LOS ANGELES, 2005
He had been watching her for days. Methodically, he'd researched her background on the Internet. She'd been raised in New Jersey and had gone to Yale --- according to Variety she was on the fast track and Harold Unger, her boss at Gladiator Films, was paying her six figures for it.
Surprisingly, Hedda Chase was not attractive. A photograph revealed the calamity of her looks, a gangly, unsmiling woman in somber clothing, with a bent nose that should have been ?xed and a distracting little mole on her cheek that beckoned a dermatologist. It was a face you might have seen in a history book, chronicling some anonymous woman's plight in the Dust Bowl, and Hugh could only assume that, in a town like Hollywood, where most of the women insisted on being perfect, her indifference to her appearance was deliberate and may have accounted for the attitude she exuded, a kind of forlorn complacency. She lived in a bungalow in Los Feliz, on Lomita Avenue. It was a one-story Spanish-style cottage, circa 1920s, hidden behind tall hedges, with a single garage in the rear. A small toolshed supplied an ideal hiding place, and it was from inside its sweltering quarters that he'd witnessed her for the ?rst time. At half past six on a Wednesday evening in late spring a vintage blue BMW pulled into the driveway and parked in the garage, its ?anks buffed to a shine. Chase emerged from the dark garage into the golden haze of sunset, pulling her sunglasses onto her head. She was talking to someone on a cell phone, a stack of scripts under her arm. Just the sight of her made him sweat. In truth, Hugh was accustomed to feeling inferior around certain women, his wife being one of the few exceptions --- it was something he'd been working on with his therapist. Even his boss at Equitable Life, a consummate barracuda, liked to remind him of his pitiable status on the corporate food chain. As Chase passed the shed, he caught a whiff of her perfume, a jackhammer jasmine, and felt the prickly little hairs on his neck go stiff. She paused in the driveway, listening with contempt to whoever was on the other end of the conversation. She was dressed in a droopy ensemble, a scarf tied around her head in a failed attempt at bohemian ?air. It was no out?t for a studio executive, he thought. A plane ?ew overhead, roaring over the orange rooftops. She shut the phone irritably and went up the steps of the small porch, unlocked the door and disappeared inside. A light came on in the foyer and then another in what he predicted was her bedroom.
It was almost dark. Through the small window of the shed he could see the last of the sun sinking into the brown horizon. The air began to cool. A car pulled into the adjacent garage and a moment later a man emerged, Chase's neighbor, and disappeared inside the house next door. The air smelled good, someone grilling a steak. Hugh slid out of the shed and walked down the concrete driveway. A shoulder-high cement wall ran along the edge of the property, over which Hugh could see the neighboring yards, the lights just coming on in windows, a trio of children being called indoors for supper. It seemed like Hedda Chase lived a nearly ideal life, he thought idly, one that he would intentionally disrupt, just as she had disrupted his.
He grabbed a metal green chair, the sort of chair his grandmother would put out on her porch in summertime, and brought it around to the side of the house where the lights from the kitchen window streamed out onto the driveway. He climbed up onto it, wobbly as a surfer, and looked inside. There she stood at the sink --- they were facing each other, the thin glass of the window between them --- opening a jar of herring. Gingerly, as if involved in a scienti?c experiment, she forked the ?sh onto a cracker, hors d'oeuvres style, and ate it then took a glass from the cupboard and ?lled it with vodka. Sipping her drink, she turned on the radio. The phone rang and she answered it, frowning. He heard her say: "No, Mother! I've told you before, I can't do that. I can't and I won't."
Another plane ?ew overhead, so low he could nearly make out its passengers. It was exceptionally loud. Peering up through the leafy branches of an avocado tree he concluded that Chase's home was under the ?ight path of LAX. Under the circumstances, he couldn't help appreciating the irony of the situation.
