The check came in! Negotiated by the attorneys at Schmidt, Tanner, and Drudge, funded by a major Hollywood production company, endorsed by the good people at International Creative Management, carried via truck by the US Postal Service, all working together in perfect economic synergy – damned if I didn’t walk to my mailbox, open the sonofabitch up, and there she was in all her fiduciary splendor! Five glorious figures, and I ain’t counting what’s right of the decimal. Five fabulous figures of freedom (four after I pay tribute to the federal government, the state of California, the Writers Guild, my attorneys at STD, and the good people at ICM — but who’s counting?). I’m a bonafide Hollywood screenwriter now. I got the press release, the listing on IMDB, and oh, did I mention, the check to prove it.
And all it took me was nine years. Nine years staring at a computer screen, hacking away, racking my brain for the bon mot while fending off the money lenders, the bill collectors, the naysayers, the bookies, the dealers, the faithless family members, the agonizing bouts of writer’s block, and the little voices in my head that said I couldn’t do it. Well I could do it. I did do it. The proof was typed out on a blue rectangle of paper with four zeros after a prime number.
Nine long, angst-ridden years of never knowing if this day would come. Of always wondering, am I wasting my time? Am I wasting, in this airless room, the life that God has granted me? If there is a God. Nine years of rejection letters and unrequited phone calls, of rashy fingertips abrading against a keyboard and track pad, of sinking gut and soul atrophy, and all it took was a walk to the mailbox, an envelope from International Creative Management, and a check! God bless ICM and the hell they inhabit. Their money’s good even if their word ain’t. I know because of the check. Nine years. Nine goddamn years.
First person I called was my mother.
“How ya doin’ Ma?”
“Oy,” she said. “Your grandmother’s driving me crazy. I don’t know I can take it much longer. ”
“I got news, Ma!”
“Your grandmother wants to see you.”
The last time my grandmother saw me, she thought I was Adlai Stevenson and spat at me for losing the election.
“I think I’m gonna stay in LA for the summer, Ma.”
“Then we’re coming out to visit.”
“I think I got a bad connection, Ma.”
“I’m all alone,” she cried. “I’m going to die alone like a filthy animal!”
I hung up the phone and walked to the bank to deposit the check lest it disintegrate from my staring at it. I felt its weight in my pocket pulling down the ass on my Levi’s. Nine long and uncertain years. Like I’d been on death row and in my pocket was the Governor’s pardon.
I took it to my favorite teller, an adorable senorita with a limp, with whom I had a long-standing flirtation. I got a real kick out of handing her the deposit slip. She was expecting the usual three or four hundred I get from the government, but when she saw those five figures of mercy, her painted eyebrows nearly jumped off her face.
“Struggling writer, huh?” she smiled.
“Ain’t struggling today, baby doll.”
I ate a twenty-dollar lunch and left a twenty-dollar tip. Nine years. Nine fucking years.
I was too wired to get any work done, so I called Intimate Relationship #9.5 to tell her the news.
“Great,” she said, but I heard no smile in her voice. “Good for you.”
“I thought maybe I could take you out tonight,” I asked without really asking. “I thought maybe we could celebrate.”
“Can’t,” she replied. “Got a date.”
I told her she was damn right she got a date. “You got a date with me!”
And then IR #9.5 reminded me that she and I broke up a year ago. “And just ’cause we still fuck every now and then, doesn’t mean I’m at your beck and call.”
I promised her things would be different. “Don’t you understand?” I asked. “I got a pocket full of confidence, and I’m ready to start considering thinking about commitment.”
She hung up, but that was no surprise. IR #9.5 never wanted me to succeed. I’d known that about her a long time. It was why I cut her off in the first place. Or maybe she cut me off. Who remembers? Who cares? I couldn’t burden myself with responsibilities to anything other than my craft. I was a writer, Goddamnit, and if she didn’t understand that, then to hell with her!
I called Arty from Philly.
“You lucky bastard,” he said when I told him the news. I smarted at the word “lucky.” How can someone be “lucky” after nine years of the shit I’d been through?
“Do I not deserve it?” I asked.
“As much as anyone,” he replied. Didn’t like that much either.
“What are you doing tonight?” I asked. “I want to celebrate.”
“Jeez, man,” said my best friend. “Tonight’s no good. Lauren and I got couples therapy. We’re working on our marriage.”
“Noble of you,” I said. “What about after?”
“Got to pack,” he said. “Going to visit her family in Long Island. But good for you, man. I hope you’re happy.”
