This helmer finds himself in the hospital for his final scenes. 2,033 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
2016 was a banner year: Prince, Mary Tyler Moore, Nancy Reagan, Alan Rickman, Gary Shandling, Garry Marshall, Patty Duke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Abe Vigoda, John Hurt, Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, followed a day later by her mother Debbie Reynolds and, most relevant to Ivan, directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Cimino. Dead and buried, or incinerated and turned to ashes if they were politically correct, and most were. After all, we’re talking Hollywood A-listers.
Ivan wasn’t sure if he would have enough produced credits to qualify for the “In Memoriam” feature at next year’s Oscars or Emmys. Embracing the uncertainty of outcome when it came to living fascinated Ivan. But dying was certain and, at least so far, had proven to be far less interesting than he thought it would be. He had moved to Hollywood, Florida, so his Hollywood, California, acquaintances wouldn’t feel obligated to watch him wither away. People in L.A. didn’t like unhappy endings. They liked sequels.
Now with just days to live, Ivan would direct his death, if only to keep himself entertained.
The hospital room was a visual prison for a man who made a living finding interesting frames and giving depth to images. But since he was directing without interference from a producer, studio or network, he could experiment.
Although he did drape an extra blanket over the metal chair to dampen sound, there wasn’t much he could do about the acoustics. But the lighting he could control. When he could still navigate his hospital room without assistance, he covered the overhead light with an amber gel that produced softer skin tones, and he flagged his bedside lamp so its illumination bounced off the back wall, affording his visitors fill light.
His had been what most would consider a decent but not quite stellar career. He’d got his start directing music videos, then moved on to a long forgotten cable TV series, and then two features before he had the cojones to tell the president of Sony of the one that tanked, “it was because you weren’t comfortable with a non-western narrative.”
This detoured but didn’t completely flatten his upward trajectory. Yes, Ivan would have had far more success if he hadn’t butted heads with the suits but then he wouldn’t have been Ivan and that was the whole point, in his opinion. Ivan was a brand. He didn’t always know who had the power in the room and most of the time he didn’t care.
He was never unemployed more than a few months, especially when a series required someone who could command a shaky set with actors behaving badly. When Ivan walked out on the floor there was no doubt who had the authority, which was particularly noticeable in network TV where directors are somewhat interchangeable and subservient to the talent and showrunners. In real life Ivan was not physically imposing, but while directing he projected an imperial confidence, a field general who inspired less by fear and more by the vast knowledge of his craft. He wasn’t one of those guys who gets attention by screaming or that jerk in the backwards baseball hat who overthinks every decision. He knew what he was doing, he never equivocated and he conveyed his ideas with simplicity, clarity and vision. He cut through the bullshit and left a slick commercial product in his wake.
Ivan hit his stride while he was freelancing on over one hundred and fifty TV episodes, eventually specializing in procedurals. He would listen to writers who were used to being ignored and tweak scripts accordingly. And although that genre required the director to understand that story took privilege over character, Ivan was at his best when he was getting performances out of actors who had been phoning it in. He found a way to make jaded thespians fall back in love with their craft. Actresses, in particular, requested him, for his ability to whisper things into their ears that identified personality traits they could transfer to their characters. In short, he took mediocre talent and gave them, if not their “Brando” moment, then something close.
“Myles has a beard?”
Gail stood at the window and said that without glancing back at Ivan who was fidgety when he wasn’t working but hadn’t stirred from his bed this week. Gail would be Ivan’s last girlfriend. They pretended they were married after an Indian shaman performed a “wedding ceremony” on a beach, but when April 15th came around they filed income taxes separately, although Ivan had given her power of attorney in the event someone had to pull the plug.
Gail sensed that Ivan knew she was concealing her thoughts so she decided to distract him by giving him more of her to look at. She removed her jean jacket with miniature epaulets, the one Ivan had appropriated from an actress who refused to wear it on camera because she thought it made her look fat. It certainly didn’t make Gail look fat. At 5’9” with straight brown hair, impossibly long arms that conducted themselves like birds in flight, and the most kissable neck a woman would be blessed to have, she was easy on the eyes.
Gail was a lawyer who had stopped practicing when she had a poem published in The New Yorker, reinforcing that she was less concerned about her own welfare than most Yale law grads who grew up in Croton On The Hudson. And Ivan didn’t need to tell her how much he liked her because she knew. Relationship maintenance was low. Before her, Ivan had gone from woman to woman, sometimes having as many as three in rotation, for no apparent reason other than he could, and women liked to take him on as a challenge.
But after meeting Gail there was no point in dating anyone else.
“He did have a beard once. I haven’t seen him in fourteen years so I don’t even know if he still has a chin.” That much conversation was exhausting for Ivan but he ventured on after a few coughs that adjusted his larynx. “Just as well if he doesn’t come,” Ivan lied, trying out the role of the self-pitying gentleman before recasting himself as the mystical power in the room by pretending to meditate.
