Selling by Chris Iovenko
Spencer Zen had showered, read the trades over scrambled eggs and turkey-sausage and now, with the sea blue screen of his computer opened to his “New Ideas” file, had started his workday. Spencer reached for his Salvador Dali coffee mug, Dali’s mustache appearing slowly as the coffee cooled, and took another sip. Spencer replaced the mug by his mouse pad and tried to focus on the titles of the new ideas in front of him. After a minute Spencer sighed, got up from the table paced across the room, paced back and reseated himself.
He was trying to work, as he had tried to work yesterday, but really he was waiting for the phone to ring. It had rung regularly yesterday, each first ring jumping his heart into his throat and sending his pulse racing. Only on hearing the cheerful voices of friends and familiars, would Spencer’s pulse slow, and a blue pall of disappointment would settle over his excitement.
Today, thought Spencer, as he resettled himself in his chair, shifting his bulk until he was comfortable, will be the day. The big day. But first he must wait and work. He glanced again across the row of icons and opened the document titled “Cascade.” This was a treatment he had recently written, the story of a terrorist bomber blowing up dams, though of course the hero was the stern but dedicated FBI agent on his trail.
Spencer liked this idea. He believed in heroes; moreover, he believed in Hollywood heroes, and his Agent Fifer was certainly that. What he needed was a definitive scene at the end of the second act where Fifer confronted his own demons and conquered them. Fifer had never gotten over losing his wife to a terrorist bomb, and certainly he thought he could never love again. What if, puzzled Spencer knuckles pressed against his temples, the terrorist turned out to be a beautiful women, and then Fifer would have to chose between doing his job and…
The phone began to ring. Spencer stared at it, as though by sheer force of will he might peer through the black plastic down the connecting lines and see the caller on the other end. On the third ring he blew out his held breath, picked the phone up, and said, “Spencer Zen.”
“Howdy sport,” said Leslie Tersanctus, Spencer’s agent. “What’s shaking?”
“Hey, Les,” said Spencer, keeping his voice soft and even, “how’s the beach?”
“Perfect,” said Les. “Clear as a bell. Beyond the breakers I can see Hawaii sticking up like a fantastic pair of tits.”
“That’s Catalina,” said Spencer.
“You’re kidding me,” said Les. “Would you believe my real estate agent pulled one over on me?”
“Got to watch those agents every minute,” said Spencer. This was their regular exchange and not for the first time Spencer wished Les would get it over with and get down to business.
Les laughed and Spencer listened to the familiar sound of Les unwrapping a peppermint and popping it into his mouth.
“Well,” said Les, talking around the mint, “great news. Both Brads decided that they loved your pitch best. Looks like “Louie and the Leviathan” is going to go through.”
“Excellent,” said Spencer, truly happy. “Terms?”
“I got you better than what I’d said before. Wasn’t easy, but I fought and got you 500 up front versus 4, instead of 2, on production.”
“Awesome,” said Spencer. “Just super.”
“Of course, it’s not a 100% until we get signatures on contracts.”
“Marvelous,” said Spencer, thinking about the phone-calls he would make.
“Still,” said Les, “congratulations. You should take the day off. Celebrate the good news; looks like you’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you.”
“Thanks, Les,” said Spencer, and hung up.
Spencer called his parents; they weren’t home so he a left a message. Then he began to hit the pre-sets on his phone spreading the good news and receiving congratulations.
He had hoped to find somebody who’d want to do something, go somewhere and celebrate, but everybody was in the middle of something, had a meeting, or a lunch coming up.
Finally, after an hour of calls, Spencer decided he might as well call Anna; he had sworn her off two weeks ago, but that was mainly a money issue then. Spencer could afford an added luxury now couldn’t he, or how about two? Hadn’t Anna mentioned that she had a friend who, how did she say it, was ready to party?
“You want the sister act?” Said Anna, yawning into the phone. “Why suddenly the big spender? Is what’s its selling?”
“What’s its,” said Spencer. “Yeah, Louie and The Leviathan finally went to Triad.”
“That was the Free Willie bump-off, but with a sea-monster instead of a whale, right?” said Anna. “What’d you get?”
