“Christ knows the world could use more movies about rectal cancer,” the producer says, spooning mint jelly across his lamb chops.
“Thanks,” the screenwriter replies shakily from across the dinner table, crumpling his napkin into a nervous ball.
He hopes the producer isn’t mocking him. He’s put his heart into it. He’s lost sleep over it. Sure, the theme touches on rectal malignancy, yet it’s a serious script – a bit dark, yes, but serious. But now he can hardly think straight. He feels like fleeing the dinner table. Though the producer invited him over for a serious talk on making a movie, to his mansion no less, the situation verges on comedy.
It’s not just the producer’s annoying comments -- it’s the nephew’s total lack of interest. Brad, the twenty-something nephew, sits at the other end of the dinner table. His smallish head peers out from a blindingly white tennis shirt, cow lick poking up. He drones on, not once mentioning the writer’s script. He mentions distinctions between 2005 and 2008 pinot noirs, rentals in Tuscany, how to tip gardeners, liability on $360,000 cameras. Dinner is cleared. The butler presses a button; flames whoosh up in a fireplace, startling the writer to awareness: the conversation is disturbingly off track.
He struggles for comfort, grasping for a life preserver. After all, they’d given him a choice of squid ravioli or seared lamb. Snow peas or baby carrots. Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc. When they give you choices, it means something. When they choose you, you get to choose. He remembers this from somewhere, squeezing from the memory like a blood-red fruit.
And now the choice is his! Snapping to attention, he sets his cappuccino cup loudly on the table, jerking the producer and his nephew to attention as well. “Speaking of movie scripts,” the writer blurts out, “mine came from my novel! A novel that attracted, well, not a single bite from an agent. Sure, I sat around waiting for the phone to ring. I could write my own obit waiting for that stupid phone call!
“So what does an unpublished author go and do? I buy a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay. The holy bible of screenwriting! I go and adapt a script from my tome. I wing it. First time I ever dabbled in this format. Yet I felt a kind of urgency. Maybe because I wrote it after … after -- ” The writer falters, nearly chokes up, tripping over the tragedy that became a hidden but insistent presence in his screenplay: “ – my family walked out on me!”
“Think globally. Act locally. That’s what I say,” the producer says with unnerving vagueness, dabbing his lips of gelato.
“More chocolate pudding, Brian,” Brad tells the white-gloved butler who stands at the ready.
“If you please, sir, my name is Bruce not Brian,” the butler replies, in a light British accent. “As you already know, sir.”
And what is the writer to think? Grasping for hope, he drains his snifter of port and sits up straight in his chair. “So my 425-page novel still rests on a high, dusty shelf in my bedroom,” he bulldozes on. “But my screenplay, you know -- ”
The writer gestures emphatically at the thick manuscript on the table by Brad’s chocolate pudding:
“— sits right here!”
The room is silent; Brad looks over. He touches the document as if for the first time. He holds it in his upturned palm as if weighing a flounder. “I wonder how long …” he begins, thumbing through it. “Oh! One hundred thirty-two pages!” He smiles bemusedly. “The first thing a producer looks at, as you know, is how many pages.”
“Don’t mock the poor schmo,” Goldman the producer scolds his nephew.
“Don’t look at me like I’m a little kid,” Brad retorts, glaring at his uncle.
“Why not? You were in diapers when I started making movies. You can’t even chew gum and walk at the same time. So I can look at you however I want!”
“Pull-ups,” Brad says.
“I was in Pull-ups by the time you starting making movies,” he repeats correctively. “Not diapers.”
“What the hell are Pull-ups?” The producer waves his hands dismissively. “Just tell the poor schmo already! Just look at him, sitting there. Poor little schmo.”
Should the writer feel like the schmo? He’s not sure. Still, there’s an anxious pang in his heart. Patches of sweat stain the underarms of his shirt. He watches Brad jab a toothpick between his teeth and crack his knuckles like he’s jockeying for a fight.
“What’s your name again?” Brad asks the writer.
“What kind of question is that?”
“Your name, please.”
“How could you not know my name?”
“Don’t be a twerp, Brad,” the uncle scolds.