A car pulled up out front and a moment later a man entered the house and came into the kitchen. They kissed unhurriedly. The man was tall, with hunched shoulders and an oppressed demeanor. He wore a long leather coat with bulging pockets and carried two camera bags, which he gently set down onto the ?oor. He removed a disc from his pocket and slid it into her DVD player. Images ?lled the ?at-screen TV on the wall. They stood there looking at it. The ?lm appeared to be a documentary. Street people milled about a parking lot. A bearded man in a woman's pink raincoat was pulling an empty refrigerator box, straining with the effort. Close-ups on his unruly beard, his vigorous squint. Hedda handed the man a drink and Hugh heard her say, "You're brilliant, Tom. Congratulations." They toasted each other and drank their drinks and within seconds they were kissing again, stumbling out of the room in the direction of her bedroom. Hugh stepped down from the chair --- he wasn't a pervert. He'd parked his car down the block, a rented Taurus. It sat waiting for him in the darkness. He walked along the crooked sidewalk. The air carried fragments of deciduous noise. In the car, he sat in the silence. Thoughts of his wife, Marion, ?oated through his head. An hour or so passed. And then he saw them coming out of the house.
The man drove an old Ford Bronco. It was mustard-colored, in perfect condition, the sort of jeep you could drive in the desert. Everyone drove a splendid car in Los Angeles. People were on the move, going places. They had interesting lives, they'd been lucky. He thought of Marion, driving around in her new Subaru with her little bag of wool beside her on the seat, the woolly shape like a beloved pet.
Hugh decided to follow them. The Bronco was dirty, mud-splattered, covered with bumper stickers about kite sur?ng. Hugh didn't know anything about kite sur?ng, but it conjured in his mind images of men in wetsuits on the beach. They stopped at a light. Two cars behind, he watched their heads moving through the windshield of the convertible in between. A car pulled up in the lane beside him, full of rowdy Mexican girls wearing masks of Marilyn Monroe. The masks were strange, they frightened him, and he was relieved when the light changed and the cars began to move. The Bronco turned up Laurel Canyon and wound up to a plateau. The street was lined with Spanish-style houses with orange roofs. They pulled over on a high ridge overlooking the lights of the city. Parked cars lined the curb below a party in one of the houses. The house seemed to be embedded in rock, spilling over with purple ?owers, bougainvillea they called it. The Bronco slid into a tight spot and the couple got out and climbed the long narrow walkway up to the brightly lit house. People roamed in and out. Some were carrying drinks or bottles of beer. Hugh found a spot down the street and got out and walked to the party smoking a cigarette. There didn't seem to be any point in rushing or feeling nervous. He felt a pang of longing for his wife. He couldn't remember the last time they'd gone out together. On weekends, they mostly stayed at home. She'd sit at the kitchen table playing solitaire while he practiced piano. Playing the piano was the single thing he did particularly well and it pleased Marion to hear it, but he thought of his ability as a skill more than a talent, the result of years of diligent practice. The piano in their living room had been his mother's and whenever he played it he imagined her sitting there beside him on the bench, nodding her head thoughtfully the way she'd done when he was a boy, the cross she wore around her neck swinging gently as she moved.
He ?icked his cigarette and climbed the stairs. The house was crowded, music simmered inside the dimly lit rooms; Coltrane. Chase abandoned her boyfriend, who sulked on the sidelines making calls on his cell phone while she meandered through the living room, kissing people on both cheeks, laughing, squawking, throwing her head back with a kind of self-possessed joy. He had to admit she was something to watch. She was like a version of Tweety Bird, the yellow feathers of her hair, the hooked nose, her birdlike stature, and yet there was nothing timid about her. She had a certain power, an edge that cut into you and made you want to be cut. It wasn't beauty that made them look; rather it was her lack of it, the indifferent eyes, the dissatis?ed pout. As he watched her it came to him that her entire demeanor, down to the slightest off-putting glance, was designed to inspire doubt and awe in her underlings, losers like him who ended up working for people like her.
"Hello, there," a woman said, touching his shoulder. "What a nice surprise."
He turned around. "Hello."
"You don't remember me." She was short and compact, with freckles and pushy little breasts. Obviously, she had him confused with someone else.
"Of course I do."
"How've you been?"
"Fine. It's good to see you."
Squinting as if in pain she said, "Forgive me. I'm terrible with names."
"Hugh. Hugh Waters."
"Ida Kent, hello again." She shook his hand; hers was warm and damp.
"I'm trying to remember where we met," he said, trying not to look at her breasts.
"Something at the Writer's Guild," she ventured. "Although I haven't gone to anything in a while."
"Working on anything good?"
"Of course not. But I'm getting paid, which is apparently all that matters."
"God bless indecisive directors." She raised her glass. "Uncertainty can be very lucrative --- of course nothing I write ever gets made. I suppose my work has become a very tedious habit," she said dramatically. "What about you?"
"I'm writing something on spec," he said, because he'd heard other writers say it and it sounded good. "A thriller."
