“Gin! You owe me six thousand dollars!” Fifty-seven-year-old, silver-haired Olga Mostad slapped her cards down on the coffee table and placed her plump white hand palm up in front of her boss, who was seated on the couch opposite her in the small reception office of Stan Levy’s bungalow at Universal. Glasses filled with ice cubes and Coke sat on the table. Olga picked up a glass and drank hers down.
Stan tried to weasel out. “You cheat,” he accused half-heartedly.
But his secretary couldn’t be dissuaded. “Six thousand dollars!” She waggled her fingers in front of his nose.
Stan decided to get devious. “How about a part in my new picture instead, baby?”
Olga looked like she was considering the offer. “Can we do the casting couch bit?”
Stan shook his head. “No way! You and your female activist friends would have me tarred and feathered and thrown off the lot. I’m on to you, lady.”
Olga sat back in her chair and folded her arms. It was clear she would show him no mercy. “Then forget it. That’ll be six thousand dollars.”
“All right, all right. You’ll get it all, with interest, as soon as my feature grosses its first five million.”
Olga was not excited by the offer. “Sure, boss. Bring it to me out at the motion picture home, if I’m still alive by then.”
Stan shook his head sadly. “Oh, ye of little faith. And I thought you believed in me.”
“Oh, I do, boss.” She was gathering the cards off the table. “But as they say, money talks and bullshit you-know-what.”
He picked up his drink and took a couple of short sips. “It’s broads like you who give grannies a bad name. You know that?”
The opening of the front door cut short their sparring and the man they had been expecting walked in, out of breath, and smiling diffidently. He was tall and blond and already going to seed in his thirties. His bloodshot eyes and the dark circles underneath them detracted from what had once been a very handsome face. Probably booze, possibly drugs. Stan was all too familiar with the signs of self-abuse.
He and Olga stood up and Stan offered his hand. “You must be Josh. I’ve heard a lot of nice things about you…really liked the demo Jennie sent me.” Josh nodded and thanked him. Stan’s handshake was firm and his manner confident despite his modest demeanor. He wrapped an arm around Olga’s waist. “And this is Olga, my secretary. Hang on to your wallet around her. She’s dangerous.”
Olga pooh-poohed and pushed him away affectionately. “I’ll go see if Howard is still on the phone.” She disappeared down the hallway.
Stan indicated a chair. “Sit down, relax. I’ve got to return a call. Won’t take a second.”
As soon as Stan stepped into his office, he closed the door and headed for the bathroom, then closed the door and locked it. Olga would kill him if she knew about this. As for Lila, God only knew what she would do. If she found out he hadn’t stopped using, she’d probably leave him. He knew Olga had heard the rumors about him being an occasional party user but she hadn’t confronted him about it yet. His habit was no worse than some of his friends. Kicking it would be easy. As soon as he finished production on Run for the Money, he would check himself in somewhere, tell Lila he was fishing with his buddies, or come up with some better excuse. If Howard had been able to do it, he sure as hell could.
He patted his shirt pocket and felt the familiar packet. It had only been a half hour since his last hit, but he figured he deserved to indulge himself. His regular supplier from Vegas had cut him off since the big blowout with Lila, when she caught the guy slipping a packet of coke into Stan’s pocket at a party. She had gone berserk and screamed obscenities in a house full of people, including his supplier, who was now terrified of being exposed by her. Stan had been frantic to make a connection for two days. Then, this morning, peace, lovely peace. Chuck Barenhaus, an out-of-work key grip, had stopped by with a fresh supply and had left with a promise of a job on the feature.
He dug his spoon out of his wallet and took the cocaine from his pocket. He inhaled deeply of the pure white powder and leaned against the sink to enjoy the rush. He knew it wouldn’t last long. It was taking more and more hits to get him to the same place. But that was cool; after production, he’d get right.
He studied the face staring back at him in the mirror. He looked at least ten years older than his thirty years and the brown hair was sprinkled heavily with grey. But looking old didn’t bother him. It was getting old and dying that filled him with dread and gave him nightmares. Ever since he was five and his father had taken him to his mother’s funeral and forced him to kiss her cold, waxy face, the inevitable black, pitiless specter of death had never been far from his mind. Even now, he still couldn’t sleep without the flickering light of the television being on. It had driven Lila crazy, until someone suggested she wear a sleep mask (she discovered it made her feel like a thirties movie star); but then, most things about him drove Lila crazy. Maybe the movie would appease her for a while.
Josh was relieved to have a few minutes to himself. He sat down and took his guitar out of the case with shaking hands. The piece of crap he called a car had broken down again and he’d had to run the last several blocks to the studio. Even when he started out early, he ended up late.