“I forgot, OK? Go ahead and murder me. Brian, can you please get me a steak knife?” Brad asks the butler.
“But it’s Bruce, sir, not Brian.”
Brad smiles. “See what I mean?” he tells the writer. “I suck at names. The knife, please.
You know, the serated kind?”
“As you wish, sir.” The butler bows and leaves the room.
“Eddie Kushner,” the writer finally says, feeling funny about it. “My name’s right there on the script.”
“Fabulous, Eddie.” Brad removes a cigar from his breast pocket. “So here we are.” He cleanly saws off the cigar tip with the steak knife. He flicks his Bic and rotates the cut end above the flame, impregnating the air with clouds of bluish smoke, which drift ominously toward the writer.
“You need to understand something, kid,” Brad tells Eddie. “I’ve been apprenticing to Bill Carlito for nearly a year now. Fact is, I’m not a film student anymore. That was so yesteryear. I’ve moved on and up.”
The producer shakes his double chin with disgust. “Son-of-bitch liar. You dropped out from NYU. That’s why you’re no longer a film student. That’s not moving up, that’s dropping out. So don’t brag.”
Brad waves him away, staring steadfastly at Eddie. “Ever heard of Carlito? No? Whatever. Here’s the news. Your screenplay’s 132 pages. A short film’s no more than forty. Sometimes thirty, depending on what film festival you’re entering. Minute a page. Fact is, my uncle refuses to fund a feature-length. Thinks I’m still wearing Pull-ups.”
“Small detail,” Brad says. “So here’s the news, Eddie. Your feature-length screenplay is going to be a short. That’s the only way Carlito will do it.”
“As in short film,” the producer adds.
Brad reaches across and thumps the script on the writer’s lap.
“Can you lop 100 or so pages off this?” Brad asks.
“What he means,” the producer says, leaning toward the screenwriter, spewing cappuccino breath, “what he means, exactly, is that you kids are officially a creative team. Get going on this thing, for Christ’s sake. That’s what the little jerk means.”
The butler puts out mints. The writer reaches into a pants pocket and squeezes a 1939 penny that he keeps there for succor.
“Here, go have a Cuban,” the producer offers, extending a stogie to Eddie. “Genuine Habana.”
For a brief moment Eddie is torn between mints and cigar, but he detects a hint of compassion in the producer’s sagging Jew lips, and so he accepts the stogie.
Returning to his empty house, abandoned three months earlier by his wife and six-year-old daughter, the writer thinks of things that could be shorter. Hemingway, for instance. All those long-winded descriptions of fishing and big-game hunting and bull fights. For Whom the Bell Tolls -- a perfect candidate for the chopping block. Those inelegant, overly formal Spanish phrases. Melville’s Moby Dick, truth be told, would be great except for the parts about the whale. His divorce, too, could have been shorter. The legal papers went on for pages. He wracks his brain for more opportunities. A short film should be a snap. This or that could be cut. Though not the love part. That’s what probably set it apart on the producer’s desk in the first place. There was no love part to cut, because none in fact existed.
For a long time he stares out the living room window. He’s on the verge of giving up. Thing is, he’s already done a short. His life so far felt like a short.
With a super-human effort he staggers to his computer. His fingers snap to attention over the keyboard like sea-grass caught in a sudden current. He writes. He writes for distraction’s sake, he writes to forget that he hasn’t cleaned the house in weeks, he writes so he wouldn’t have to dust the floor or deal with the unpaid bills carpeting the kitchen table, he writes to thwart the passage of time. But mostly he cuts.
He takes a break with the dog, the only living thing his ex-wife left him. They go to the beach, clouds rolling in. The old dog is deaf, eyes milky and vague. Wind awakens the sand into pirouetting columns of smoke. His fingernails rake the belly of the beast, who is content to just lie there. When a muscle cramp forces him to stop scratching, she begs him for more than his practiced fingers have the strength to give.
