A prominent TV producer’s death is both mourned and celebrated simultaneously. 3,192 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Melody Grant observed life through a writer’s eyes, composing on a laptop in her head. That way she could imagine her husband’s recent death — ninety-five per cent factual, with dabs of embellishment for color and drama — as a passage in one of her novels:
On the eve of his greatest glory, Arnold Chafis was not merely upset, he was thunderbolt-shaken and enraged, Vesuvius about to blow. He had tried to remain calm while continuing to read, grinding his teeth as his volcanic anger built, until pain erupted in the middle of his chest. Then his arms, then his jaw. Suddenly, eyes clouding and brain swimming, he felt faint — then fear. Arnold, a prominent TV producer, was 63 when he died in Hancock Park. His wife, the mystery novelist Melody Grant, found him in the evening, slumped over his banquet table-sized desk in front of an open laptop. He’d been reading reviews for Remorse, his highly anticipated weekly TV drama about a young doctor accused of malpractice. It was to premiere the next night on ABC.
Notices for the series had been blurb-ready and glowing:
Congenitally glum Val Steinway of The New York Times cheered: “Hats off to a brilliant and vibrant new feather in TV’s cap!” Roger Kale of the Wall Street Journal, famously unkind to anything attached to a broadcast network, toasted “this HBO-worthy Chafisian work of genius.” Politico’s resident skeptic Carrie Rice-Wentworth rated the new series “many times smarter than ABC’s Shondaland and — no exaggeration — nearly equal to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.” And in Variety, difficult-to-please Vince Nichols forecast “a ton of Emmys for this stunningly boffo TV.”
Only one major critic panned. It was this scathing review — by usually-measured, never-shrill, bordering-on-dull Dean Formento of the Los Angeles Times — that Arnold had been reading when his heart stopped.
Melody liked the rhythm and irony of what she’d worked out in her brain, imagining her words spoken with gravitas by Will Lyman, the flat voice of those Frontline documentaries she and Arnold regularly watched on PBS.
Not that it mattered; she would never write the story of her husband’s death. In this case, she mused, what happens in my head, stays in my head. Though she had given interviews blaming Formento’s impaling thrusts for dropping her Arnold like a sack of potatoes:
“Remorse is what series creator Arnold Chafis should feel for his malpractice…” “TV’s champion of low brow is several brows over his head…” “So excruciatingly painful, so annoyingly pretentious, so appallingly inept…” “Mediocrity masquerading as art…” “Unless you’re a masochist, skip it…”
Several hundred people kept up a steady murmur inside a plush theater at the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard as paparazzi clustered outside. Upon entering, the guests received a printed sheet asking them not to grieve “in the usual sense.” This was a no tears zone, a celebration of a life well lived zone, with a ceiling-high video screen displaying the air-brushed face of a man with a mat of steel gray hair that wasn’t his, looking cerebral with a pipe he never smoked.
A day after his cremation, the occasion was an invitation-only memorial for Arnold Chafis who was much bigger in death, his photo seemed to announce, than ever in life. The sizable throng testified to his longevity in a business with the same survival rate as any other minefield. And also to their curiosity: would someone mention the review that drove a stake through his heart and the cold-blooded sonofabitch who’d written it?
That scurrilous attack was now the talk of social media, buttressed by a sound bite of the stony author saying, “I’m very sorry about Mr. Chafis, but I was just doing my job.”
Though Arnold was Jewish, he hadn’t set foot inside a synagogue for years and didn’t know the Talmud from the Taliban. So his wife Melody, an occasional Protestant, googled local dial-a-rabbis and hired one to craft a respectful prologue for that other death ritual: friends and colleagues dutifully coming forward to recall humor in the deceased’s humorless life.