I hung up the phone and took a shit. A perfect log. No wiping required. The thing sat in the bowl like a work of art. Like a Duchamp. I took a picture before I flushed. I uploaded the image and emailed it to Dr. Dave, an ex-roommate from Yale, now doing his residency in Boston. “THE CHECK CAME IN” was all I wrote in the message. Dave replied by emailing me a picture of the worst case of genital herpes you never wanted to imagine. Good one, Dave.
I spent the next three hours paying my bills from the last three years. For the first time in my life, I’d have car insurance, health insurance, and cable television all in the same month. I was, all of a sudden, a full-fledged member of the American middle class, a law-abiding citizen, a person who mattered in a market economy. I would have to buy a new wardrobe now. And a new car. Would I go for a vintage Mustang or a hybrid? Would I stay in my dumpy little apartment or rent a place in the hills? Maybe I’d get a personal trainer. Take up surfing and golf. Study Talmud. Do tons and tons of blow.
With night approaching, the urge to party was overwhelming. It was the first time in nine years that I felt worthy of a celebration. I had let birthdays and reunions slip by without fanfare. I had avoided weddings and ignored holidays. And now that I finally had an excuse to paint the town red, everyone I knew was busy. I called an actor buddy of mine, but he was on set in Africa. I called a friend who’s a high school English teacher, but he didn’t want to go out on a weeknight. I thought about calling Rooster but decided that should only be a last resort.
Rooster is what Arty and I call “DP,” an acronym for “Dangerous Party.” When you hang with Rooster, you’re inviting any number of injuries, felonies, and scrapes with mortality. Sure, he was always available and in possession of many fine pharmaceutical products, but now that I had my first taste of success, life was becoming more precious to me. I wasn’t about to risk throwing it all away by hanging with someone with a rap sheet longer than the tax code.
I bought a round for the regulars at the Burgundy Room and gave the barkeep a fifty for herself. “The check came in,” I told her, and I heard a round of applause. “Because I done been paid!” The congregation responded with a hosanna.
Five or six drinks later, the Burgundy Room was getting noisy, and the ladies were finding me hard to take. There’s a fine line between a man who had a good day and just another Hollywood asshole, trying to translate his success into a roll in the mud. And I guess the Burgundy Room isn’t really a place people go when they’re doing well. It’s a place they go to hide from people doing well.
So I called IR #9.5.
“Ditch this clown you’re taking for a ride,” I told her machine, “and call my cell so we can enjoy ourselves proper!”
Knowing it would take her a while to get home and hear my message, I drove down to Jumbo’s Clown Room to buy myself a couple of lap dances while I waited. I’m a big fan of the Clown Room. There’s some bad girls down there –the kind that break their daddies’ hearts, if they even got daddies. The one I liked had hair down to the backs of her thighs, and she whipped it around to a Black Sabbath tune while I drank Black Label at the bar. For a hundred dollar bill, she threw her perfumed titties at me until midnight while I inhaled every inch of her scent. And then, maybe it was the scotch, or the music, or the mood I was in, but for some reason, around one in the morning, calling DP Rooster didn’t seem like the bad idea it was earlier. I was celebrating after all. And I did still have four figures in my bank account. Four fun-filled figures of fancy. And Rooster was a friend. An old friend. A good friend. Even if he was a Dangerous Party.
“Como,” said the Mexican girl who answered when I called. I figured Rooster found himself a new Camilla Lopez.
“Tell Rooster I’m coming over,” I yelled. “Tell him his old buddy from New York wants to party!”
“Oh,” said the senora in a soft voice, as if she were trying not to wake a baby. “Rooster no aqui.”
“Well where the hell is he?” I asked. “Donde esta el Rooster?”
“Rooster in Cuba,” she said. “Guantanamo.” And then I heard the baby cry.
I tried IR #9.5 one more time, but there was no answer. She was playing this hard to get thing for all it was worth. Which was understandable. My nine years of struggle weren’t only tough on me. They were tough on everyone around me as well. It’s hard to watch a loved one fail repeatedly. It’s hard to watch him pick himself up off the ground and go through the same cycle of struggle and rejection day after day. It’s hard to be supportive when logic, statistics, and common sense are telling you, It ain’t gonna happen. He’s a sinking ship. Run like hell or drown in the whirlpool.
But things were different now, and despite the hour, I’d just have to drive over to Silverlake and ring her bell to prove it.