“Come on, inspired by,” said Spencer. “Everything’s inspired by something. Anyway, who cares, I got 500 grand versus 4 million.”
“Points, too?” asked Anna, and Spencer heard a cigarette being lit and inhaled.
“Of course,” he said, though in his excitement he’d forgotten to ask.
“Garret, your friend, told me last night that his deal at Apex went through. He got a million up front.”
“Yeah, great,” said Spencer, irritated that Anna always seemed to know everything before he did. “Well, it’s not really “his” million; he splits with a partner.”
“I already subtracted,” said Anna, “it was two million.” Spencer quickly wondered if she was lying, exaggerating, just to downgrade his, Spencer’s, achievement.
“It’ll be in the trades tomorrow,” added Anna, as though in answer to his thoughts.
“Fuck Garret Lee,” said Spencer petulantly. “I was trying to have a moment here.”
There was a pause while Anna sucked on her cigarette. “I know, Spencer,” she said, exhaling, her voice low and soothing. “I just thought you’d want to hear the good news about your friend. You know what they say.”
“What?” said Spencer, pacing to the window and staring out.
“That a rising tide raises all…”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Spencer, cutting her off. “Look, just you and,” he remembered the friend’s name was Rachel but said, “just you and who it’s, be here at four.”
“Rachel,” said Anna. “Remember, I can’t take checks anymore.”
“I know, Jesus,” said Spencer, thumping down the telephone.
Christ, I let her get to me, thought Spencer; I’m just too sensitive. I need to relax and enjoy myself. But enjoy myself how? Everybody’s busy; there’s nothing to do. Maybe what I need is a little adventure. How about grabbing a picnic lunch at Trader Joe’s and going to that park at the top of Mulholland and having a feast looking out over the city?
As a reflex, on the way out the door, Spencer grabbed off the coffee table a possible re-write script Les had sent him. He got a few steps away, stopped and returned the script.
“Day off, remember?” Spencer said to himself and headed toward the door.
Crossing the street to his new Burgundy BMW Spencer discovered something was wrong. He stopped in the middle of the street, and again, arm straightened in front of him, pointed the little black box on his key-chain at the car and clicked. The car didn’t give it’s all’s well chirp of the alarm. He clicked again and again silence.
It was a brand new 5-series BMW, a necessary luxury Spencer could barely afford. It was his baby and he never left the alarm off. He broke into a jog. When he got to the car he saw that the lock was up and swung the door open.
“Ouch,” gasped Spencer involuntarily, confronting the frank empty socket of the steering wheel. The large soft button of steering wheel had been pried off, and tossed on the floor. “My airbag.”
Why hadn’t the alarm gone off? Spencer thought of sitting down in the seat but it seemed wrong to sit where the violator had sat. Plus, wouldn’t the police want to dust for prints? Stupid, thought Spencer, to sling open the door like that, probably the best prints were there on the handle. Still, he needed to find out if the car was working. He reached around the steering column and fit the key into the ignition and turned it. Silence.
“Think,” said Spencer out loud, a command he often gave to his characters.
Spencer noticed that the hood of the car, an elegant and masculine bulge of metal, was ajar. Spencer walked to the front of the car and pulled the hood up. The battery, Spencer believed, was probably gone, though among the futuristic chrome and plastic landscape of engine it was hard to tell. He shut the hood and headed back to the house.
Returning to the street to wait for the tow-truck, Spencer said to himself, it takes more than a simple break-in to ruin Spencer Zen’s day. Besides, though he never mentioned it to anyone, the car was leased and therefore wasn’t really his, and would be replaced or returned to him repaired the following day. My life after all, reflected Spencer, has just made a quantum leap from screenwriter in waiting, waiting that is for the big sale, to actual bona fide screenwriter. The day, Spencer noticed, even seemed congratulatory. Through the thirsty oak trees, the sun threw a rich and buttery light down on the sidewalk where he stood.
