The Hollywood agent decides to go for it. 2,134 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
They threaded their way through the warren of tiny Chinatown streets, past chicken wire crates of bok choy and racks of silk kimonos for sale, and wound up at a noodle shop that Mr. A was fond of. He smoked while Cliff asked questions.
“How can my double know how to behave?”
“Your brain waves and emotions are digitally transferred to your double. He is acting out your feelings, so he always does what you would do in a situation.”
“How do I know what he’s doing while I’m off playing?”
“We provide you with a video that’s recorded everything your double does. You need only view it to be aware of what has transpired.”
“What if my double malfunctions or breaks down?”
“You have so many questions, Mr. Gehr,” responded Mr. A. “In three decades of business, with over two thousand international clients, that has never happened.”
“How expensive is this?” inquired Cliff.
“Very. Now have some of the chow fun. The sauce is delicious,” said Mr. A as he scraped a bounty of soft noodles onto Cliffs plate.
“As a Hollywood agent, I negotiate everything,” Cliff stated firmly. “Give me your opening price.”
“There is no opening price, Mr. Gehr. There is only a single fee which is not negotiable. You will receive a message in a few days which will inform you of the price and other details.”
“How the hell do I know this is for real?” challenged Cliff. “Why should I trust you?”
Mr. A finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in the soft pool of noodles and sauce that had formed on his plate.. “Why not ask your client Mr. Carpetti?”
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, bro. Totally,” said Carlo, the actor repped by Gehr Creative Artists.
Cliff and Carlo were standing on a large styrofoam rock that was part of the set of Hannibal Lives!, which was Carlo’s latest film. This artificial Alp provided them with a modicum of privacy from the crew swarming below.
“How did you hear about it?” asked Cliff.
“From Mr. A,” replied Carlo. He adjusted his loincloth so he could sit. “He knows how to get to everybody.”
Cliff squatted next to him. “You never told me about it.”
“You’re not supposed to tell anyone about it, bro. It’s way secret, like Skull and Bones.”
“So, last night,” continued Cliff, “was that really you at the movie premiere?”
Carlo shook his head. “No. I was in bed with two Swedish USC students.”
Cliff didn’t believe his client could get away with such an elaborate masquerade. “But what if someone asks you today about something that happened at the party?”
Carlo reached into his loincloth and pulled out his cellphone. “They give you these videos to stream, Cliff..”
“And do you?”
Carlo shrugged. “Half the time I fake it, like I do with my acting.”
“And it’s tremendously expensive,” continued Cliff. “How much did you have to pay?”
“Don’t recall, bro,” replied Carlo. “But you have to be willing to go with it. Like my divorce.” The settlement, which Cliff had negotiated, cost Carlo over twenty million dollars.
“That’s why you’re doing this movie for ten million,” smiled Cliff. “To make up for all that money we had to give away.”
“It’s a take it or leave it deal with Doubles,” continued Carlo. “And it’s in the millions of dollars.”
“Well I’ve got millions of dollars,” boasted Cliff.
“I just worry about spending all that cash for something like this.” Cliff raised his hand and snatched at the air.
“Oh, they show you the model. I remember when I saw mine. I burst into tears I was so excited.”
“So there is a heart beating under your big gruff exterior?”
Carlo reach down and adjusted his loin cloth again. “This costume is crushing my nuts,” he complained.
Over the next several nights Cliff had the same dream. He was being chased down the street by a large golden dragon with smoke billowing out its nostrils. At the end of the street was his childhood home. His father was standing in the doorway waiting for him. But Cliff stumbled and the dragon was upon him. And that’s when Cliff woke up.
“You look tired,” said his wife Katherine on the third morning as she brought him his coffee.
“It’s just going slow closing the Japanese deal,” replied Cliff.
“Maybe we should go to the villa in Ravello,” she suggested. “Take some time for ourselves.”
Cliff wondered about her. She had been a good partner and a wonderful mother to their boys. But once they were raised, she had busied herself with charity balls. B and spa weekends. But sometimes she was so boring that Cliff would recite the alphabet to himself while she spoke. Ravello? The only place Cliff wanted to go was back to 34½ Jung Jing Road. But he couldn’t do that. He knew the rules by now. He had to wait to be summoned.
One day his assistant Ted brought him a handful of correspondence. Cliff looked at the first letter, set the pile down, and stared back at Ted.
“Are you happy?” Cliff asked.
Ted was astonished to be asked such a question as if Cliff were showing some concern about him and his welfare. “Happy? In what way?”
“It’s a simple question. Are you happy?”
Ted felt very uncomfortable. “Am I being fired?”
“Why does it all have to come down to your job, Teddy boy?” Cliff asked in a mocking voice. “Aren’t there are other things in life?
“Well, yes,” Ted admitted. “I play beach volleyball and do pilates. My girlfriend and I like to go to the art galleries downtown and then have pizza at Grand Central Market.”
None of these things struck Cliff as truly compelling. He had been foolish to ask Ted the question in the first place. A serf will always be a serf. “Get me Sab Shimo. I need to bend his arm some more.”
The next day a grey envelope arrived with no return address. Ted brought it into Cliff’s office. “Very strange,” said the assistant. “This was hand delivered by a dwarf.”
