He made his career at the movie studio. But not his life. 3,201 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The second time, Jeffrey was taking the short cut he took every morning to walk from the parking garage to his office at the Studio in the fewest steps possible. No shooting on the lot today because of a driving rainstorm. He had passed by three accidents on the freeway that delayed him. In Los Angeles, no one knew how to drive in a storm. He was in his black raincoat, his umbrella unfurled, and still he was taking on heavy water. The lower part of his legs and shoes were soaked and he’d need to the whole day to dry out, only to repeat the process in the evening and drive home soaked again. It was enough to make him turn around and go home, but he rarely called in sick. He was one of those who came in no matter how he felt: coughing, sneezing, wheezing, infecting everyone.
Jeffrey had come to the part of the path by the community garden, which consisted of a few raised planter beds with herbs that it was rumored the commissary kitchen used in the lunch preparations. Not that Jeffrey noticed any improvement in the taste of the food. There was a vertical planter on wheels that stood maybe 8 feet high. Well, it was supposed to be standing eight feet high, but that morning it was lying tipped and tumbled and turned on its side, with broken segments of pipe and a spray of black earth.
It was a sorry sight, plants drowning in the deluge. Jeffrey didn’t know if he should try to pick the thing up or leave it alone and report it. He was not a mechanical man; a simple screwdriver tightening was the most he could manage. Nor was he a gardening man.
He didn’t participate in any of the community activities on the lot. He came to work; he did his work; he went home. Once or twice when he’d first started, he attended the Studio-sponsored screenings of new films in release. But since guests weren’t allowed, his wife felt left out so he stopped. He didn’t participate in the health confabs or the book fairs or the cocktails and games club held every Thursday night as a prelude to the weekend. He didn’t work out at the Studio gym or play tennis on the Studio courts. He saw no payoff in the extracurriculars.
Finally inside his office, Jeffrey hung up his dripping raincoat and left his wet umbrella in the corner. He tried to dry off his pants with paper towels but they left smears of white paper fiber. At 8, he called Facilities which sent another work order to his in-box.
Once, when he was in the third grade, a little girl whose father worked for the telephone company brought in yards of brightly colored wire. She handed one to each student and they wove rings and bracelets that were the rage for a few weeks. She kept a large trove of the wires in her desk, sometimes handing them out to her friends. If you were one of the cool kids, you got the wires. Otherwise, not. For a reason that Jeffrey could not remember, he was alone in the room and he went through the little girl’s desk stealing — because there was no other word for it — some wires for himself. He didn’t think the girl ever noticed. Dale, that was her name. No, Dale never noticed and the next school year her family moved away.
Jeffrey wondered why he was thinking about this childhood incident, his little act of larceny, now. He was never one of the kids who stole gum or baseball cards or went into his father’s wallet filching a few dollars. He didn’t even take home pens from the Studio. The little ring he’d made from Dale’s wires? He’d lost it after only a week or so. It was meaningless to him by then. But he remembered wanting the blue wires and taking them.
Someone was coming by Jeffrey’s office with a clipboard just then.
"Jones, from Facilities. Just wanted to ask a few more details about the planter."
Jeffrey motioned to a chair opposite his desk which had a few promotional t-shirts from one of their films about ghosts hanging over the back.
"Was there anyone else around when you found the planter?" Jones asked.
Jeffrey shook his head. "No, I was coming from the garage. I get in early."
"Early. Around 7."
"Why so early?"
Jeffrey picked up a pen and began clicking it opened and closed. He tapped it a few times on the desk. The phone rang. "Sorry," Jeffrey said and answered it. "Yes. I can bring that down. The most current marketing summary. Right away."
He turned back to Jones. "The boss calls and I have to ask, ‘How high?’ You know how it is. I don’t know what I can add. I was walking in. I saw the planter. I called it in."
"Well, it’s just that there was that sign a few weeks ago."
"Called that in, too. You see things you report them. Right?"
Jeffrey stood up, rummaged for something in one of the stacked metal boxes on his desk. "Here it is."
Then he stood there trying to make the force of his standing get Jones to stand and leave his office.
"Okay, Mr. Baumann. Thank you. If we need any more we’ll be in touch."
Jeffrey followed him out of the office and went down the hall to hand-deliver the report, surprised that his boss was in so early.