"Nice," she said. "I love a good thriller."
The little group in the center of the room burst into laughter. It was the exclusive sort of laughter he remembered from his youth, the kind that made his stomach churn. Hedda Chase seemed to be at the center of it, her arms around a man in a white linen suit and ?sherman's sandals. Meanwhile, the man who had come to her house was standing off to himself, talking on a cell phone.
Ida said, "That's Hedda Chase, from Gladiator --- do you know her?"
"Yes," Hugh said. "I know her very well."
"Bruno is such an asshole." She nodded at the man in the white suit. "I don't know why I came, I can't stand him."
"Nor can I," he agreed.
"I got so screwed by him."
"Join the club."
She looked at him, her forehead tight. "I just wish things were different, don't you?"
"Of course I do."
"Some of the things that happen," she said. "It's just not right."
"I know." He held up his empty glass. "Do you want another?"
"I would, thanks."
He took her empty glass and tried to ?nd the bar. It was loud, hot. The music stopped and a moment later something else came on, sitars and drums. Hugh overheard someone saying it was the sound track for Bruno's new movie. Parties with insurance people were much different, he thought. Hugh and Marion would sit politely on somebody's sofa, sipping weak martinis and saying very little to anyone, and on the ride home they said even less to each other. At home, they'd undress in their dim bedroom to the nightly chorus of the neighborhood dogs. It occurred to Hugh that back home he was different --- a different sort of person --- and people thought of him differently. They probably thought he was boring, a real nerd. At this party, people looked at him with curiosity, as if they were wondering who he was or what he did or what he'd done, and, because there was always the possibility that he was someone important --- more important, perhaps, than a few of the other guests, in fact --- they smiled at him with interest, as if knowing him might be good for them. He felt pumped up; he ?lled his lungs with the good, sweet air of possibility, for that was what they all shared in this place, the thrilling idea that, under the right circumstances, anything was possible --- it kept people going, it kept you in the game, whether you had the goods or not, and it was what most of the people in this town subsisted on.
Many of the women were beautiful. They were like rare and unusual birds. They were not available to him, he knew. And yet, he was happy just to be near them. Unlike the sourpuss women from work who smirked at him with the superior knowledge of some inexcusable personal embarrassment that he had yet to discover, the women at the party simply smiled. It occurred to him that he was not the sort of person who usually encountered a smile. Rather, expressions of dismay or distrust seemed to be the norm. At work, especially, crammed inside the elevator with an assortment of familiar strangers, many of whose expressions at half past eight in the morning seemed terribly, terribly complicated, the nonnegotiable smile was a complete anomaly.
He found the bar and ?xed himself a drink and one for his new friend: Ida. Turning back into the living room, he saw Hedda Chase walking off with the host, hopping as she took off her heels while hanging onto his shoulder in what he imagined was an uncharacteristically delicate gesture, because Hugh was absolutely fucking certain that a woman like her, a woman in her position, had very few delicate qualities. He watched her narrow heels as the two of them descended the stairs like a pair of teenagers in search of recreational oblivion. Hugh brought the drinks back into the living room and handed Ida her martini while she completely ignored him. Of course he understood, in the way all subordinates understand these things, that Ida was talking to Someone Important, her face over-bright and buzzing like an almost-dead lightbulb. He excused himself and walked in the direction of the stairs. She wasn't really his type and, anyway, he'd lost track of his subject. The house was interesting, all cartoon angles and Starburst colors. People were dancing. Most of them had taken off their shoes. Watching them, it occurred to Hugh that they were like some jiggling religious cult --- they all knew the steps by heart; the nonbelievers watched forlornly from the sidelines. Downstairs, the air smelled like those candles they gave you when your pet died, tinged with cherry and cinnamon. It was not a good smell. He found himself in a dim hallway and overheard Chase and their host talking in a nearby room. Gently, he pushed open the door and the motion seemed to startle them. Abruptly, the room went silent. They stood there looking at him without expectation, blank-faced. In the moments that transpired a story not without scandal erupted among all three of them, and then their faces changed subtly as if to af?rm the possibility, the speculation. Hugh said nothing and then Bruno cleared his throat with purpose and said, "Down the hall on the left."