Spencer watched as a battered old water truck barged slowly down the street stopping at each tree. On first moving to Los Angeles, he realized, as most didn’t, that L.A. was a desert. Spencer, who had fond memories of his grandfather’s apple orchard, had been bothered by the preponderance of northern trees drying and dying in the sun and smog along LA’s streets and boulevards. Plant only cactus and palm trees in the desert, not oaks and maples, he used to hotly contend on the rare occasion that someone was willing to talk nature.
But today Spencer watched with contentment as the water truck rumbled slowly by. It stopped at an oak twenty feet past him. Its rubber appendage drooped over the tree’s bundled roots and spattered them with a brief ration of water before lumbering away to stop and squirt and then move again away. Everything’s taken care of out here, even the things that don’t belong. It’s true that with budget cuts the water truck was a very rare sight, and one day all the oaks might finally die baked dry as cornhusks under the hot blue sky, but thought Spencer, it’s best to leave botany to the botanists.
After the tow-truck had lugged the BMW out of sight, Spencer went to the garage, and removed his bike from behind a lawnmower and some half-empty cans of paint. He pushed the bike out into the sunlight. It was his bike from college, an older model Cannondale, top of the line when his parents bought it for him at his request while he was at Cornell. Though Spencer had never been much of a bike rider, it had seemed important to him in college to have one, and not just a bike but the best bike. Returning from classes it had given him a sense of comfort and pride to see the brand new and expensive mountain bike shackled outside his dorm room door for all to see.
Spencer went back in the garage, returned with a rag, and began to clean up the dusty bike. It was still a beautiful machine, candy apple-red, Spencer’s favorite color. Before mounting it, he reached down and pressed on the tires. Soft. Well, thought Spencer, I’m not going to be discouraged. I’ll just push it up to the Shell station that, he guessed, wasn’t more than a ten-minute walk away.
Pushing the bike down his quiet, sleepy street Spencer felt a rush of privilege. I’m lucky, thought Spencer; I have a great career, a great life. I’m getting ready to go for a bike ride on a beautiful day, my day off.
It took Spencer twenty minutes to reach Beverly Boulevard; he’d broken into a sweat and was wondering how much further it could be to the Shell station. The cars roared by in a rush of flashing metal and the sun on his scalp felt like a hot bare bulb. Spencer wished he’d worn a baseball cap.
As the cars continued to fly past, a new thought struck him. “What if somebody I know drives by and sees me, not only walking, but pushing a bike? They’d think I was exercising.” This unpleasant thought had the effect of panicking Spencer; he nearly stopped and turned back, but decided that he must be close now. Spencer realized on arriving in Los Angeles that public exercise, whether it was in a health-club or jogging down the street, was only for those already marvelously in shape.
For an overweight person such as Spencer to exercise in front of other people amounted to openly confessing a need, the need to be thin. And need, like any frailty or weakness had a way of spreading in an unpredictable and often unfortunate way. Of course, Spencer had once planned on attaining thinness and beauty, or at least losing the extra thirty pounds he picked up in college. To that end he had bought a second-hand Nordic Track from a chubby screenwriter who was leaving town and stuck it in his downstairs closet, where as far as he remembered it still was.
It suddenly struck Spencer that he could do this, not this, but bike, everyday. Nobody really cared, perhaps, and in no time he would be down to say, an even two hundred pounds. As he stopped and stood, huffing, leaning against his bike waiting for the light to change, a black Nissan rolled to a stop next to him. A tinted window rolled partway down and a voice yelled over the hugga-hugga of the bass, “It’s not working, you fat mother-fuck.”
Spencer stopped himself before he shouted; “Fuck off!” back at them. You can’t do that, he thought, they might have guns. Anyway, he thought, as the light changed and the Nissan screeched away, I must be a pitiful sight; people on foot always are, as a well as a general nuisance to the driving public. Spencer, rushing to a meeting, had once nearly skidded into an old woman crippling across the crosswalk on a walker. Overcome with fury, he had pulled over and screamed at her, “You stupid bitch, why don’t you learn to fucking walk!” and had then floored the car and peeled out still enraged.
