird with his left hand, and his middle finger is bent thirty-degrees halfway up.
“Do you plan to get that fixed?” Dwight asks off-screen.
“No way. Some girls love it, if you know what I mean.”
“So how did you end up here?”
“My Dad is a big music collector and he had tons of old records and CDs. We lived like cockroaches, but hey, he always took care of the collection. When they were out, I went in there and took that shit, and I left a note telling him I did. And I didn’t take nothing from my mom or my sister.”
“And what did you do with it?”
“I got three thousand dollars in about half an hour and I bought a bus ticket and left town. He’s probably still running the streets of Brooklyn looking for me and I’m clear across the country.”
“So how was your trip across our great nation?”
Trent smiles, and holds up his finger and recites a poem:
“I’m a traveling black man, learning what I can,
my life an education, in containing frustration...
This country don’t see me, but I see you. All of you.”
Trent drops his finger, his poem done.
“You talk in rhyme a lot?” Dwight asks.
“When it hits me.” Trent flicks his cigarette away.
Dwight readjusts the camera then asks another question.
“You say your trip was ‘an education in frustration.’ Can you give me an example?”
“Traveling cross-country by bus you stop a lot. The bus driver will wait for a half an hour for some stupid white woman who’s keeping everyone waiting, and she won’t even thank him. But if I keep the guy waiting thirty seconds, he thinks I’m fucking with his schedule and he’ll leave without me. I’m not asking for permission to be late -- that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that when you’re black you grow up knowing you have to be back on the bus first, otherwise the bus goes. White people don’t worry about that when they’re sitting on the toilet in a bus station trying to do their business. It never even enters their minds. That’s the stuff that gets to you after a while.
This one time I’m in the bus station in butt-fuck Ohio, starving, trying to buy soda and chips and just get back on the bus, but the guy behind the counter won’t take my money. He just ignores me and rings up all the other people in line behind me. And I couldn’t put the chips back because I’d already opened the bag, and if I just left I’d be shoplifting, which I think is what the guy really wanted me to do. I put ten bucks on the counter and left, but by the time I got back to the gate the bus was already gone.”
“So, you’re convinced all that was racially motivated?”
On tape, Trent looks incredulous. “Are you even listening to me, dude?”
“It was just a question.”
“After that I was not going to take another bus, even one with a black driver. I started walking and hitchhiking. That’s really when I got to see how people are, up close and personal.”
“And, how are they?”
“Either totally cool or totally fucked. Like most truck drivers are cool because they’ll pick you up when you’re walking alone in the middle of the desert, except some are weird ass motherfuckers who want to jump your bones and have sex with you.
But I can tell you, because I know, this country mostly hates black folks. Sometimes I’d get lost and I’d walk down some dirt road to some little house on the jackass prairie and they’d look at me like I was an alien from Close Encounters and they’d turn their dog on me or pull out a gun. In some states, the police would hassle me for hitchhiking, and then the same cops would come back in an hour and hassle me again for walking on the side of the road. They’d try to bust me for being a vagrant, but they couldn’t because I still had money, so then they’d ask me who I’d stolen it from. It went on and on. But the worse it got, the more I had to finish. It took me three months. I got beaten up, got robbed, almost got raped twice, and got arrested six times. But I got to L.A. with two hundred dollars and I knew I could live on the street for the rest of my life if I had to. I’m nineteen and I’m strong, and I don’t want nothing to do with a shit establishment world that doesn’t want me. Fuck them.”
“Any good moments on your trip?”
“Colorado was cool. Amazing mountains. Lots of stars in the sky there.”
Trent has nothing else to say, so Dwight turns the camera off.
Maggie sips her coffee. “Do you believe him?
Paul ejects the tape. “Sure. Why not?”
“It just seems like he might be exaggerating,” she says. “He’s so dramatic.”
“It’s probably why they put him on the show.”
Paul puts the one labeled Jodi in the VCR next and hits PLAY.
The screen lights up to reveal a thin and athletic white girl with bleached white hair and pierced ears, pierced nose, pierced eyebrow and pierced tongue. She wears a white ribbed t-shirt through which her nipples show, and the edge of a black tattoo creeps up from between her breasts. She sits on a ratty old red velvet couch and wears dirty army fatigues and combat boots. She lights a cigarette.
On tape, Dwight’s voice returns. “Comfortable?”
“Whatever,” Jodi answers. She had a deep rough voice for such a small girl.
“Jodi. Can you tell me how you came to be homeless?”
“I ran away from home when I was sixteen. That was three years ago. I ended up in Los Angeles, met some other gutter punk anarchist losers, and I’ve been here ever since.”
