Trajectory by Richard Russo


  “What if they want you to stay?”

  “Two days,” I said, “and I’ll be home.”

  —

  During the meal we talked in general terms about Milton and Marcus, and I shared with the others what Wendy had said when he read the fourteen pages: how sorry he was that he wouldn’t be able to do the movie, because nobody would’ve been better as Marcus. “Even if he did say so himself,” Nolan chortled.

  Something about that remark irked me. “I don’t think he meant to boast,” I said, heard my voice thicken with emotion I was pretty sure I wasn’t entitled to. “He just thought no one would understand the character better.”

  Nolan must’ve heard that emotion, too, because when I let my voice fall, he looked straight at me and said, “Hey, I miss him, too.”

  The moment felt authentic and as such unusual in an industry that traffics in illusion, so we raised our glasses to Wendy’s memory, after which the talk quickly moved on to casting, as it inevitably will. Everyone agreed that if Gene Handy was sober, we’d do no better for Marcus. Mona, the object of both men’s affections, would be easy to cast. Every sixty-year-old actress would want the part. Jason and Nolan agreed it shouldn’t be a younger actress “playing” older, but someone in her sixties who was still sexy. Susan Sarandon, Jason thought. Helen Mirren, Marty offered, which caused Nolan to chuckle. “You always want to cast her.”

  Marty, blushing, did not dispute this. “She’s a great actor.”

  “If I see her when I’m in London next week, I’ll tell her about the giant crush you’ve got on her. She might be in the market for someone your age.” Then he turned to me. “So, which one of these guys is going to end up with Mona, anyway?” he asked.

  “Marcus,” I said. Wendy’s character.

  “We should talk,” Nolan said. “Also about why Marcus has all the best lines.”

  That brought me up short. Had my affection for Wendy caused me to skew things? I made a mental note to check the balance when I reread the pages over breakfast, but my sense was that the best lines were pretty evenly distributed. In any event, here was a minor red flag. Actors, even best pals, were notoriously jealous of each other’s lines, and it was entirely possible that such jealously transcended the grave.

  By the time we finished our main course, my exhaustion was complete and, despite trying hard to concentrate, I found myself losing the thread of the conversation. It was as if the other three were discussing a fully developed script, not a fourteen-page overture. Regular Bill finally placed his napkin on his plate. “So,” he said. “What time should we start in the morning?”

  He seemed to be directing the question mostly to me, so I told him I’d be ready to work whenever he said.

  “But I’m not the one who’s jet lagged,” he pointed out. “Nine?”

  “Have a heart,” Marty groaned. “Ten.”

  Jason agreed, adding that he was also going to need an hour or two in the afternoon for a conference call about his newly wrapped pilot.

  “How are the dailies?” Nolan wanted to know.

  “They look really good,” Jason said. “The problem is HBO always orders six to get four, and there’s a dispute with the show-runner, who may walk.”

  “Would you step in?”

  “That’s under discussion, but—”

  “If I were to pick up the phone,” Nolan said, “who would I call?”

  Jason named the executive but suggested Nolan hold off for the moment. If he committed to a TV show, and Back in the Day got its expected green light, he’d lose out on the feature film he needed so badly.

  “Okay, but let me know,” Nolan said agreeably, before turning back to me. “Here’s what I need from you. We’ve been round and round about this and gotten nowhere.”

  By “we” I assumed he meant him and Jason and Marty, though it was still a puzzling remark. How many conversations about Milton and Marcus could they have had? They’d gone “round and round” that afternoon or earlier, in LA? I’d assumed we were all coming out of the gate together. I glanced at Jason, but he’d taken out his phone. Marty had his hand up to call for the check.

  “What’s really between these guys?” Nolan wanted to know. “What’s their history?”

  “Well,” I said, “they’ve been in love with the same woman most of their adult lives.”

  “Yeah, but it can’t be a woman.”