Driving back to his motel, he thought about his conversation with the other writer, Ida. As he was leaving the party, she'd pushed a piece of paper into his hand and mouthed over the noise call me. She'd said she'd gotten screwed. It was something that happened to writers, he thought, it had happened to him. He'd been back in Montclair, waiting for his check, when the phone call had come. His agent's whiney-voiced secretary had explained that his producer, Cory Rogers, the veritable founder of Gladiator Films --- who'd begun his career making B movies on shoestring budgets and was proud of it --- had dropped dead of a heart attack --- a sudden and unfortunate turn of events --- "he was in his seventies, you know," the secretary offered sympathetically, "his late seventies, actually." Now this other person --- this wench --- had stepped in and dumped his movie. "It's not unusual for projects to go into turnaround," was how the secretary had put it. "Especially in situations like these." Hugh pictured his script turning through a meat grinder --- and now the project, which had been slated for production in late September, was a heap of shredded papers in the trash. Exactly why it had gotten trashed was unclear to him. After a bit of coaxing, Beck's secretary admitted that Ms. Chase had hated the script. "She didn't like the premise."
"No?" He tried to recollect what the word premise actually meant.
"I'll fax you her letter if you want."
In his tiny of?ce at Equitable Life, where he'd unwittingly entrenched himself as an underwriter --- something to hold him over, he'd explain to people, until his real career kicked in --- he'd watched the white page emerge from the squealing grin of the fax machine. Hedda Chase had written it herself, on studio letterhead, in the in?ated syntax of an Ivy League brat: an idiotic premise, inane characterizations, a thoroughly implausible ending! Frankly, she'd said, the experience of reading the script was akin to passing a kidney stone. And let's not forget the misogynistic overtones!
In fact, the letter went on to complain that the script's entire premise was anti-female. The violence he'd so precisely conveyed was, in her opinion, over the top. His agent, Miles Beck, had told Hugh not to take Chase's letter too seriously, things like this happened all the time in the business, he'd said. "You just have to suck it up and move on." Beck assured Waters that he'd try to set it up somewhere else --- but after several months of "trying" nobody else wanted it and the agent admitted that Chase had a big mouth. "These are uncertain times," he'd muttered, sheepishly. "Word spreads pretty fast in this town. For some godawful reason, people trust her opinion."
Hugh couldn't help thinking that Beck did too; he'd discerned a twang of pity in the agent's tone as he'd rushed Hugh off the phone.
Hugh knew he shouldn't take it personally, but he couldn't seem to help it. The disappointment festered in his mind.
"I guess we won't be moving to Hollywood after all," Marion had said, almost gratefully. It had taken Hugh ?ve years to ?nish the screenplay, squeezing in an hour or two at the computer after work. Unlike some of his writer friends, he hadn't gone to ?lm school, but had taken night courses at the local community college. Hugh had fond memories of the cement block building with its submarine-like corridors, the fast-food-bright room where the class met around a Formica table that pretended to be wood. His classmates were an assortment of misanthropes: the disenchanted housewife; the ?edgling private investigator; the bored tax attorney; the cancer survivor; the bitter widower --- and him. When they had gone around the table at their ?rst meeting, he had described himself --- with pride --- as being an underwriter with untapped ambitions. And it was true, wasn't it? The instructor, a balding ex-hippie with sideburns that looked like Band-Aids, had a disarming stutter that made him speak very slowly. As a result, his words had surprising weight and meaning and at the end of each class Hugh experienced small and powerful revelations, as if he had just been to church. He would walk to his car, heady with optimism.
At home, he'd watch movies late into the night in his basement, long after his wife had gone to bed, sucking hits from a bong he'd had since college. He had an extensive collection of ?lm classics. There was Dersu Uzala; The Passenger; Visconti's The Leopard. He had watched The Passenger numerous times; it was his favorite ?lm. He could watch it again and again, marveling at the elegant pans of the African desert, the swells of emptiness, the persistent wind. He knew the dialogue by heart; the actor's gestures. He could almost taste their cigarettes, their gin. Watching Jack Nicholson in that sti?ing hotel room --- Hugh would give anything to be there now --- he could almost feel the sweat rolling down his back. The bleach-white walls disrupted only by the occasional spider --- it was how Hugh felt about life --- that the real dangers were the slippery interlopers that went unnoticed, the subtle in?uences that were like termites of the soul, before you knew it there was nothing left. And then later, with Maria Schneider, her understated hips, her breasts, her almost boyish swagger. What are you running away from? --- and Nicholson's answer --- turn your back to the front seat. She turns, watching the road spill away --- letting the past go --- letting freedom overtake her --- the seduction of the unknown --- as the camera rises up into the shimmering trees. Always at the end of the movie, Hugh felt a sense of loss. As he climbed the two ?ights up from the basement, he'd question his existence. Lying awake beside his sleeping wife, he'd study the web of shadows on the ceiling of their suburban bedroom, as though trying to crack some obscure, divine code.
