A Hollywood writer-producer goes on a short but strange drug trip. Part One here. 2,701 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Bender woke up and remembered where he was, flailed his arms and legs like a child making snow angels but he was alone in the bed. He sat up and saw Annette curled under her makeup table, naked and snoring gently with a contented smile. Bender gathered his clothes, tiptoed out of the bedroom and dressed in the hallway. His watch said five in the afternoon but this was California summer. He stepped out of the house into the scented sunlight and got in his car. He tried to remember what happened after they popped the pills. but he couldn’t. Bender assumed he and Annette had sex: he woke up naked. His head was clear, there was no hangover. In fact, as he downshifted from third to second and slowed to a stop at Sunset, he felt wonderful. And hungry. He did a quick U-turn and drove back up Crescent Drive to the Beverly Hills Hotel. Like most writers who took meetings at The Polo Lounge he knew better than to pay for the valet parking. Instead, he parked on the street and followed the garden paths into the back entrance to the hotel. A drink and McCarthy Salad at the bar would do the trick.
The Maître’d stopped him.
“I’m afraid you’ll need a tie, sir.”
“Really? New policy?”
“No, sir. But don’t worry, I can give you one.”
I should call Annette, he thought, but first a drink. He patted his pockets for his phone and realized he left it at her house. At the bar, a maroon knit tie around his neck, the events of the funeral returned. The amazing weed, the black pills, and ah, here was the memory he wanted. Annette straddling him, eyes burning, her black hair whipping back and forth across her face, gold chains bouncing on her stiff nipples. Bender felt his groin aim for the ceiling.
“What’s your pleasure, sir?”
Bender looked at the bartender and resisted responding, “Fucking, what’s yours?” and said instead, “A gin martini, olives on the side.”
“Coming right up.”
He closed his eyes and tried to retrieve sex with Annette. No use. The bartender poured his drink. Bender laid a bill on the bar and took a sip. He heard the ring of the cash register, the bartender fanned out his change next to the olives: three fives and four singles.
“Bartender? I gave you a twenty.”
“You gave me nineteen dollars.”
“Yes, sir. Martini’s a dollar.”
“No shit. Is that new?”
“Raised the price last month. Guess there was no profit in charging seventy-five cents.”
Bender turned around on his stool. The Polo Lounge was filling up. The Maître d’ greeted regulars and led them to prized booths where waiters were already setting down drinks. The women wore dresses and the men suits or sports coats. Bender hadn’t been here in months but this was a new dress code. Where were the black tee shirts and jeans? He fingered his tie. Who wore knit ties anymore? A short middle-aged man in a double-breasted suit sat down on a stool next to Bender. He took out a pack of Lucky Strike and tapped one out. He caught Bender staring at him.
“Sorry, would you like one?”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke in here. Not that I care much myself.”
“Who says what?”
“It’s the law. You can’t smoke indoors. It’s illegal.”
The man flicked a gold Ronson and lit up. The bartender brought him his drink and pushed an ashtray next to the glass.
At the other end of the bar two blonde women in flowered dresses seated themselves. Even with their backs turned to him he placed them as working girls in for the cocktail hour available for a drink, dinner, and sex in a studio-paid bungalow or a room already booked. One of them stole a quick look at Bender over her friend’s shoulder and turned away. Probably noted the crappy tie and figured him for a writer. She whispered to her friend, who had her back to him. The friend turned and reached for her purse but Bender, a practiced observer of observations, knew she was checking him out on the instructions of the other woman. They were different ages, sexy in their own way and the younger one was attractive enough to be an actress if she could act. Bender assumed the older one was breaking in new talent, showing her around, teaching her how to work the top hotels, introducing her to bartenders, bellhops, concierges, all the links in the chain of high end prostitution. The younger one smiled into the bar mirror and flashed a row of white Chiclets, dimples creased in each cheek, and Bender, now with a full view of her face, realized it wouldn’t matter if she could act – she was truly amazing. If the camera didn’t love her, it had no taste. Bender smiled back at her in the mirror. A working girl, a hooker, a call girl, that gorgeous? It was possible. Hollywood was full of beautiful women. Some were movie stars, and some weren’t.