When he gets home, he mails out the slimmed down screenplay to Brad Goldman, c/o Paul Goldman. The postage is dirt cheap – like he’s mailing air. He keeps a close eye on the mailbox. Ten days later, a letter from Goldman & Goldman Pictures arrives. He gives himself busy work to avoid opening it, afraid his rewrite bit the big one. How he’d taken out too much. Not enough. The unopened letter sits on the kitchen counter as he vacuums tumbleweeds of dust, scrubs the toilets, scrapes dried food from the dishes in the sink. When finally he runs out of things to clean, he rips open the envelope.
It’s a mass mailing urging him to subscribe to the “Screenwriters’ Hot Tips” newsletter. “Just $17.95 a year!” The letter is signed by “Chet Baker,” a marketing director whose robo-signature looks like a snake offering up an apple to the vulnerable and desperate.
Two days later, however, a second envelope arrives with an invitation from Brad to meet at Starbucks. The card is lined with gold leaf. The screenwriter is beside himself. “Give me your best sirloin!” he tells the butcher at the supermarket. He marinates the steak and grills a dinner that eases his fear, briefly, that his own soul turns like a hunk of veal on a red-hot spit. He splits the steak with the dog. After dinner, he feels good enough to phone his daughter.
Oh sweet sweet Mimi! How I so missed you! She replies on the phone that she just showered with mango shampoo. “I wish you could try it, Daddy!”
He wishes he could, too. But the phone call is cut short by his ex’s gravelly voice in the background. After just five minutes of conversation, she tells their daughter to get off the phone and finish her homework already.
Phones are hung up; the writer stares off, struggling to imagine what mangos smell like. But he’d have better luck touching a tuning fork to the moon. Because even this, his phone conversation with his daughter, is cut short.
Their plans to meet over latte collapse. Brad forgets to figure in his tennis lessons and psychotherapy appointment. “I’m shrink-wrapped,” he jokes over the phone, to the writer, apologizing for having to reschedule. The writer gets a free trial subscription to the “Hot Tips” newsletter by way of apology. They next arrange to meet at dawn in the parking lot of a wooded park where the writer used to let his dog roam free before she got too old to keep up.
Brad naturally isn’t there yet. The writer gets out of his car and walks alone through the half-dark forest, poking his flashlight through the mist. He softly recites from memory, to the passing trees, his script’s opening voiceover -- one of the few parts that survived his own rewrite:
“The stillness; the fluid stillness, the harmonious stillness, the stillness of standing still, the stillness in one’s ears, the birdsong -- all that stuff of stillness … ”
The writer is quietly repeating the line as he circles back to the parking lot, where he sees Brad, finally, standing outside his BMW convertible, dragging on a marijuana joint.
Brad stares at the burning joint, then keenly at Eddie. He aims a dagger of smoke at the sky.
“It was a nice effort, kid, but needs to go even shorter. Some of the festivals want thirty minutes, not forty. Withoutabox.com doesn’t lie. That’s the Web clearinghouse for film festivals.”
“I know what Withoutabox is,” the writer snaps.
The two walk uneasily among gloomy columns of trees. Brad sucks the joint low and chucks it in a bunch of ferns.
The writer turns to face him. “Listen, Brad. Forget the damn page count. What did you think of the screenplay?”
“Honestly? I just skimmed it. First get the cut right.”
The writer flushes darkly. “What do you mean, you just skimmed it?”
“I’ll give the script a close read when it’s cut to size. Anyhow,” he adds, torching a second joint, “the theme is always the same, you know? The meaning of love. That sort of thing. No offense, Eddie. No need to get all sensitive about this.”
The writer gazes at him with disbelief. “For your weed-addled memory banks, Brad, a love story didn’t work. It’s a tale of unrequited darkness. Love didn’t fit into the narrative arc.”
“You’re shitting me. Everything is about love. Even rectal cancer. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t make you somehow transcendent. You are not your narrator.”
“Christ, spare me the film school bullshit!”
A wind traces a path through the tree canopy; the writer hears the gentle clapping of leaves. If only he were merely observing this conversation, a bird or some God figure up there amid the leaves, he could tolerate it better. Straining against desperation, he stares off, past a foreground of pot smoke. The sky is darkening. Tree branches go scritch- scratch. Scritch-scratch. How’s that? Tiny chipmunk claws clambering up tree bark? Crick! Crack! Crick! Crack!