  One of the things you never get used to in this business—or at least I never did—is how often opinions get voiced as proclamations: no further discussion needed or, perhaps, tolerated. “Why not?” I said, genuinely curious. I didn’t mean the question as a challenge, but it must’ve sounded like one because Nolan looked surprised.

  “There’s got to be something deeper,” he explained. “And there’s that hint of some betrayal, back before Mona ever came on the scene.”

  I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Where?”

  “Bill,” Marty interrupted, signing the check. Signing on the check. No need for anything as bourgeois as a credit card. “Look at the man. He’s dead on his feet.”

  Nolan hesitated, as if remembering something, and immediately stood down. “Hey, it’s something for all of us to ponder,” he conceded, pushing back his chair. “I didn’t mean to single you out.”

  Reaching under the table, he grabbed a canvas tote I hadn’t noticed, and suddenly there was electricity in the air. “Where are you staying?”

  “They’re both at the lodge,” Marty said, also pushing back from the table.

  “Great,” said Regular Bill. “You’ll like it there.”

  This “lodge” was apparently only a couple blocks from the restaurant. I could give Jason a lift there. Marty lived in town in an apartment connected to Nolan’s offices and cutting room. Regular Bill would drop him off before heading back up his mountain.

  When we emerged from the private room, everyone in the restaurant turned to watch. Nolan possessed that same magnetic field Wendy’d had right to the end. The difference was that Wendy’s made him uneasy. Nolan seemed to wear his own as comfortably as his baggy-necked T-shirt.

  In the foyer Jason spotted someone he knew across the dining room and went over to say hello, promising he’d only be a minute. The rest of us went outside, where Nolan’s Jeep was magically waiting for him at the curb, its engine running. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he said, handing me the canvas tote. “This is for you. In case you wake up early. It’s good you’re here. I think we’ve finally got the right team.”

  And just that quickly he and Marty were gone.

  Finally got the right team?

  Wondering what that could mean, I peeked inside the tote and there was my answer, not only to what he meant by having the right team but also to the evening’s other puzzling questions, which in my exhaustion I hadn’t been clever enough to formulate. The tote contained two bound screenplays, one weighing in at one hundred six pages, the other at ninety-eight. They bore the same title: Milton and Marcus.

  —

  INT. STARBUCKS—DAY

  ON MILTON, as he attempts to clean himself up with a swatch of napkins. There’s a mustard/ketchup stain on the sleeve of his shirt and another dark wet spot on the front, which he sniffs at and makes a face. The cell phone sits in the middle of the bistro table before him. The inference is clear; he’s retrieved the phone from the dumpster.

  CLOSE ON THE PHONE, which VIBRATES. Milton looks at the thing with a mixture of surprise and distaste, then sees Marcus in the line of people waiting to order, his own cell to his ear. He motions for Milton to answer his.

  Milton locates and presses the ANSWER button, then, glaring at Marcus the whole while, puts the phone to his ear.

  MARCUS

  Say hello.

  MILTON

  Why?

  MARCUS

  Because that’s how conversations begin.

  MILTON

  Hello, Marcus.

  MARCUS

  You want a biscotti?


  MILTON

  A what?

  MARCUS

  A biscotti. A cookie, Milton. Would you like a cookie?

  MILTON

  No.

  MARCUS

  Fine. Be like that. Goodbye.

  When Milton hangs up, he sees that the palm of his hand is now smeared with some sort of evil goop. He wipes it off with a napkin just as Marcus arrives.

  MARCUS

  Here.

  (pushing a coffee in front of him)

  Enjoy.

  Milton takes a sip and makes another face.

  MILTON

  What the hell is this?

  MARCUS

  A mocha latte. Good, huh?

  MILTON

  Jesus. Is this what they drink in the Turks and Caicos?

  MARCUS

  The Turks, not the Caicos. Have a biscotti.

  MILTON

  I told you I didn’t want one.

  MARCUS

  I heard you. I did. But here’s what I think. I think you’ve got no idea what you want.

  MILTON

  But you do?