Gail clearly didn’t believe her dying boyfriend’s last negative comment. But she held her tongue when she witnessed the putrid glop seeping from Ivan’s nose.
“Blow it all out.” Gail was now sitting on the bed wiping away his snot for the third time today.
“You know, suffocation remains a not unattractive option,” said Ivan. Gail took the bait and pinched Ivan’s nose until he started laughing. Ivan snuggled and puckered his lips despite the grossness of the previous moment. Gail forced a laugh instead of a kiss but then pushed her warm cheek against his chilled one.
“Don’t pity me,” Ivan blurted out. “I don’t need prescriptive affection.”
“This isn’t fun for me, either.” That flew out of Gail’s mouth without much thought, for they were well into the second year of the end of Ivan.
“Dearie, there is no dignity in death.”
“Well, you’re not dead yet as far as I can tell.” Gail put her hand on his crotch but removed it, afraid to disturb his catheter. It was only two months ago that she and Ivan had ceased sexual relations.
“Let me at least maintain the illusion.”
Gail kissed him lightly. Then stood abruptly to hide her feelings. Her eyes were about to tear when she spotted movement out the window.
“Some guy just got out of a cab. He looks lost.”
“Myles is cheap. He’d take the bus,” Ivan crowed. He knew that denigrating his buddy would pique her interest.
Ivan returned her volley. “People shrink when they age. One problem I will avoid.”
Gail ignored the dying director while staring right at him. She sat down on the bed, naturally arching her back in a way that confirmed her distant past as a ballet prodigy, and combed Ivan’s thinning hair with her breath.
Ivan dropped his head and swiped at the air, flailing his arms herky-jerky, pretending to die like a little boy blasted by a toy gun. Just like he did two days before with less conviction. Clearly, he was a better director than actor.
“You know, if I can hold on three more days I can expire on my birthday and have a perfectly round number on my tombstone.”
Ivan waited for Gail to smile. She didn’t.
“You told me you wanted to be cremated.”
He pointed to the crummy little TV perched in the corner of the room. “Yes, but yesterday a PBS show made the case that it’s more environmentally correct to be buried without a coffin and return your energy to the earth than go up in smoke and pollute the air. The hip-wah-zee have it wrong. But I imagine you’ve already made arrangements.” He sneezed involuntarily. “Be forewarned. Death is contagious despite all scientific studies to the contrary.”
“Shut up, Ivan.”
“I tell you a lot of things I don’t mean.” Ivan leaned forward. “I love you, Gail.”
Now Gail stared daggers at Ivan. She made peace with her ambivalence, an essential part of the contract of spending time in Ivan’s company.
“Please let me act like an ass. It’s the only skill set I still have that doesn’t require effort.” Gail knew that Ivan drew great satisfaction out of torturing either himself or others and that he often chose the latter since it proved to be seductive on educated women who were co-dependent. Years of dealing with high maintenance actresses who demanded more of his time than their part warranted had rubbed off on Ivan.
“You never asked my permission before.” Gail went back to the window.
Three hours later the room was dark. Ivan was asleep and Gail had her head on his chest, massaging him with her fingertips when Myles entered unannounced. The intruder looked down on the scene and froze. It was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. Gail’s hand floated over Ivan a few more times before she felt the presence of another person.
“Are you him?”
Myles uttered, “Myles.” Then he sat down in the only chair in the room. It took Gail a good minute to straighten the bed and then turn to get a real look at Ivan’s visitor.
She noticed his trimmed beard. Late 40s. And he looked to be about 6’1” contrary to her intensely jealous boyfriend’s description of him as stunted. Kind of okay with a small mouth and not the best ears, but semi-handsome in a non-threatening way like a TV news announcer who had been on vacation for six months. Easy to underestimate initially, especially from the choice of shirt until she looked closer and saw the pattern was really paper airplanes in flight. That was kind of cool. Myles’ sense of style sneaked up on people.
“I came right from the airport. How is he?” whispered Myles.
“How is he?” repeated Gail, trying to remember the exact words Ivan used when he told her in no uncertain terms that she was not allowed to date any of his friends after he died. “He sleeps more than half the day now. And when he’s awake he doesn’t know how not to be Ivan.”
Myles glanced at Ivan, which made him realize that he had been looking at Gail the whole time. “You’re exactly how he described you.”
Gail turned to him. She would have knocked Myles over if she smiled but she betrayed nothing.
“Should I go and come back? Where’s the nearest hotel?”
“There’s a boat show in town this week and the rooms they didn’t eat have gone to the weekend lunatics,” Gail replied and stood up, eye-to-eye with Myles.
“I’ll crash in the lobby.”
“No, you won’t.” She picked up his carry-on and headed for the door before Myles could answer. “Let’s go. I want to be back in time for breakfast.”
The two exited quietly. And with that Ivan awoke. Or maybe he had been awake the whole time. The director still had the floor.