“Tell me how that happened.”
Jodi sighed, bored, and irritated.
“Ever heard of Willits Park, California?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You’re lucky. It’s this air-conditioned suburban nightmare. All the houses are the same, twisting down these perfect little streets ending in cul de sacs. They built the whole town in this big empty field halfway between San Francisco and Napa. It even has a huge plastic sign that lights up at night -- Willits Park! -- like it’s a bowling alley. When I was in school they found out it was built over a toxic oil dump, and everybody realized why so many people had cancer.”
“So why did you leave?”
Jodi takes out a Velcro wallet attached to a chain around her waist, pulls out a driver’s license and holds it up to the camera. Dwight adjusts the lens. The image that comes into focus is of a pretty, brown-haired, average teenager. It’s Jodi.
“This was almost my destiny. Every night I was reading Jean Genet, but during the day I was trapped at the Dairy Queen making Blizzards for all the vanilla cheerleaders and high school wrestlers, fighting the desire to wipe them all out with my Dad’s semi-automatic. I had to leave town before I hurt somebody.
I moved south to San Francisco where I lived in the underground scene for a while, but that town is full of snobs. Even the anarchists and squatters act snobby, -- ‘oh, we’re so cool, we live in an abandoned warehouse in San Francisco!’ What’s the point? That’s why I moved to Los Angeles. This place doesn’t care about anything. It just is.”
“So why do you live like this?” Dwight asks.
“What’s wrong with this?”
“You don’t want a job, an apartment?”
“What for? So I can commute to some bullshit job every day and then eat fast food every night in front of the TV? I had that growing up. I want to live a real life. I want to know what’s it’s like to be so hungry you have to fight for your food.”
“Have you ever been hungry?”
“I’m hungry right now. And I love it!”
Jodi makes a punching motion towards the camera. On the back of her right hand is a tattoo of a big scripted A in a circle, the Anarchy symbol.
The camera shuts off, then comes back on for a second. Jodi and Trent are on screen and she’s strangling him. She shouts.
“You ever seen a white woman tongue wrestle a black man?”
She grabs Trent’s head and kisses him long and hard. He runs off-screen giggling.
“How’d you like that, you damn lemmings? You like to watch us on your TV?” The camera shuts off while she’s still shouting.
“She, on the other hand, is definitely over-dramatic,” Paul says.
“She’ll be a real joy to work with,” Maggie says.
Paul ejects the tape. Should we take a break, or keep going?”
“Keep going! This is fun!”
“It’s fun for you sitting here. In twelve hours, I’ll be living it.”
Paul takes out the tape labeled Ilima and pops it in the machine.
The bright lights of the L.A. skyscrapers appear on screen. The camera is on a roof and pans across the skyline until it comes to rest on a girl. She struts towards the camera, vamping as if on a catwalk. She comes close to the lens and gives it her best haughty model look. She’s got perfect brown skin and long black hair. She’s wearing a ripped brown leather jacket over a rainbow tube top, and flared blue jeans over white 70’s platform pimp shoes. She fakes a karate chop to the camera and laughs.
“Ilima. Tell us how old you are and where you’re from.”
“My name is Ilima Piilani, I’m half-Hawaiian and half Portuguese, I grew up in Honolulu and I just turned eighteen years old.” Ilima smiles; she loves being on camera.
“Why did you come to Los Angeles?”
“To be a model and an actress.”
“Hawaii seems like a nice place. Why did you leave?”
“To get away from my stepfather. He was molesting me.” Ilima keeps smiling.
“That must have been tough,” says Dwight.
“Mom didn’t believe me. He did it for two years with me, and three years with my older sister.”
“Anything else you want to tell me about that?” asks Dwight.
Ilima smiles, bright and happy. “Nope,” she says.
“So how did you end up here?”
“My mom made me join the bell choir in church, except I sucked. I only had to ring one bell once in all the songs, and I always got it wrong. Anyway, the church paid for us to come to the mainland and play Christmas carols in other churches and stay with host families, and when we got to Los Angeles I sneaked out at night and ran away.”
“Did you know anybody?”
“Nope. But I meet people really quick.”
“First, I fell in love with Pelle -- he’s a guitar player from Sweden who shared an apartment in Hollywood with some other guys in his band. Except when nobody liked their music, they blamed me. Pelle made me move out.” For the first time, Ilima looks sad. “I met some real jerks after that.”
She shrugs and forces the smile back. “But then I met Trent’s tribe. Trent and Jodi are like the Mom and Dad and Duncan is like my brother. I feel totally good with them.”