It was a hairy, bikini-briefed slob who opened her door after I rang. He stood about six feet tall with a prominent brow and hunched posture. I recognized him immediately as Piltdown Man, an early hominid, once believed to be the missing link between Neanderthal and Homo Erectus until he was proven to be a scientific hoax. Piltdown Man could be indentified by his oversized mandible, indicative of chewing raw, untenderized meat – incongruous with his medieval skull, hippopotamus teeth, and elephant molars. He was a concocted beast, a hybrid, patched together by IR#9.5 just to piss me off. I didn’t buy him for a minute.
“What have you done with my girl?” I asked in the manner of a drunken slur.
Piltdown Man replied in the British accent specific to the region in which he was “discovered.”
“If you don’t get out of here,” he asserted, “I’ll smash ya!”
Smash me? Probably with a bone tool. This was a primate that had only recently overcome his fear of fire. I calmly reminded Piltdown Man that civilized people, evolved homo sapiens, didn’t resort to violence until diplomacy had been exhausted or oil discovered. I reminded him that if someone had answered the goddamn phone when I called, we wouldn’t be having this confrontation. He responded by making a very specific threat against a certain part of my anatomy and then slamming the door in my face.
I figured a whore would just depress me after that, but I picked one up anyway. I think she was a woman. I explained to her it wasn’t sex I was after — I just wanted someone to party with on account of my newfound success. I paid her; she blew me; I got depressed.
It was heroin time. How else could I get to sleep after a day like this? And hadn’t I earned it? It had been a few years since I messed with the stuff, so what better occasion than the sale of my first screenplay to take a quick jump off the wagon? I had quit before because I didn’t want to turn into a Hollywood cliché, the schmuck junkie living on the street, selling his ass for his next fix. But that really wasn’t an issue now that I was four figures rich. And after nine years of struggle, hadn’t I earned the right to use again? Hadn’t I earned the right to be happy, if only for a couple of hours? And besides, I promised myself, it would just be this once.
The boys who used to work my old spot on Bonnie Brae weren’t there anymore. Like I said, it had been years, and the regular players had probably retired or moved up the chain of command while the newbies worked a different spot. It took me awhile, but I finally found a young caballero on 5th Street who looked as if he knew the score of the game. I rolled down my window and called my order in his direction.
“Chiba H. Brown,” I said. “You know where I can find her?”
The caballero smiled and cautiously approached my window. “Do you see that police vehicle over there?” he asked.
I admitted that, until that moment, I had been unaware of its presence. No matter. Moments later, I was handcuffed, riding in its backseat, telling the Latino officer about the horrible mistake he was making.
“How can you arrest me,” I asked, “when at this very moment, some half-mad hominid is making monkey love to a white girl in Silverlake?”
They allowed me one phone call at the precinct. I figured I could call my mother in New York, but she’d probably sentence me to rehab if she found out what I’d done. I could call Arty, but his wife wouldn’t let him answer the phone at this hour. I could call my manager — it was, after all, his job to take care of situations such as these. Or, I could just call a bail bondsman like normal people do.
I called Intimate Relationship #9.5 and left the following message:
“Because of you, I had sex with a prostitute tonight. And then I scored heroin. And now I’m in jail. And it’s my third strike so they’re going to throw away the key. But what do you care? You’d rather fuck some evolutionary mishap just to spite me. I hope I die in here and you feel guilty about it for the rest of your life, you heartless bitch!”
They put me in a cell with the most feral looking black man I’d ever seen. He wore the inscription “187 POLICE” tattooed across his shirtless torso. He was younger than I and cursed with the wild-eyed look of a man who had spent most of his life in institutions. Smoking a cigarette on the bottom bunk, he looked like he belonged in prison. Like the dimensions of a 10 by 12 cell were sufficient to his needs, and any larger, less-structured domain would compel him into a homicidal rage.
“Come here often?” I asked as I took my position on the floor.
“Every once in a while,” he responded, unexpectedly polite. He stared upwards in a quiet reverie, no doubt contemplating the method he would employ for killing me.
“What’re you in for?” I asked. I was feeling chatty. And he took his time before he answered.
“Got paid today,” he finally said, his voice resonant and smooth. He took a long drag of his cigarette and seemed to appreciate it immensely.
“Paid for what?”
“Record contract,” he replied, flashing a large and toothy grin. “After five years of layin’ down beats and fittin’ rhymes on top, I finally got my deal on.”
He offered me a Newport from his pack, and I took one even though I don’t usually smoke.
“Five years,” I nodded. “Not bad.”
“Thank you,” he said, offering his cigarette so I could light mine.
Not bad at all.