Stan seemed a nice enough guy, and if the plush furnishings in his bungalow were any indication of his success, then he had to be one of the most important directors on the lot. Jennie had told him that Stan and Howard Grossman, the producer, had both loved the Never on My Mind demo. Joell had been willing to listen to it because not only would it offer her a chance to sing the theme song for a major motion picture, she was also considering doing a cameo as a band singer in the movie. Now, Josh had a chance to get two songs into the movie sung by the hottest singer in the business. But he didn’t get his hopes up for any of it. After ten years in this town, his optimism wasn’t what it used to be.
Stan and Olga came back into the room, followed by a heavyset man in his forties. He sat heavily into one of the overstuffed chairs and raised a hand in greeting. “I’m Howard Grossman, nice to meet ya.” Before Josh could respond, he went on wearily. “I don’t want to pressure you, kid, but we’ve got two weeks to prep before we start shooting, so this better be good.”
Stan laughed. “So, scare him half to death, why don’t you, Howard?” Then to Josh, “This song will be sung in a small, classy club by a beautiful lady right after our hero has found out the love of his life has left him. So, he’s at a table by himself, drinking club soda, trying to stay sober, and finds himself mesmerized by the singer and the song. We need something moody and bluesy, but not too depressing.”
Josh immediately knew the song he would sing—one he had just finished. But suddenly, he had the crazy feeling he didn’t want to share this song with them. All the memories he’d forced himself to dig up, and the despair and resentment he had wrestled with to get the words and melody into a form and structure that expressed his feelings, were of incidental interest to them. Now he was supposed to expose his soul to people who didn’t give a crap about him and most likely would never even get to know him.
The three other people in the room were still looking at him in various stages of expectancy and hopefulness. He knew he was being totally irrational. He wondered if this was the beginning of losing his mind. Songwriting was his job, for Christ’s sake. He had to get himself out of this crazy mood and remember why he was there—bills, food, rent. The threat of eviction was a powerful incentive, and Josh began to sing.
“I’m walkin’ down a road to nowhere.
I lost you long ago.
And dreams of tangled memories
Whisper soft and low.
I wander down the path where only
Fading secrets sing
Wondering how I’ll face the night
And what the dark will bring.
The road to nowhere,
The road to nowhere,
Why can’t it bring…
Why can’t it bring…
Why can’t it bring me back to you?
Why can’t it bring…
Why can’t it bring…
Why can’t it bring me back to you?”
He finished and all three were staring at him as if they were slightly hypnotized. He hoped it was because they liked it. Olga spoke first.
“Wow. You are really good.”
Stan nodded, “I second that opinion.”
Howard stood up. “I like it. Too bad you’re not a woman, or you could record it yourself.” After a friendly salute, he went out the door.
Josh followed him with his eyes and turned back to Stan and Olga. “Does that mean he wants my songs in the movie?”
Stan smiled broadly. “I think you’re in, kid.”
All the air left Josh’s body and he slumped down in his chair. For once—for once—something had gone right! He was on the verge of having two hit singles with Joell. Life was sweet and every bit of rejection he had ever suffered was worth this moment.
“Will I be able to help produce the songs with Joell?”
Stan looked uncomfortable and looked at Olga, who shrugged and stood up. “I think it’s time for me to go to lunch.” She gave Josh a fond smile. “You are amazing, Josh. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise. You’ll make it big, sure as I’m the best gin player in this room.” She tossed a wry look at Stan before grabbing her purse off her desk and going out.
Josh was uncertain about what just happened. “Is something wrong?”
“No, your songs are in the movie, no question, but Joell will be singing just the theme song. The other song will be sung by my wife, who will play the band singer.”
Not the end of the world. One hit record was better than none. “Is your wife an actress?”
“Actually, she wants to be a singer and an actress but right now she’s neither. This will be her debut.”
“Yes, it’s awkward. But Howard has agreed to give her a shot. She has to prove herself first, and if she can learn the song and the recording is decent, it will be her voice. If it turns out she’s less than adequate, we’ll teach her how to lip-sync to a professional singer’s voice and hopefully she’ll look the part, at least.”
“So, I’ll be working with Joell and the other singer whose voice you might use?”
“Actually, that comes later.”
“I’m asking you to work with my wife first. I’ll pay you extra, of course, but Jennie tells me you work well producing singers so…will you do it?”
Josh hesitated for about a second before agreeing. Money was speaking to him and it was a language his landlady understood. “Sure. Just tell me where and when.”
He walked out of the office and down the streets of Universal with a huge grin on his face. He smiled at everybody and they smiled back. He imagined that somehow, they knew that, finally, he was a part of what they were doing. His mood was infectious, and he had someone special to share it with.
The large black panther, sleek muscles rippling, saw her prey seated on a rock only a few yards away. He was a large white man, partially hidden by brush, but she could see he was soft and fleshy with little or no muscle tone, mentally distracted, and totally unprepared for her attack. The ground was moist and giving beneath her paws as she inched her way forward. His back was toward her, bent over something in his hand that he was looking at, still oblivious to her presence. She stopped only inches away from the man and hesitated for a split second to gather her strength before the final leap. With a roar that echoed off the hillsides, she attacked, knocking the man sideways and then flat on the ground. She whirled back around and faced him, crouching low as she inched forward, and snarling dangerously.