His two mid-thirtyish daughters from a previous marriage had no funny stories. They’d come in from the East Coast, but hadn’t been close with him and therefore chose not to speak. The memorial’s last words went to Melody; her call. Stepping to the podium in a simple black sheath with light makeup and no jewelry, blonde hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun, her appearance was planned as attentively as her words. First, a heavy sigh and a brave and appreciative — your support lifts me — smile. Then the scripted and rehearsed State Of The Widow address:
“I thank everyone for coming here on a Saturday morning and giving Arnie the send-off he deserves. As for some of you, he’d be delighted to know your creative differences with him were now resolved, but rueful that he had to die to make it happen.”
She smiled, inviting laughter.
“I’ll be brief because one thing I learned from Arnie was that long rambling monologues lose an audience. Speaking of long, we were married seventeen years, you know. This was a second marriage for both of us and… oh, boy,” her voice wobbling as she paused to gather herself, “I promised myself I wouldn’t choke up,” voice wobbling again, “but it’s happening.” She paused once more before soldiering on.
“We had a grand time together. Lots of love, lots of laughs and, all right, a few fights. But the real love of Arnie’s life was his work. Almost forty years he was in the business. And. as you know, he had a lot of success. A lot of hits. Good solid entertainment. No one ever lost a dime with Arnie Chafis or lost self-respect. Yet how ironic and tragic that he would be taken from us twenty-four hours before the debut of what he — and just about everyone else — considered his greatest work: a series that may rank with the best television ever. Yes, I said ever! You’ll be happy, Arnie — I know you can hear me, darling — that Remorse opened with gigantic numbers in total audience and so on.
“Most of you know that he had a heart problem. Bad heart problem. A heart attack last year and the year before, too. What hardly anyone knew was that he was scheduled to have heart surgery next month at UCLA. Would have saved his life.” Voice cracking. “His doctors had warned him to avoid undue stress. Arnie avoid stress? A laugh, right? But we didn’t worry about the reviews for Remorse giving him stress when he went to his study to read them that night. And they were great. By far his best ever. Every last one of them… Almost.
“You’ll pardon me, please, but I’m about to get a little testy. As a writer myself, I’m very defensive when it comes to other writers. That includes reviews, which are part of the business. And a very important part, I want to add. I never diminish the role of critics, even when they’re unkind to me on occasion. But that’s all right, you see, because when you get slammed, you don’t mind it if the review is constructive and not personal, if it meets a need, if it enhances understanding. That’s how criticism should operate. But when a review not only eviscerates someone’s labor but is malicious, vicious, mean-spirited and cruel, when it attacks you personally with snide hurtful words, that’s when we all get angry.
“And Arnie, with his short fuse, got angry, plenty angry, so angry that it killed him that night. A massive heart attack, they said. That’s right, a so-called critic’s lethal words took him from us. No criminal intent, of course, and it can’t be proved. But just the same, death by newspaper. I’ll say no more. But I’m thinking a lot more, and it’s not pretty.”
There was no concluding prayer — Rabbi whateverhisname was long gone, check in hand — and the upbeat exit music humming from loudspeakers was “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” from Arnold’s’ favorite Broadway musical, South Pacific. Ringed by well-wishers, his own main dame had just begun her thanks-for-coming hugs and kisses when making his way toward her was a middle-aged tallish man in a gray sports jacket over an open-collar black shirt and jeans. Only Melody appeared to recognize him. When she glowered at the guy for several seconds and turned away, Dean Formento retreated swiftly.
Melody Grant was a looker without looks. As her book jacket photos captured, she wasn’t beautiful or homely. She was somewhere in between, one of those unusual average-looking women who carry and advertise themselves in ways that project sex to and draw eyeballs from both genders. She did a lot with what she had, taking good care of her 47-year-old body and her coif, and filling her acre of closets with clothes that blended classic taste with flair. As a bonus, she was very good in bed.
“You’re too hot for the room,” Arnie had told her once upon a time. Her swagger came from within, however. That defiant don’t-screw-with-me attitude made her substantial success as a writer as did knowing she’d be the smartest person in every room. If that made her the hottest, too, she’d take it.