He can nearly hear … a turtle.
A memory washes over his brain. He’s in his daughter’s bedroom -- two weeks before she’s unexpectedly whisked off, by his wife, to Michigan. Father and daughter lying close on her Barbie bed. The girl’s face pale and attentive in the nightlight as he reads Franklin the Turtle to her.
“Oh daddy,” she said, when he came to the end, “can you write me a Franklin one day?”
“So let me get this straight, Mimi. You want me to write you a turtle story?”
She eagerly nodded, then went to sleep; the writer put pen to paper that very night, longing to give his child what he of all people was uniquely qualified to give. But before he even got halfway through his wife stole off with his daughter, and he couldn’t write another word. He couldn’t even think of turtles. He couldn’t think of much of anything but the absence of what he once had.
Something wet and cold splashes the writer’s nose, jerking him back to the present. There’s a pattering against leaves. Where is her Franklin now? The one he would write? Rain comes down hard in the forest; Brad is still droning on. Just as they circle past the parking lot, the rain comes down in sheets.
The writer flees to his car, leaving Brad standing there in the deluge fumbling for his keys. “Hey!” Brad calls after him. “Where the hell are you going?”
The writer starts up his car without answering and high-tails it, thinking only of his daughter, of turtles – and drives home to his dead dog.
At first he doesn’t notice. Cold and wet with rain, upset over his meeting with Brad, the writer puts up a pot of coffee. But when he sprinkles non-dairy creamer into his mug he senses a meaningful lack by his legs, an absence of something or someone waiting for him to accidentally spill creamer on the floor.
“You little jerk!” he chokes up, touching the stiff, yellow animal in the living room.
Next time he walks the forest, the writer whistles for his dog by accident. He remembers how she’d lick his hand, claw his lap for food, snarl at branches scraping the window panes. He remembers the last time he shared the life of another. But Brad comes up behind him on the path, cutting his memory short. Trees twirl past like blackened thumbs.
“Hey slow down, dude! What did your dog die or something?” Brad jokes. “You look as bad as I feel.”
“Yeah, in fact.”
“In fact my dog died.”
“What? Christ! Sorry dude.” Brad pauses in the path. “I didn’t mean … Anyhow, have my own bad news. Actually bad news - good news – bad news. Which you want first?”
The writer doesn’t even answer. “Fine! Here’s the bad. Carlito’s latest feature is getting shit-canned. Tanked at No. 12 in the box office. He won’t return my calls. After everything my uncle did for him! Maybe his doctor will change his anti-depressants. We can only hope, right? Start again. Think young, act old. Even if we’re not.”
Brad stabs the sky with pot smoke. “What I mean to say is, I can’t even get him on the phone. I mean, he’s not even reading your script.”
“This is just great,” the writer says hoarsely. “Fits in with the rest of my life.”
Brad hacks up a fresh one that arcs into a withered sapling. “But here’s the good news. I dug your metaphor of journeying through a colonoscopy. And the story’s literal climax? Having sex with a woman in a sperm bank? Son of a bitch!” He enthusiastically slaps his knee. ‘“Can it be defined?’” Brad says, reciting the screenplay’s closing voiceover. “‘Can it be tasted like a port wine, thick and sweet, poured from a decanter? The way it embraces us? Can we grow attached to it, like an old sweater? Can we get back the darkness, once lit, or is it gone forever?’”
The writer stares at Brad through the pale of pot smoke. “You actually read it,” he says with quiet disbelief.
“Course I did. What do you think, I’m a typical Hollywood unfeeling maggot? And I happened to like it.”
“‘Gone forever in the chaos of time,’” the writer says, correctively.
“The voiceover. You forgot the rest of that last sentence. It ends: ‘… is it gone forever in the chaos of time?’”
“Not anymore. Too many adjectives. Did what I could. But the ‘chaos’ part is cut.”
“Cut by whom?”
Brad opens the door to his BMW, and hands the skinnier manuscript to the writer.