  MARCUS

  (pleased, confident)

  That’s right. You want to get back in the game. Get the old juices flowing. Feel alive again.

  MILTON’S POV: the red Caddy comes into focus OUTSIDE in the parking lot.

  Milton does look tempted, but only for a moment.

  MILTON

  The old juices were my problem, if you recall.

  (a beat)

  Anyway, I can’t do any more time. I won’t.

  MARCUS

  (munching biscotti)

  Your problem is that you have a defeatist attitude. All we’re doing is sitting here having a cup of coffee—

  MILTON

  Mocha latte.

  MARCUS

  —and you’ve already got us in jail.

  MILTON

  But that’s how it goes with you. Talking leads to planning, leads to doing, leads to fucking up, leads to jail. I’m just skipping the middle parts.

  MARCUS

  Fine. Anyway, Mona will be up for it.

  Milton LAUGHS OUT LOUD at this.

  MILTON

  I don’t think so.

  MARCUS

  Wanna bet?

  MILTON

  (doesn’t want to)

  You don’t even know where she is.

  MARCUS

  I didn’t know where you were until today.

  MILTON

  Anyway, leave her out of it. She’s made a new life. We all have.

  Marcus regards him with monumental disgust for A LONG BEAT, then starts madly tapping on his phone with his thumbs. When he stops, Milton’s phone VIBRATES again.

  MARCUS

  (rising)

  You have a text message.

  Milton watches him leave. Only when the door swings shut, does Milton look down at the phone, which buzzes again. There’s a pretty young woman at a nearby table who’s watching him.

  MILTON

  (to the young woman)

  How do I get a text message?

  She shows him. CLOSE ON THE MESSAGE: You know you want to.

  Milton sets the phone back on the table, watches Marcus get in behind the wheel of the Caddy. Once again he’s typing into his phone. When he finishes, he turns the key in the ignition, then backs out of the parking space.

  Milton’s phone VIBRATES again. Another text message: Eat your fucking cookie.

  MILTON’S POV, as Marcus waves goodbye.

  ON MILTON, who chews his biscotti thoughtfully, then looks down at it, surprised. It’s good.

  —

  “They must’ve loved the premise,” was how Jason explained it.

  We’d ordered beers in our raucous hotel bar, whose theme was antlers and whose clientele was a weird mix of dick-swinging Hollywood types and wraith-thin Eurotrash. Nearby and completely out of place was a large a table of Asian men who’d purchased identical ten-gallon hats and seemed to have no idea how ridiculous they looked wearing them.

  “I can’t believe it,” I told him, though of course it was, despite its outrageousness, all too believable. “There have already been two other writers, then.”

  “What does your contract say?”

  I explained that I didn’t have a formal one yet. “What’s the worst that can happen?” was how my agent had put it when I shared my misgivings about taking a meeting before we had something more binding. “You get an all-expense-paid trip to Jackson Hole in August. Take Beth with you. I’m told it’s nice if you like that sort of thing.”

  Now, though, it looked like the worst that could happen was pretty bad. If I gave Nolan and Marty everything they needed in conversation over the next couple days, what was their incentive to hire me? In Hollywood such “auditions” were all too common. I also recalled that when I’d glanced at Marty’s IMDB profile, he’d done some script doctoring himself. None of this boded well.

  “You must have a deal memo, at least,” Jason was saying. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, right?”

  “A draft and a set of notes,” I told him. “Standard back-end language. Bonus for sole credit. Otherwise a percentage, pending arbitration. They were more anxious to have the meeting than to process the necessary paperwork.”

  “When was that ever not true?”

  “But you trust him? Regular Bill?”

  “I’ve been working for over a year on Back in the Day. Gratis, so yeah, I guess I do.”

  “You’ve been working that long without a contract?”

  “I have a contract, but there was no money left in the budget for script development. I get made whole when I don my director’s cap. Until then…”

  “God,” I said. “Things are worse now than I remember.”