“Then it must be a short message,” smirked Cliff as he accepted the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper: Mr. Gehr, Please arrange to be at 34½ Jung Jing Road at noon next Saturday for your procedure. You will be free to return to your home by Sunday evening so make the necessary arrangements. It is essential that you bring with you a certified check made out to Doubles, LLD, for ten million dollars. Regards, Mr. A.
Cliff tucked the letter in his interior jacket pocket and took a deep breath. It was time to go down the rabbit hole.
The weekend of his procedure was a blur of fingerprints, tooth impressions, body measurements, EKGs, liver exams. And then he was given a mysterious substance that thrust him into a dreamscape where he saw himself floating above his life as it played out. Two weeks later he was back at 34½ Jung Jing Road with Mr. A inspecting the creation.
“It’s beautiful,” said Cliff as he studied the face of his double. Every detail was exact: the receding hairline, the small mole on his left cheek, the flare of his nostrils.
“You’re beautiful,” said Mr. A. “We simply provided you with your exact likeness.”
“May I touch him?”
Cliff reached down and grabbed the hand of his double. It was fleshy and firm, and their fingers matched each other perfectly as they intertwined. “It feels so real,” Cliff exclaimed.
“It has to, doesn’t it?” pointed out Mr. A. “Your double has to stand in for you at any occasion. Have you decided when you want him to make his debut? Many of our clients like to try out their doubles at Hollywood Foreign Press events.”
“I have something bigger than that in mind,” Cliff replied. “This Friday afternoon, I’d like to leave for an early lunch and have my double go back to the office and finish up the rest of my work day until I get home to my wife.”
“Done,” replied Mr. A as he turned off the lights and they left the room.
Friday morning Cliff felt like a child on Christmas Eve as he sat behind his desk fielding calls and pretending to be harried so that Ted would suspect nothing. As noon approached, Cliff walked over to Ted’s desk and said, “I’m going to the bank for a meeting and then I’m grabbing some lunch. I’ll be back around one.” Ted, accustomed to eating at his desk, nodded in agreement.
Cliff drove slowly through the business area of Beverly Hills and pulled into a Starbucks. He ordered a macchiato, settled into a seat, and paged through a dog-eared copy of USA Today. At 1:15 he pulled out a cell phone burner he had bought with cash at Best Buy and dialed his office. Ted came on the line.
“Cliff Gehr’s office.”
“This is the office of Sab Shimo. Is Mr. Gehr there?” said Ted in a barely passable Japanese accent.
“Let me see.” Ted put Cliff on hold and returned in under ten seconds. “Mr. Gehr is on another line, but he very much wants to speak with you. May I have him call you back?”
Cliff broke into a huge grin: it had worked. His double was fooling everybody. “Please let us call him back instead. Thank you so much.” Cutting off the call, Cliff dumped the burner in the trash can and headed back to his car.
He drove up the winding corridor of Stone Canyon Road and pulled into the Hotel Bel Air. Passing the concierge, whom he had spoken with earlier, Cliff discretely picked up the key for the Grace Kelly Suite. Tapping lightly on the door, he used his key and walked into the casually luxurious room, white furniture against white walls, eucalyptus log blazing in the fireplace, French doors open to a private patio.
A lovely older blond woman was sitting at the ouutdors café table and drinking champagne. She recalled Candice Bergen; not the Candice Bergen of Murphy Brown, but the Candice Bergen of today — softer, rounder, still beautiful.
She smiled and raised her glass. “Hello, Cliff.”
“Hello Mary Ann,” he replied, coming over and enveloping his high school love in a long hug. Their cheeks brushed, which seemed to embarrass both of them.
“It’s been thirty five years,” Mary Ann stammered. “I haven’t seen you since the reunion.”
“It’s like a day hasn’t passed since the senior prom,” said Cliff as he sat down beside her. “We could be back at McCreary’s Ice Cream Shop.”
Mary Ann threw her head back and laughed. “I’ll have the Hot Fudge Kitchen Sink, with extra walnuts and bananas.”
Cliff reached over and placed his hand on hers. “I’m glad you were willing to come.”
“I’m still married, Cliff,” she said, looking at his hand but not removing it.
“So am I. That doesn’t mean we can’t see each other like this. It’s innocent.”
“Is it?” Mary Ann asked. Cliff poured himself a glass of champagne.
“All I want to do is see you once a month. To be with you and talk,” Cliff said.
“And what about all the laundry I left in San Mateo?” she laughed.
“I’ll pay someone to do it for you. I can take care of whatever you need. It’s my profession, Mary Ann. I’m an agent. I keep people happy.”
The sun was filtering through the trees, blinding her view of him. She put up her hand over her eyes. “And are you happy?”
“I think we should dance,” he said, jumping up and turning on Pandora in the living room. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters filled the room. Cliff took Mary Ann by the hand and led her to the middle of the patio and, with his arm firmly around her waist, they swayed back and forth in the afternoon sunshine.
“I always loved this song,” she sighed.
“Then come here next month. We can dance to it again, or do whatever you want.”
She leaned back and looked at him, her hand caressing his cheek. Cliff leaned forward and kissed her softly. Once. Twice. Then she pulled away.
“I am married. I told you.”
“Next month?” said Cliff, always pressing to close the deal.
She smiled at him, the same smile he recalled from a hundred pep rallies and home games. “I’ll let you know. I should be getting ready for my plane now.”
“The car has been arranged for you,” Cliff said as he gave her a farewell hug. And she was gone.