He knew plenty about ?lm, he studied carefully, but no one would ever guess. At work, his colleagues baited him, "How's that screenplay of yours coming? Any calls from Hollyweird yet?" Or, derisively, at a cocktail party, "So, tell me, Waters, are you still writing that script?" Hugh was the ?rst to admit that ?nishing it had been nothing short of a miracle. With discreet pride, he'd presented the script to his screenwriting instructor, offering the stack of pages like the white sheet cake his wife had baked on his fortieth birthday. His instructor liked the script and offered to give it to his agent, Miles Beck, who, remarkably, succeeded in selling it. Cory Rogers, Hedda Chase's unfortunate predecessor, had paid him an enormous sum, which had helped Hugh and his wife immeasurably after years of sacri?ce --- they'd moved out of their cramped apartment in the city and bought a house in Montclair; his wife had bought a Subaru. That had been the last Hugh had heard, and then Beck's secretary had called to give him the news. Hugh had tried to call Chase, but she was always out at meetings. "I'll leave word," the male assistant assured Hugh in a bored, irritable voice, but Hugh doubted she ever got the messages because she never called him back.
He parked in the motel parking lot and wandered out to the street. It was nearly midnight and he was hungry. He didn't like Los Angeles, really. It was a sprawling, complicated city, unlike New York, which seemed straightforward by comparison. It had been his wife's idea to move out of the city, blaming it on his paltry salary when in fact she'd never liked the city and had wanted a house just like the one she'd grown up in, with a driveway and a garage and a front lawn and a bird feeder that attracted more squirrels than it did birds, and cheerful, suspicious neighbors. Mornings, he rode the train into Hoboken with all the other commuters. He didn't mind it, really. He would look out the train window with interest at the row houses in East Orange, slim buildings adorned with cheesy facades or painted in hues of gelato --- pistachio or peppermint stick or lemon --- and he would think: What is it like to live there? Or the dilapidated motel in Newark where people seemed to be living, the large, movie-screen-sized windows, the pus-yellow water in the once lovely pool, someone's skeletal dog tied to the fence. In truth, Hugh found the mystery of those rooms compelling, and he'd ?nd himself daydreaming about the possibilities of life inside them. Eventually, the train pulled into Hoboken, a sluggish caterpillar crawling to its destination. He'd look out across the wide V of tracks and see the workers in their plaid coats at the breakfast wagon, hunched over paper cups of coffee, their cigarettes, then follow the parade of suits and overcoats down into the tubes and the subterranean journey across the river to the city, a jagged, squealing ride through ?ashes of darkness that always reminded him of death, after which, climbing unhurriedly out of the subway into the bright, powdered-sugar daylight that signi?ed his arrival, he felt little relief. Somehow, in life, he felt misinterpreted. His colleagues at work, their greedy eyes in the boardroom, their handy disdain tersely dispensed like the slang of some foreign language he could not understand. Even his wife, when he'd look at her from time to time, seemed like a stranger to him and he sometimes wondered what he was doing there in that house on Rollins Avenue. Completing some ordinary and necessary task like taking out the trash, he would say to himself: What am I doing here? Sometimes, when he woke in their bed, he felt disoriented, the way he'd felt as a sickly child waking from a fever, the strangeness of staying home from school, his bedroom brimming with sunshine, the sense he'd had of being left out, kept apart. Separate. He felt it now, as an adult. He'd felt it all along.
He came to an all-night coffee shop and went in and sat down at one of the tables. He didn't know what he wanted. A girl was sitting alone in an adjacent booth having a hot fudge sundae. "I'll take one of those," he told the waitress. "And coffee."
"I'm making a fresh pot. It'll be just a minute."
The girl in the booth looked over at him. She was maybe thirteen or fourteen, he didn't know. Hugh and Marion didn't have children. They had tried, of course --- didn't everyone? They'd been to specialists; they'd done all the tests. Finally they'd given up. The experience had changed his wife somehow.