Josh pushed himself up and sat back on the rock and picked up his tablet and pen from the ground. He smiled at the black panther, “Noor, if you’ll stop playing for a minute, I have great news to tell you! I sold a song!”
Noor would not be put off. She wanted to play. She placed two giant paws on his chest to make her point. Josh fell back on the ground from the pressure. “Jeez, you’re getting heavy. It’s time to put you on a diet.” Noor wasn’t sure of what he said, but it didn’t sound pleasant. She hoped he wasn’t upset with her. Sometimes, he just wasn’t in the mood to roughhouse. She took her paws off his chest and crouched down beside him. He sat up cross-legged and scratched Noor’s head absently. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation. Next to naps in the warm sun, this was her favorite thing.
“I could be making a lot of money soon and I’ll have more time to work on getting you out of here. The people who run the zoo don’t want it to happen, but I promise you, it will. You’ll be free to run and play and climb trees. It will almost be like being in the jungle…almost.”
He cleared his throat.” Listen to this. I’ve been working on it while you were sleeping. It’s a song for my musical. It’s different from my other songs—Broadway’s different from pop. Anyway, here it is. I only have the first few lines.
You overwhelm my senses,
So, I can’t speak my mind.
You share your secret dreams with me,
And never act unkind.
But I am like the air you breathe,
Unnoticed and unseen…”
“That’s where I’m stuck, Noor. I don’t know, maybe it’s too sentimental, maybe the whole musical is too sentimental. I’ve been told that more than once and maybe they’re right. The forties and fifties were more my style, but what can I do? This is where I am.” He looked up at the blue sky, contemplating his words, “See, it’s about a limo driver who falls in love with the daughter of his very wealthy client. They’re worlds apart. The whole thing’s hopeless but they end up falling in love anyway.”
Noor yawned, lay her head on her paws, and closed her eyes.
Josh looked at her. “Am I boring you? What do you know? You’re a cat. You should become an ad exec. Anyway, I’d like another opinion. Don’t tell me, I’m also ugly.” Josh laughed at the hackneyed old joke and stopped suddenly and stared into space. “I think I’m losin’ it, Noor. I’m telling myself these great old jokes and giving you the credit.” He stroked Noor’s back and leaned close to her. “I’m badly in need of some quality female companionship.”
Overwhelmed by love, Noor slurped her tongue across one side of his face.
Josh cried out in pain. “That’s not exactly what I had in mind!”
Noor lowered her head back down on her paws and closed her eyes. Nothing seemed to please him today.
Josh patted his cheek tenderly. “I think I can forget about shaving this side of my face for a couple of days.”
Noor suddenly lifted her head. A man was yelling at them from outside the compound. Growling, she followed Josh over to the fence and looked out. The man was running down the path towards them, exhausted, younger than Josh, wearing the same khaki uniform, but his was wrinkled and stained with dirt and sweat. He leaned heavily on the railing and forced his words out between gasps of air. “Josh, you see Jerry? He’s not answering his cell.”
“He had surgery out at the wild animal park this morning. What the hell’s the matter, Alan?”
Alan’s breath started coming easier but the worry was intense. “Katy’s foaling but she’s having a bad time. I think the head’s trapped and she won’t let anybody near her!”
“Get back to her! I’ll meet you there!”
Noor watched Josh run up the hill and out the gate. She longed to run beside him and protect him from whatever was causing him distress, but she was trapped in her prison and there was nothing she could do. She jumped up on the highest ledge with the best vantage point and settled down to wait. She knew he would be back before he left for the night.
Josh saw the zebra, her stomach swollen with her baby, lying in a far corner of her compound, surrounded by brush. She was jerking her head around in panic and her eyes twitched nervously as she saw the two men approach. Josh moved toward her slowly, murmuring softly, then stroking her neck.
“Hold her head, Alan.”
He stripped off his shirt and patted her back, moving down to her hindquarters, still reassuring and comforting her. He could see the baby’s twisted neck through the opening of the vagina, where Katy’s flesh was straining and starting to tear from the pressure. He remembered the same thing had happened to a mare owned by his best friend Jimmy back in Wisconsin and he felt the same pain wrench his gut now as he had then, watching the animal’s suffering.
Moving swiftly, he reached in, found the baby’s head, turned it around and moved it toward the vaginal opening. He used both hands to pull the baby free, the final expansion causing Katy to moan in agony. The foal landed in his lap, slippery and bloody but alive and, as far as he could tell, in good health. He hadn’t had time to think, but he felt pretty good about what he had just done. He shook his head at Alan, who was grinning from ear to ear, and Josh laughed out loud with relief. He heard a voice behind him.
“Not bad for an amateur.” A conservative-looking man in his late twenties with short dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses was looking down at them.
Zoo veterinarian Dr. Jerry Widel had missed the excitement by thirty seconds.
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