Spencer began to push his bike across to the other side of Beverly. Halfway across the light started to change so he had to jog pushing the bike along side. He looked across at the line of grumbling cars, grills like giant chrome snouts, and thought of a herd of cattle, mechanical, soulless beasts, and pushed his bike faster. He made it across but barely before the stampede began, with a Lincoln bellowing at him as he paused at the curb, lifting up his bike.
Safe on the sidewalk, Spencer began walking and pushing again, the Shell sign just now visible, four blocks distant. People, thought he as he pushed, aren’t meant to walk from A to B. The cities aren’t designed for them and cars are better than they have ever been. Still, thought Spencer, I should be able to leave my house on foot without being afraid.
Spencer checked his watch when he finally got to the gas station. It had taken him close to 45 minutes to push his bike here. Sweat soaked through the back and armpits of his T-shirt, and his scalp, bald at the crown, felt prickly and hot in the shade of the station. He inflated his tires at the pump feeling exhausted and no longer up for any adventure bigger than getting lunch. Besides, after lunch and the bank it wouldn’t be long before the girls came over.
Back at home Spencer poured himself a glass of fresh orange juice and checked his messages. There were four; three brief notes of congratulations from Spencer’s second tier of friends, the ones he hadn’t called first thing but had heard the good news through others. The fourth message was from his mother, telling him how proud she and his father were of him.
Spencer finished his juice and carried a kitchen chair into the living room, his mother’s voice fading behind him, “…and remember you call your sister this time and tell her, don’t forget how upset you were last time, when we told her first.”
Spencer sat down in the chair, its metal back cool through his sticky T-shirt. He pulled the thick roll of bills out of his pocket, and counted them out onto the carpet at his feet. Spencer liked twenties; it was his denomination of choice, when you had a lot of money it looked like a lot of money. Five short stacks lay on the carpet. Five hundred dollars, not so much money. How many stacks would make $500,000? How high would the stacks rise? Spencer watched as stacks of green bills blossomed across the floor, and towered over the furniture tilting towards the ceiling.
No, no, thought Spencer, how high, really. He took his finger out and drew in the air. 100 goes into 500,000, how many, 5,000 times, right? 5,000 stacks of five twenties each. Maybe that would rise to the ceiling, or certainly to his waist. Spencer scratched the air again. 25,000 twenty-dollar bills. Certainly that would be enough to cover the first floor of his house including his porch, probably a foot deep.
Spencer felt better; this was truly a great day. The key to profit is visualization, thought Spencer, smiling as he picked up the bills and stood up. He walked over to the sideboard, placed the bills in a single stack, and then headed for the stairs. Who used to say that thing about visualization, wondered Spencer, as he tramped up the stairs. Maybe Mr. Greg that Asian huckster from a few years back who lived on a yacht and had his own cable TV investment show.
When Spencer got of the shower he dried off and dressed in a white cotton long sleeved shirt, rolled up to the elbows, blue seer-sucker shorts, and Dockers without socks. He examined his scalp in the mirror. Rogaine was working for Mickey Rourke; Spencer had gotten that news straight from Mickey’s ex-manager himself, but all he could see after three weeks of regular applications was a slight patch of fuzz, yellow as a tennis ball, on the left side of his crown.
Well, thought Spencer, got to start somewhere, but my God, what if it only grows on one side. He envisioned himself with a giant left-sided plume of yellow hair, and he laughed. Maybe there’s a comedy in that, thought Spencer, like The Mask, only instead of a magic mask a magic hair gel that converts the wearer into what? A bald old man into a young Don Juan? No, but what? Downstairs he heard the gentle chime of the doorbell. Into something, finished Spencer, as he dodged downstairs.
Anna and Rachel followed Spencer into the living room. Spencer slatted shut the blinds and seated himself in the straight-backed chair. Rachel, too tall for Spencer’s taste with straight black hair that came down almost to her waist, stood in the center of the room not looking at Spencer, one hand, nails red as b-movie blood, resting against her slender hip. What is she waiting for, Vogue to take her photograph? Thought Spencer.
“Spencer,” said Anna, “this is Rachel.”