  “Infinitely.”

  “Here’s what I don’t get,” I said, because the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. “Why not come clean up front? Just tell me about the other two writers.”

  “Think about it. The project has been quietly in development for years, despite the fact that they haven’t bothered to option it. What if you get pissed?”

  “I am pissed. They really thought they could get away without optioning the material?”

  He cocked his head. “Devil’s advocate?”

  “Sure,” I said. “Knock yourself out.”

  “Okay, so what exactly is the material? A long time ago you wrote half of a first act for Wendy, and Wendy’s dead. As far as they know, you forgot about the whole thing. If you were still pitching it around town, they’d have heard. My point is, in the annals of Hollywood thievery, this wouldn’t even make the list. If they wanted to be complete fuckwads, they could claim Wendy pitched the idea to Bill but never showed him actual pages.”

  “Jesus.”

  “But here’s the more likely scenario. Bill reads your first act and sees the potential. But then Wendy dies and it seems like that’s that. A year or two later he runs across the pages, or Marty does, and he likes them all over again. They could offer you an option, but what if you want to write the screenplay? Bill has half-a-dozen writers he likes to work with. He figures, Why not show it to one of them and see what he thinks? So that’s what he does. One of them loves the premise and gets all excited and wants to run with it. Bill figures, Why not? If the guy comes up with a producible script, they can offer you an option then. If not they’ve saved some money. Plus they get to keep creative control a bit longer. These days, that’s the name of the game.”

  That made a kind of sense, I had to admit. “Okay, but then why give me the other two scripts now? Why not just turn me loose with the original pages? Tell me to go home and write it?”

  “You’d be starting from scratch.”

  I held up the canvas bag I’d hung on a hook under the bar. “How does my reading these change that? If the scripts were any good, they wouldn’t need me. If they’re not good, why poison my imagination?”

  “I made that same point,
and I thought they’d agreed. I was surprised to see the tote. So was Marty. Did you see the look on his face?”

  “No.”

  “That’s the other thing. Bill turns seventy-seven this year. He’s still pretty sharp and he’s in great shape, but according to Marty he’s beginning to have memory issues. We may hear that margarita story again tomorrow.” He was regarding me strangely. “You sure you’re okay?”

  I considered telling him about Beth, that the only reason I’d taken the assignment was for the health insurance. For some reason I didn’t. “I’m just tired.”

  “Go to bed. I’ll get this,” he said, calling for the check. “Or rather Bill will.”

  “Speaking of the margarita story?” I said. “I’m not sure it means what he thinks it does.”

  “Yeah, but none of our stories mean what we think they do.” Which was fair enough, so when Jason raised his glass and said, eyebrow arched, “To Regular Bill,” we clinked glasses and drained the last of our beers.

  I shared an elevator ride with three tiny Asians wearing cowboy boots and those enormous Stetsons. They pointed at my head. “No hat.”

  “All cattle,” I replied, which was a piss-poor joke even if I’d told it to people who might get it.

  “Yes, yes,” one of them said appreciatively. He made a circular motion, an invisible lariat, in the air above his head, knocking his Stetson askew. “Cat-oh. Right. Ha-ha.”

  —

  It was five-thirty local time when I awoke with an understanding that had escaped me the night before. If Nolan had been quietly developing Milton and Marcus for the better part of a decade, then our insurance predicament was partly due to him. Had he offered an option on the material in the beginning and hired me to write the first draft, our coverage wouldn’t have lapsed and we wouldn’t be wondering how we were going to make it until we qualified for Medicare next year. Not that he would see it like that, of course. Developing material you don’t own the rights to is risky, but there’s no law against it. And he was under no obligation to hire me. Seen from his perspective, he was no more to blame for our lapsed insurance than for Beth’s cancer. Of far more concern to him, surely, was his own suddenly precarious standing. Turnabout was fair play, and if he’d been a shit, I could now be a bigger one. The problem was that I couldn’t punish him without damaging myself in the process.

 
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