“I knew it would hurt you to cut more. It’s still long, but I think 32 pages will squeak through. Minute a page. That’s all the festivals care about. That’s what the festivals assume for shorts.” He sighs. “What I wouldn’t give for a nymph to just walk out of the woods right now. Totally naked.”
“Does the proctologist still die?” the writer says, slowly coming to awareness.
“Sorry, it had to go. Instead --”
“-- instead what?” The writer gazes off. “It wasn’t supposed to be a Hollywood ending! Not like in the movies with all the shootouts and tumbleweed and stuff. That’s not what this is all about. Jesus H!”
“Stop having a cow already. This is how things get done. It’s just a script.”
“No it’s not. It’s my life.”
“Get your priorities straight, Eddie. Job one is getting a film made.” He unzips a bag of weed and gingerly detaches a clump of buds from a twig. “Listen. You and me’ll get production interns from the colleges, call for actors on Craig’s List, scout production sets. The hell with Carlito. Let’s do this fucker ourselves!”
The writer turns his back on Brad and walks briskly to his old Buick at the other end of the parking lot. He steps inside and uses the script as an ass-rest.
The Buick hacks to a start; the writer shifts into reverse.
“Where you going?” Brad calls out. “Carlito rejected us! We need each other!”
The writer backs out of the parking spot. Brad jogs around and blocks his path. The writer taps the brake just in time.
“Where you going?” Brad repeats, jogging over to the driver’s window.
“Come on!” Suddenly Brad was pleading: “Let’s work together on this, Eddie. Please.”
“Yeah? Should’ve thought of that before you made me your personal punching bag. Every step of the way you’ve been picking me apart, like a vulture on carrion. Nothing’s left anymore. Just like the script!”
“Listen. I know you’re having a hard time. With the dog and all. Your family leaving you in the cold. And your script getting cut.” Brad hands over a sprig of his cherished pot through the open car window. “Gift from me. You might call it a ‘toke’ of my appreciation. And I have to tell you something else. My uncle. He loves the film. He’s living for our film! That’s why he agreed to this deal in the first place.”
“Let him live. He’s lived for decades already.”
“I have to tell you something else. Bad-good-bad, remember? He may not survive the week. He’s in the hospital as of last night.”
The writer hesitates for a moment. Fact is, he likes the guy. Gruff, but not pretentious. He represents stability – the death of art, perhaps, but stability.
The writer shifts the car from reverse into park. As the car idles Brad closes the writer’s palm around the pot.
The producer’s bloated face is the complexion of two-day old borscht; a tube passes just under his bulbous nose. Brad has arranged for a hospital suite with big-screen TV and 500-plus channels, including Sundance, and soap-sized Bose speakers that could fill a small sound studio. Sundance plays an art film, the score’s jazzy music blending incongruously with the bleeps of the producer’s heartbeat on the monitor.
As the writer watches, Brad cheers up his uncle by joking how much he’d cut. The producer smiles beneath his oxygen tube. He sputters, “Don’t make me laugh! You cut out the proctologist’s death?” He goes into a fit, compelling the writer to press the red Help button. “Shorts are a hoot!” his uncle hacks, producing an ominous beeping from a monitor.
A nurse enters the room, patience of Job written on her face, and adjusts the tubes.
“Your father needs to rest,” she says to the writer.
“Mr. Goldman is not my father.”
Brad says: “He’s not even my father.”
“All the more reason to let him rest,” she says.
Brad and Eddie stand outside the hospital in the bright spring afternoon, near a set of slowly revolving glass doors. The doors revolve to a stop. Brad looks cautiously left and right, scouring the sidewalk for people. He opens a Ziploc bag and pulls out a tightly rolled joint, snapping up a flame.
There’s a whimper at their feet. A stray cocker spaniel lolls against the building. The writer leans down and scratches its mangy back. She slaps a grateful paw against his pants leg, looking up at him with one good eye, the other clouded over with portent.
“Listen Brad,” he says tiredly, still looking at the dog. “If you want me, here’s the deal. I write. You don’t. Furthermore, after the short, we do the feature. As I originally envisioned it. That’s the deal. Get your uncle to shoot the lock off his wallet.”