Jeffrey didn’t think about it much more, it being the vandalized sign and the broken planter. The sign on the wall of the lot still wasn’t fixed. The space for the missing letters grew blacker over time. Maybe they had to be special-ordered. The planter was back standing though one of the top tubes sported a crack. Guide wires leading to locked padlocks were attached to it now. That planter wasn’t going anywhere. He passed by the garden and someone who was watering the plants gave him a hard, very hard, look.
So he worked. The films opened. The films closed. Sometimes his boss praised his work, and if no praise was forthcoming, he worked harder until it came. Jeffrey spent hours going through contract after contract, extracting information about who was supposed to get their names in the posters and in the ads and in the TV spots for the films. The trades announced some acquisition by his Studio and he made a few judgments about it which he kept to himself. Did they really need another variation on the idea behind Aliens? Was a live-action version about the doll that wet itself and said, "Ma-ma" possibly a winner? It didn’t help to ask who was coming up with these ideas. He knew who ran the place.
Jeffrey had ideas, but he was in Legal and ideas from Legal were never well received. Every idea he’d suggested over the course of his 40 years in the business had eventually been made by another studio, the last being AARP’s, entertainment for the elderly.
He finished one report and he started another. His boss asked him for something, he responded within two minutes. Someone in Marketing sent him a layout for a poster for a new film. He gave his comments: move Jones ahead of Gatling. The director’s name is the wrong color. Another part of the company was rereleasing older films and they asked him to review the advertising. Every name was spelled wrong. He asked who was doing the typesetting and it turned out they had farmed out the job to a company in India.
"Don’t they have proofreaders there?" Jeffrey asked.
"Isn’t that your job?" they answered.
The attorneys around him were making their licensing deals. Maria, outside his door, thought they were giving away the farm.
"The farm," she actually said, asking someone for dates and percentages. "Are you sure about that number?" she said.
The incremental business of moviemaking went on, so much of it having nothing at all to do with a single thing that went on about the set. To watch Jeffrey and the people who worked around him at their labors was to believe that the movie itself was an afterthought, secondary to what they did. And what they did was sell every aspect, anything related or ancillary, like the film was a chicken that had been cut into ever finer parts eventually barely related to its original self. (Pass the nuggets, please.)
The last time it happened, Jeffrey was taking a break from a particularly long and complicated set of requirements for one of the films the Studio had "picked up" to distribute worldwide. The problem with pick-ups was the contracts drafted by outside attorneys gave away the same farm Maria had complained about a few days before. They would do anything to close a deal and, if an opposing counsel asked for something crazy, they often agreed. Place the names of the two lead actresses together on their own separate line? Done, even though only Schrodinger could explain how something might be in two places at once. Give each lead actor first position?
Jeffrey began to think these lawyers had actually studied quantum physics instead of torts. Or maybe they were screwing with him. Or maybe they were just dumb, careless, overworked.
He took the long walk down the building’s hallway to the communal pantry. His suite had one closer, but it usually ran out of the good snacks after a few days. He passed by posters of the most recent films: the ghost movie; the one about the travelers trapped in space; another about the inner city hospital; the one about spies. All those names he had checked and checked and rechecked. The history of his career hung on the walls.
He was thinking about the biography approvals. He was thinking about merchandising approvals. He was thinking about how he was supposed to restate the stills approvals provisions. Actors got to approve photographs of themselves to be used in publicity and in the key art for the whole campaign. Hundreds of shots were taken, maybe thousands of the bigger actors. It was a process where a certain minimum number had to be approved within a certain time frame. Easy stuff, but, once again, the outside attorneys had put in some strange twist that three sets of photographs had to be delivered simultaneously to three different representatives of the actor, and all three had to give approval. Things like that made no sense and came under the heading of a lawyer trying to prove his worth. (“Look what I’ve done for you lately.”) Else why would an actor give up another five percent for nothing in return.
He got closer to the pantry and there was a strange orange light coming from the room and a strong acrid smell in the air. Rounding the doorway, Jeffrey found a fire in the trash can, the flames leaping nearly to the ceiling.
He retreated to the hallway and pulled the fire alarm. He hesitated for a moment, a little bit amazed at how time seemed to slow down. The flames, orange and red, lapping upward. The acrid smoke. He had done the responsible thing by pulling the alarm. He understood in that instant the fascination with fire, the all-consuming flame. It seemed to call to him. Would he be lauded on the landing page of the company intranet? Employee puts out blaze? Orange and red. The smoke black.
Jeffrey stepped forward and grabbed up a fire extinguisher off its hook. He went back into the pantry.