Melody’s first marriage, to a young UCLA English professor, had been a post-graduate footnote and two-year mistake. She wed Arnold Chafis because he was charming, his kids were grown and out of the way, and he would maintain her in style while she plunged into writing. She did like him for a while. How could she not, given how he doted on her impressive intellect, quick wit and flourishing career? And he’d told her often that he loved her with no reciprocation required.
The sex with Arnie, never great, steadily got less great. It was hardly adventurous enough for her as he was often tired. Nor was she happy that he sure as hell slept with other women, and maybe that was why he was tired, the asshole. Her ego wasn’t bruise-proof. But she appreciated his discretion — not a word, not even a wink, in the tabloids.
Besides, she was in no position to object; she’d had her own flings. The latest of these was a highly strategic tryst motivated by the grim prospect of spending what remained of her youth as an ailing man’s caregiver. Melody pushing a wheelchair? Sorry, but not what she had in mind. Divorce was a dead end. Under the pre-nup Arnie had imposed on her when they married, she would get pennies if she was the one to initiate proceedings. Unthinkable! She wanted her husband gone, but not his money. Nor was she prepared to wait for him to die a natural death. That planned surgery to repair his heart could have prolonged his life by fifteen or twenty years, leaving her with only one option.
Which she chose to execute after fixating one night on the movies inspired by James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice.
She imagined herself as the high-fashion Matty Walker, the steamy femme fatale of Body Heat who took a lover named Ned Racine for the purpose of persuading him to bump off her rich husband. Which worked out well for her, unlike the wifely schemes in earlier Cain spinoffs.
Melody had found her Ned Racine while Remorse was shooting in Toronto. He’d been seated beside her at Pasadena City College on a panel examining movie and TV mysteries adapted from noir novels. They exchanged glances. One puke metaphor led to another, and afterward they took a meeting in Room 22 on the second floor of an obscure motel in Alhambra. A week later, they continued debating the finer points of noir at a seedy Airbnb in Eagle Rock, and, two nights after that, reconvened in Pacoima, again picking an out-of-the way place where they were unlikely to encounter anyone who knew them.
It was then, after the blowjob, that Melody rolled out her pitch like a Red Carpet. No theatrics, no schmaltz, no teary sob stories about needing to escape a drunken raging husband who beat and terrified her. No pleading or proclamations of deep affection for the new guy, either. They wouldn’t be running off together and making moonlit love under the coconuts on some remote island. Instead, she laid out only a business deal he could not, would not, refuse. Because three nights of pillow talk had schooled Melody on what he wanted from life that he didn’t have.
Although no fool like Ned Racine, he wouldn’t have been a better fit had she designed him herself as a character. She liked his heavy-browed swarthy good looks, his charcoal eyes and all of that hair on his chest. What she liked more was the nature of his job, and his seething dislike of his employer and his intense desire for a dramatic life upgrade and the fancy zip code that would come with it.
Best of all, she liked that Dean Formento had said yes.
A chapter had closed, and no rewrites or regret for Melody. Feeling celebratory several hours after the memorial, she poured a glass of Chablis from a bottle in the cooler, its goldenness matching her mood. She had just taken a sip when a call arrived on one of the disposable burner phones she had taken the precaution of buying at multiple big box stores, thinking a bulk sale from just one was likely to be remembered.
“I still can’t believe everything worked,” said Formento.
“My plots always work,” replied Melody a bit defensively, running a hand through her hair that now fell loosely to her shoulders. She was out of uniform, barefoot in faded jeans and a Lakers jersey.
“I mean the odds, Mel, that it would happen just like you predicted, that he’d keel over if I really really shit on his show and shit on him. It was ingenious: no weapon, not even a murder, when you think about it.”
“I have thought about it. If this were one of my books, I’d call it A Killer Review in your honor. When you put your mind to it, Dean, you have a real talent for cruelty. That line, ‘several brows over his head,’ was especially delicious. And didn’t I tell you crashing the memorial would be a nice touch? Did you catch my wounded widow glare? I just hope someone else noticed.”