“Did you ever talk to your family?”
“I call my Mom sometimes, but she never ever says anything. She just listens on the other end. It’s easier for her to blame me.”
“What about the modeling?”
“In the back of some papers they list companies looking for models. I went to a couple of them but they all want you to take your clothes off. But one of the guys said he’d do some regular pictures for me to get my portfolio started if I paid him five hundred dollars, so I’m saving money for that. The trouble is, I might need to spend it to get my teeth fixed. It hurts on one side of my mouth, so I chew on the other side.”
“Anything else you want to say?”
“I feel lucky. I think good things are going to happen to us, if we stick together.”
The camera shuts off and Paul hits eject. Neither of them move for a full minute.
“I can’t believe she actually feels lucky,” Maggie says.
“She’s better off than she was before. Maybe that’s good.”
“Paul, the girl’s teeth are rotting out of her mouth.”
“Hey, I didn’t cast her. I just took the job.”
“It’s exploitation, that’s what it is.”
Maggie gets up for more coffee. Paul picks up the last tape, labeled Duncan.
“You still want to watch this?” Paul pops in the tape. Maggie stays in the kitchen but moves to the doorway to watch. The image that comes up makes her gasp.
“My God, he’s gorgeous.”
It’s the face of a young man with perfect smooth skin except for a thin white scar from his eye to ear -- a line that adds character and intrigue to an otherwise perfect face. His eyes are grey and piercing. His black hair is cut close to his head in a crew cut. The camera zooms in and out while Dwight adjusts the iris.
“I don’t know, Duncan. There’s so little light out here.”
Duncan has a smile as calm as Buddha’s. Metal creaks loudly. The camera reveals that they’re on a fire escape, very high up. Dwight seems nervous -- his breath is quick and it takes a while for the camera to settle. Duncan sits on the edge of the metal railing, an inch away from open air fifty feet up, yet he’s comfortable.
“Tell me your name and how old you are.”
“I’m Duncan. I’m nineteen, I think.”
“I lose track of time.”
“How did you end up in Los Angeles?”
Duncan shrugs. “I woke up one day and I was here.”
“Where are you from?
“Pretty far off. It would take me awhile to find it again.”
“What’s your life been like?”
“Nothing special. Like anybody else’s.” Duncan smiles.
“You can’t tell me anything else?” Dwight asks.
“There’s not much to tell.”
“What about Trent, Jodi and Ilima? Can you talk about them?”
“Trent’s in charge. I do what he says. Jodi’s funny. She likes to do crazy things. Ilima is a good talker -- she talks all night long. Living with them is fun. I like it.”
The camera waits, but Duncan just stares and smiles. The metal fire escape creaks and moves an inch down. Dwight gasps and swears.
“This thing is ready to fall, huh?” Duncan laughs, and the camera shuts off.
Paul ejects the tape. “You think he’s still gorgeous when he opens his mouth?”
“He’s a man of few words.”
“Maybe he only knows a few words.” Paul sweeps the tapes back in their box.
“I think he’s the most interesting of all of them.”
Paul stares at her, amazed she’s defending him. “He’s got nothing to say. What’s so intriguing about somebody who’s empty?”
“The others never shut up. He’s at least got some mystery.” Maggie pulls her robe around her, embarrassed. “You find the girl with the bad teeth attractive, admit it.”
“This is a stupid conversation.”
Paul turns the TV off. It’s ten a.m. -- they only had another eight hours together before he had to be at work. He wishes the eight hours would never end, and at the same time he wishes they were already over. Maggie moves closer.
“How busy is this job going to keep you?”
“My guess is I’ll be lucky to have a day off.”
“Looks like we’re still both ‘paying our dues,’” she says.
Paul hates that phrase. “Paying your dues” means you’re getting ripped off, and the only thing you gain is knowing how they’re taking advantage of you so you can either avoid it the next time or use it yourself on someone else. Paul has learned this lesson many times, but here he is, ready to ‘pay his dues’ yet again.
“We’ll be okay.”
“Will we?” she asks.
Her eyes burn into him. He almost got away, but with one small question she brings the big question back in the room. After two months of living together, during which they fought often and rarely made love, she wants him to decide their future. A twinge in his gut tell him they won’t be together in six months, but he ignores it.
“I think so. I hope so,” he offers.
She narrows her eyes at him. If he had answered “yes,” she would’ve jumped into his arms, and he would’ve carried her right back to the couch and thrown the damn tapes across the room and opened her robe one last time before his new crazy job started.
“Fine. I guess we’ll see.”