Unsure how to greet a new prostitute, Spencer started to rise awkwardly from his chair. Rachel nodded and cracked her gum at him. He sat back down. Anna arched her brows at Rachel who took the gum out of her mouth and walked to the sideboard. An Arrowhead water receipt was lying there, and Rachel looked at Spencer. He nodded and watched Rachel plop her gum into the center of the paper.
“So Dario Powers got bought out of that development deal he had at Essential,” said Anna, who with a step and a kick was out of her six-inch heels. She joined Rachel at the sideboard, and, standing on tiptoes to see in the mirror, straightened her blond hair.
“The Night Prowler,” said Spencer, who last year had had his rewrite pitch rejected. “I passed on a rewrite for that. Piece of shit.”
“Well, he didn’t say how much,” said Anna. Satisfied with her hair, she pulled off her shirt. “But he’d just gotten Tommy Lee Jones attached to the package.”
“He told you basically though,” said Rachel, who unzipped the side of her black skirt and shimmied out of it leaving her red pumps on.
“Well, I was trying not to say, but I guess it’s all right if Spencer knows,” Anna said to Rachel. She turned her dark brown eyes on Spencer, and blinked dramatically. “Four million, with of course a producer credit.”
“Probably points, too,” said Spencer wishing they could drop the shoptalk for once.
Anna stripped off the rest of her clothes and began taking off her rings and placing them in a neat silver row across the sideboard next to the stack of bills Spencer had lain out. “No, I asked him. No points.”
“Anna and I have been talking about writing a script,” said Rachel, as she moved in front of Spencer and pulled off her shirt. She stopped to examine her hand and pick at a nail before unfastening her bra. She and Anna, Spencer observed, had the same boob job.
“What about?” Said Spencer.
“Us of course,” said Rachel, removing her panties. “Two girlfriends from the big island who move to Hollywood to become actresses, but become you know, high paid call-girls instead, and then end up becoming famous actresses, anyway.”
“But you’re not famous actresses,” said Spencer, not quite paying attention to what Rachel was saying.
“No duh,” said Rachel. “That’s the movie part.”
“We thought you’re a writer, you could help us with it,” said Anna walking over and standing next to Rachel.
They’re serious, thought Spencer, and two ideas came to him, the first funny. “Yeah,” said Spencer, “we could call it ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Movie Star.”
“I don’t like that title, too snooty,” said Rachel. “We’re more down to earth, you know, real.”
“So I help you with this movie script and you two, what,” said Spencer, forcing a smile, “screw me for free?”
Both naked girls turned and looked at each other before laughing, Spencer thought, a bit too merrily.
“Well, anyway it’s something for you to think about. You can write down some ideas and show us,” said Anna, as she crossed in front of Rachel and stood between Spencer’s legs. Anna reached down undid his belt, pulled it off, and then stepping over Spencer’s leg went around behind the chair tied his hands together with it. Rachel moving closer knelt down in front of Spencer and started to unbutton his shirt.
“Don’t,” said Spencer. “The shirt stays on.”
“That’s cute,” said Rachel, smiling up at him, and then plucking off his shoes, and pulling down his shorts. “Spencer’s shy.”
“He’s always like that,” said Anna, who finished tying Spencer, walked around in front, and stood looking at him with her arms crossed. “I’ve told him that being fat is nothing to be ashamed of. None of us are perfect.”
Spencer was about to say something, but Rachel pushed her panties into his mouth. She then rose to her feet and walked to where Anna was standing.
“Yeah, lover,” said Rachel, reaching out and tracing with a long red fingernail the line of Anna’s hip. “We’re not perfect. We’re lezzies.”
Forty-five minutes later the doorbell rang. Anna and Rachel stopped what they were doing like a toy unplugged. The doorbell chimed again, and Anna yanked the panties out of Spencer’s mouth.
“Be quiet,” gasped Spencer.
“We were,” whispered Rachel. “You were the one huffing.”
“You want me to check who it is?” asked Anna.
“No,” said Spencer. The doorbell rang again, an insistent third time. “Jesus. Yes, go upstairs quietly and peek, I say peek out of my bedroom window. Don’t for God’s sake be seen.”