“But Mel, that eulogy. Did you have to be that hard on me? For carrying out your plan? You made me sound like a serial killer. What the hell was that about?”
“Still being a critic, Dean? You know what it was about. I had to be tough and pretend to hate you so there’d be no hint of complicity. It was for our protection, sweetie.”
“I get it. But, still, it was a bit much, don’t you think? I feel like a marked man. Some people recorded the eulogy, and it’s already gone viral. The crazies are out, and they’re sending me all kinds of death threats.”
Melody smiled. She’d expected that, even counted on whipping up public outrage against a convenient scapegoat. Thank you, social media. “Oh, that’s awful. I forgot about the Internet and all the nuts out there,” she consoled him. “Just be careful. Has anybody at the paper said anything?”
“The managing editor called me today.” Formento chuckled. “Probably thinking I’d be so distraught that I’d commit suicide over it.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that.”
“But nobody’s mad, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “They’re happy about the publicity. Can you believe it? And for all the wrong reasons. Anything to bring in clicks and eyeballs, and to hell with my reputation.”
“Listen, you still have a great reputation. You’ll be fine once you go back to being the pedantic snootypants that your bosses love.”
“Are you kidding? They’ve never appreciated me. Pretty soon they’ll have me doing tits and ass. I can’t wait to get out, and now I’ll be able to.”
“You didn’t object to my tits and ass.”
“Very funny. Listen, about the money…”
Ah, the money. The sex was nice, but money was the bricks and mortar of their arrangement, fiscal eclipsing physical. She knew Arnold’s whopping net worth was right around seventy million. There was a trust, of course, and she’d seen the will: just about a three-way split. With Melody also getting the Hancock Park house and Telluride condo, the combined worth of the properties was probably four to five million. She expected no problems on any of it from Maggie or Estella, whose good will Melody had made a point to cultivate. She’d set aside a nest egg of her own from book sales, but now would have upwards of twenty-five million.
“Wweetie,” she said, “you’ll get the money when I get it in a month or two when the estate is settled. Be patient; just think, a million in cash.”
“Well and good, but I was thinking that a million isn’t enough.”
“I’m not kidding. I want two mil. I’ve got an idea how much you’ll be worth after this, and what I’m getting is pocket change. Don’t forget, without me, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“The murder that wasn’t a murder was all my idea, you mean. Well, look, I could tell you to shove it because what leverage do you have? None, really. You can’t expose me without exposing yourself, and, besides, there’s nothing to expose. You wrote the bad review, Arnie read it: no criminal liability. And no crime, we don’t do time. Catchy, don’t you think?”
“No, you listen. I won’t quibble, that’s what I’m telling you, so relax. I want us to remain friends, even though now it will have to be at a very great distance.”
“I know that. When our business is concluded, it’s goodbye.”
“So, two million.” She paused, imagining Formento wide-eyed with his nose pressed against a Ferrari store window. “Yes, I can do that.”
“And you’re not just saying it, right?”
“Not just saying it. Two million, done. Official.”
“Thanks, Mel. And here’s the kicker, by the way. I really liked it.”
“Remorse. One of the best things I’ve seen in years. It’s really great.”
“Yes, first-rate. If it does win an Emmy, I’ll be the one to accept, of course, on Arnie’s behalf.”
“The loving widow — Mel, you’re amazing. You deserve your own Emmy.”
She nodded with a smile, raising her glass to toast herself. “Yes, I know.”
Before ending the call, Melody reminded Formento to dispose of the burner phone she’d given him so there would be no record of them ever speaking. Disposal had been on her mind. She had no intention of giving him more money, or in fact any money at all. In her laser-focused mind, she’d been sketching out a real-life story with another of her plots that always worked. And, thanks to their chat just now, she had decided on a title: How To Get Rid Of A Greedy Lover.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season