Early in his career, a producer slipped him a phone number. He couldn’t believe that a beautiful woman would show up at his door in Benedict Canyon at any hour and have sex with him. He tried it a few times but realized it was a dead end and, if he got used to it, he would end up alone. There was one famous comedy writer, short and bald, who only saw hookers and couldn’t get a date if he tried — but he ended up sleeping with more beautiful women than Warren Beatty. He once asked his favorite girl if she would come to his funeral when he died. She said, ”If you paid me, I would.” He died alone and alone.
Bender became more interested in their stories than what they were selling and ended up in a friendship with Sonny. She was in the early stages of a descent into drug addiction and would show up at three o’clock in the morning drunk, with boxes of sushi, sometimes a bruise on a cheek, eyeliner running and a purse stuffed with cash. Bender gave her a sleeping pill and put her in the guest room and went back to bed. The last time he talked to her, she told him she was hired onto a movie mogul’s yacht and her orders were to pose as a civilian so he could enjoy the conquest.
“What do I say if he asks me what I do for a living?”
“Tell him you’re writing a novel.”
Bender took another sip of his martini and inhaled the rich smoke of his neighbor’s Lucky Strike. It was the drink, the pill or the smoke but his head spun. Something is very wrong in The Polo Lounge. He slid off his stool and walked over to the two women at the end of the bar.
“I would offer to buy you a drink but you already have one and they don’t sell flowers, so I have no excuse to be talking to you other than I would never forgive myself if I didn’t.”
Not one of his best, but it got smiles from both.
The older woman had a few lines under her make-up, a bright red mouth he wanted to kiss, folds of flesh squeezing the straps of her dress, and he would see if she was available.
He leaned in between the women, placed his drink on the bar and whispered to the older one.
“If I cut to the chase and asked you how much, what would you say?”
Like a ventriloquist with frozen lips, he heard the words but didn’t see her say them: “Twenty-five.”
That did it. The knit tie, the Lucky Strikes, the price of the martini and no woman that beautiful at The Polo Lounge Bar charged twenty-five dollars for sex. He knew immediately.
“Does anyone know the date?” he asked.
The young one perked up.
“It’s the fifth,” the older one said.
“And the year?”
The two women looked at each other. Who doesn’t know the year?
The young one giggled, “Nineteen thirty-nine.”
Bender knew what Jimmy’s pill did. He was in a major hallucination or he had just swallowed a pharmaceutical time machine.
“Will you excuse me?”
Bender turned and headed for the door, catching a glance of the bartender sweeping his nineteen bucks into his tip jar. Outside, under the dull green avocado trees that lined the paths to the tennis courts, Bender threw up into the roses. A bellhop pushing a luggage cart stopped and Bender waved him away.
“I’m okay, thanks.”
He headed east to the sidewalk on Crescent Drive. The cars parked along the Beverly Hills street appeared to be carefully arranged by a production designer with a huge budget. There were Cadillacs, Hudsons, a Cord, a Packard, and a new Nash Suburban with wooden side panels. Bender couldn’t see his Honda, and then realized it didn’t exist yet. This was getting complicated. If he couldn’t wake up or get out of this time travel box, he would have to find a way to survive in 1939 Hollywood. How? It came to him so easily: he could sell all the movies that weren’t made yet. He would find an agent and pitch Star Wars, Titanic, Rocky, Pirates Of The Caribbean, When Harry Met Sally; he could sell songs, he knew the Beatles catalogue, Elvis, Michael Jackson, he would plunk them out on a piano and make millions. Holy shit and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” did a duet in his brain. He would hire a stockbroker and pick winners. It was too soon for Microsoft but there would be plenty of others. He would be rich, famous, dine at Chasen’s and hang out with Bogart, Bacall, and Trumbo. He wouldn’t sign anything and avoid HUAC, he would date movie stars, buy land in the San Fernando Valley. Holy shit. Holy shit. Wait. World War II was coming. So what? He would enlist early in the Signal Corps and hang out with Ronald Reagan and John Ford. Bender would write training films for George Stevens and volunteer at the Stage Door Canteen.