“Relax,” said Anna. She pulled on Spencer’s striped blue shorts, which ballooned down past her knees. Holding them up by the belt-loops, elbows akimbo, Anna pranced across the floor and jogged on tiptoes up the stairs, her breasts jiggling and golden in the falling light.
“Who was it?” Asked Spencer, when Anna came back down the stairs.
Anna walked to the sideboard and let Spencer’s shorts slip to the floor. “Couldn’t tell,” she said. “They were already back in their car.” Stepping out of the shorts, she began to put her rings back on.
“What kind of car?” asked Spencer.
“Black,” said Anna. Rachel walked behind Spencer, and untied the belt. He pulled his hands free, and asked, “Mercedes, BMW?”
“Probably,” said Anna.
“Christ, could have been anyone,” said Spencer, rubbing his hands were they had been tied. “We’re done?”
Anna gave her business smile and snapped her bra back on. Spencer sat in his chair and watched them dress rapidly and in silence. When they were both dressed Anna took the money off the sideboard, stuck it her purse, and then they were gone. Spencer rested in the chair for a few minutes. The phone began to ring, but instead of answering it Spencer decided to let the machine get it. He got up slowly from his chair, walked across the floor, and pulled his shorts back on before going upstairs to shower.
Spencer in his terry cloth bathrobe stood dripping over the answering machine, its red eye blinking slowly in the twilight of the kitchen. He reached down and pushed the button.
“Hey sport,” said Les. “Rob just called in from his car and said you weren’t home. I sent him over to get that re-write back from you, but also, be ready for this, to give you the bad news face to face.”
Les paused, and Spencer felt his sunburned scalp prickle in the cool of the kitchen.
“Fact is, “Louie” is now dead at Triad. The new numbers came in from Flagship’s sea-monster movie, they were lousy, and one of the Brad’s changed his mind. I wanted you to know as soon as I did; otherwise I would have waited until Monday to talk to you personally. I know you were counting on this break, sport, but this is the business.”
Spencer felt suddenly both heavy and frail like a big clay doll cracked at the joints, but he didn’t sit down.
“Hey, another thing, before I schedule you any more meetings…” Spencer listened while Les paused, the wrapper of a peppermint candy crinkling faintly. “Look, I’ll give it to you straight; I want you to come by the office next week. I think it’s time we had a big picture talk.”
Spencer sat down on the floor. My God, he thought, the big picture talk. My agent has just fired me.
“Well, sport, sorry again for the letdown, but don’t take it personally.”
Spencer sat very still and listened to the machine chant, “One message. End of messages.” After a minute he rose, walked through the kitchen to the French doors, opened them, and walked onto the porch. The sun had set, leaving the air cooled, the sky blurred and purple. Spencer sat down in the dark arc of a lawn chair. Reclining into the chair, Spencer felt the aluminum armrests cold as iron against his bare forearms. Overhead the ink-black shapes of trees stood out against the last light of day, and in the distance Spencer heard the slight rushing noise of a sprinkler starting up, and then the rising flap-flap-flap as it settled into patient rotation, watering unseen ground.
Spencer, who had always lived in the present, suddenly longed for the distant past. Summers at his Grandfather’s farm, Spencer and his cousins would play hide and seek with flashlights. Spencer remembered how they would wait until the cover of dusk, and then the one chosen “it” would dash into the apple orchard while the others counted hands on eyes to fifty before giving search.
Early on Spencer had learned the secret to winning, and his fondest childhood memories were of fleeing through the darkened trees to hide at the orchard’s periphery behind a rugged tree trunk, nestled down against an earth fragrant with windfall apples. Out there beyond the agreed upon boundary Spencer felt safe, safe from discovery, human only for his eyes that watched his distant, shouting cousins bumble flashlight beams dancing and mistakenly spotting, never guessing that Spencer would have, could have, gone so far to hide.
The blackness of the trees above Spencer blended with the blackening sky. Inside the house the phone began a hollow ring, but Spencer no longer heard it, for he was far away, lost in a world of apples, dancing lights, and a little boy’s dreams.
University Runner Ups