“If he’s still around.”
“If he’s still around.”
“Sure. I’m the marketing guy. My uncle’s the money man.”
“You’re the big-shot hyper-sensitive writer,” Brad says.
Brad presses another thank-you gift – a larger sprig of pot this time, along with a pack of rolling papers -- into the writer’s palm. “I already Googled ‘Two Juice Productions.’ Not taken.”
“I get it. Two Jews.”
“Me and you. We’ll make small-to-medium budget films,” Brad says. “Goldman and Kushner.”
“For audiences stranded on the corner of art cinema and Loews, in the vicinity of endearing and predictable,” the writer adds.
“Hey! Who’s the marketing guy here?” Brad jokes. “Get off my freakin’ turf!”
Brad hands the burning joint to Eddie, who takes a hit and goes into a coughing fit.
They incorporate Two Juice Productions, making Brad’s convalescent uncle a silent partner. A year later, after the completed short manages to get a coveted screening at Sundance, Sony Classics, better known as God, options the feature-length script, as the writer originally had it.
One Saturday, the writer’s house gets roped off, windows blacked out. The film crew settles upstairs to shoot dream sequences, backlights the porch for nostalgia, and wheels dollies down hallways past long-locked doors. For one noir scene, the writer gives Brad and the crew special permission to unlock the most abandoned room in the house. It used to be his daughter’s. He hasn’t unlocked it in what feels like decades. The air is so dusty the main actor wears a hospital mask right up until the cameras roll.
Just days before the premiere, the uncle’s heart gives out in the hospital as he watches the trailer on the Sundance Channel. The family completes seven days of mourning; theatre lights dim at the local Spectrum. The curtain goes up.
The title, End of Roaming, scrolls down. The camera pans from a heavenly perspective across a farm field, cuts to a close-up of a beat-up car puttering down the highway past wind-tossed wheat fields waving momentously as if welcoming Odysseus home from his ten-year journey after the fall of Troy.
The aged male driver listens to Buddy Holly on a scratchy cassette tape. He’s lost. Pulling over, he punches some numbers into a cell phone but doesn’t get a signal. He’s reached the end of roaming. By the map he clutches he’s in Michigan somewhere. Thunder cracks from far-off.
He resumes driving, pulls off the highway, enters leafy suburbs and slows in front of a cookie-cutter home, easing into its driveway. Lightning flashes across a darkened sky. An aged but handsome woman answers the door. She stares at him for a moment, her face full of longing and portent. A big dog sits by her side.
“It’s been so long, doctor,” she says.
“I brought you something,” he says, choking up.
He reaches into his doctor’s bag past the proctologist tools and removes a turtle. He sets it down.
Slowly it crawls toward her.
Crick! Crack! Crick! Crack!
Thunder cracks; the rain comes down in sheets.
Ninety minutes later as the closing credits scroll, the writer’s name right up there with the Goldmans, the audience is stunned into silence. The writer, sitting in the third row, weeps for his creation that has finally been shown. Next to him, Brad Goldman’s pinkish face is frozen in a permanent smile.
An isolated clapping, light as pattering rain. It comes from the writer’s eight-year-old daughter, who sits next to her mother in the second row. A mango scent drifts up from her hair and wafts past the speechless writer sitting behind her -- whose life, after all is said and done, did not end up on the cutting room floor.
She half-turns to gaze over her shoulder at him. The audience joins in thunderous applause.
About Author: David Kalish is fiction writer and playwright with a penchant for dark comedy. His debut novel, The Opposite of Everything, will be published next year by WiDo Publishing. His short fiction has been published in Temenos, Knock, and Spectrum, his non-fiction in the Writer’s Chronicle, and a short film of his, Regular Guy, won honors in film festivals here and abroad. Before Bennington, he was an editor and reporter at The Associated Press. He is currently working on a second novel, entitled Stoner Hero, and a theatre script for a Latin version of A Christmas Carol. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, daughter, two dogs, and two canaries.
“Christ knows the world could use more movies about rectal cancer,” the producer says, spooning mint jelly across his lamb chops.