Bender’s future in the past stretched out before him. He had written one unsold screenplay about time travel and did an un-credited rewrite on another and he knew the pitfalls and contradictions. He wouldn’t marry his future mother (or was it his grandmother?) or try to kill Hitler or change history, and he would eat sensibly knowing what he knew about saturated fats and sugar. Ah, shit. What about Moe, his son? He was working in London and they planned to see each other over Christmas. He suddenly missed him. Dizzy, he sat down on the grass. This was fucked. None of the movies he had in mind would be made. Science fiction was still Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon and special effects were model spaceships hung with fishing line. Pirate movies starred Errol Flynn. A strung out Jack Sparrow in cornrows and jewelry? He would be tossed out on his ass at Disney. And get Katherine Hepburn to fake an orgasm in a deli?
“You okay, honey?”
It was the young woman from the bar.
Bender crossed his legs in front of him in a lotus pose so he could pretend.
“I was meditating.”
She plunked down next to him.
“You forgot your wallet.”
“Thanks. That’s very nice of you.”
“You look kind of pale.”
He looked at her. Was it possible?
“What’s your name?”
Was it possible?
“How did you know?”
Oh, it was more than possible, it was true. Here she was. Here she was. Sitting beside him on the grass in front of the palm-shrouded bungalows of the Beverly Hills Hotel, holding his hand. Her voice was that familiar warm whisper and he felt a stirring, something was pulling at him, taking him out of this time. He knew would only have a few moments in the past. He could change history.
“Listen to me. I want to give you some advice. No, it’s more than advice. It’s an order. You must take what I am about to say very seriously.”
She smiled. His heart stopped.
“You have to walk away from your friend and the life she is leading you into. You must go to acting school, get pictures, go to auditions, and I promise you that you will be a movie star. A huge movie star.”
“No wow. I am serious. I’m not a prude, a crusader, or a do-gooder. I’m a screenwriter and I have seen hundreds of actresses. I know what I’m talking about. You have it, you will make it, I promise.”
Bender stood up and held out his hand. He pulled her up to him, stared into the face that launched a thousand fantasies, that face, that face, his heart bounced and bumped and settled. He rehearsed the words, Norma Jeane, I have to go now. Too much, he would cut the Norma Jeane.
“I have to go now.”
“I just have to.”
She moved closer, he smelled lilacs, he felt her breasts against his chest, please let me remember this, she put her arm around his neck and kissed him on the lips and lingered long enough so that he would.
“What’s your name?”
“You’re a good kisser, Bender.”
“You okay, honey?”
Annette was sitting on the edge of the bed. She handed him a cup of coffee.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
Bender looked around the room. Flat screen TV, check, Stairmaster in the corner check, an iPad and a bottle of Diet Coke on the night table, double check. He was home.
“That was some fucking pill.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Did you dream?” Bender asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
He was discovering what he wasn’t going to like about Annette.
“If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t ask you.”
She smiled, aiming for enigmatic but landing on patronizing.
“I think I just fell asleep.”
“You want to hear something interesting? Bender said. “A martini in the Polo Lounge in nineteen thirty-nine cost a dollar.”
“That sounds high.”
She asked Siri, “What was the price of a martini in 1939 at The Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel?”
There was a pause, then Siri said, “Seventy-five cents.”
Annette wore the smirk of being right. Could Bender tell her they just raised the price?
“Why did this come up?” she said.
“I was just thinking about what an exciting place it must have been then. Sitting at the bar, talking to Bogart, Bacall, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe.”
“Not Monroe,” she said.
“They wouldn’t have let her in.”
“I’m a Monroe freak. I know every detail of her life. She was born in 1926, so she would have been thirteen in 1939. The Polo Lounge yes, but not the bar.”
“Thirteen? Marilyn Monroe aka Norma Jeane…”
“Mortenson.” She knew that, too.
“Thirteen years old?”
“Do the math.”
Bender never did the math. He had an aversion to precision, detail, and conclusions based on ironclad data. He was a generalist. Feeling it was right was good enough for him. Let the scientists, budget experts, have their day but he would rather base his arguments on generosity, charity, and fairness. He couldn’t take over Jimmy’s business. He would be a failure. He would fall victim to undercover narcs, allow rivals to infringe on his territory, and, if his memory of high school chemistry was accurate, he couldn’t use a scale if his life depended on it. He was condemned to a life of writing and imagination.
“Annette, about Jimmy’s book? I could never crack that code. I can’t do it.”
Back in his Honda with the automatic transmission, he wondered if, like everything else that happened to him in his life, this would make a movie. And, of course, if he could sell it.