Firing low at the base of the flame and then moving up — as he’d once seen instructed in a public service announcement on TV — he pushed the handle on the extinguisher. A white cloud erupted from the nozzle with a whoosh, billowing up and all around. He played the feeder tube about the fire, trying to hold his breath. The fire fought back for a moment, rising up in intensity, growing larger and brighter. Then it succumbed, collapsing down as Jeffrey moved in closer. He sprayed directly into the burning barrel.
The air was thick now with the fire fumes and the extinguisher’s spray. Coughing, he put the red canister down and joined everyone going outside to collect at the assembly point. The alarm was loud. Piercing. The white strobes flashed insistently. Twenty steps and he was outside into the fresh air which he breathed in great gasps, still coughing out whatever he’d inhaled in the pantry.
The firemen from the lot were there in their little fire carts. Fire trucks from the city arrived, red lights flashing, filled with big men in yellow coats and pants with their oversized yellow hats. Maria was complaining to someone Jeffrey didn’t recognize about how this had interrupted her day.
The alarm had interrupted the shooting of a TV episode. The officer workers intermingled with the cast and crew. Cameras pointed south. Lights askew. It was like the crowd extras had become unruly. The director shouted, "Get that damn alarm off and clear my set."
A Studio representative with a bullhorn waited for the report from the fireman. Someone next to Jeffrey asked what happened.
"Is this a drill?" she said.
"No," Jeffrey told her. "There was a fire in the pantry."
A fire that some believed was deliberately set, though no one said so explicitly. In the next few hours, Jeffrey would be questioned, and questioned again. Each time with the insinuation that he was somehow at fault. The Studio sign. The broken planter. There was a pattern.
"How was it that you just happened to come upon the fire? This time?" an official from the Studio said.
"You know something?" Jeffrey said. "I’m tired. I’m going home."
With that he stood and went back to his office and turned off his computer and packed up his bag and left. He called in sick the next morning and the morning after that, and didn’t come back until after the weekend.
His boss saw him first thing that next Monday morning and said: "Better now? Glad to have you back."
It is Friday, November 22, 1963 and Jeffrey is the flashcard champion of his third grade class. Two plus two is too easy. A little math and language humor. How about nine times eight? Seventy-two. Fifty-four divided by six? Nine. Twelve plus eighteen? Thirty. Mrs. Tudor barely gets the card around and Jeffrey shouts his answer. Winning feels so good. He is the best.
The Thanksgiving decorations shake when the blower comes on, the turkeys shimmering on the wall. He is unstoppable, standing behind his next victim who hunches over the small tan desk. Jeffrey has memorized the multiplication tables, the division tables, the addition and subtraction tables. Recites them for his mother before going off to school. (It’s driving her a little crazy.) He goes through the entire class without missing a one.
No one is as good as he. Card after card, the correct answer rises up in front of him. Squeezing through the rows of desks, watching his teacher, Mrs. Tudor, like a hawk — the way he thinks a hawk might watch because he read about them in an illustrated book on birds — as she brings out the next card. Fifteen times fifteen? Two hundred twenty five. That one was a little tougher, but his opponent had no idea and just sat there in silence, overwhelmed by the power of Jeffrey and his colossal numbers.
As champion, this distinction confers upon him certain "rights and responsibilities," Mrs. Tudor says. One is that Jeffrey’s picture hangs on the bulletin board announcing his championship for the sixth week in a row. Some of the other kids are starting to get annoyed. He must be cheating or doing something wrong. Another is that when messages need to be carried down or picked up from the office, it is Jeffrey who is dispatched. He is to be trusted, Mrs. Tudor says, with the important business of the class.
On this Friday afternoon, November 22nd, a little before three, Jeffrey is sent down to the office to pick up a stack of mimeos that Mrs. Tudor has had printed. Something for everyone to do over the weekend in preparation for the holiday next week. Jeffrey loves Thanksgiving because he loves his mother’s turkey, especially when she browns the skin crisp.
Making sure to hold onto the railing — because everyone was instructed to use the railings and Jeffrey follows instructions — he walks down the flight of stairs from the second floor to the first, past the array of windows that show the street in front of the school, past the beige oversized bricks that make up the walls, past the shining linoleum floor. He has not yet thought about what he wants to be when he grows up; his fascination with movies will come later.
The women in the office know him and know he’s there to pick up the papers.
"Fresh out of the machine, Jeffrey," one of them says, handing them over with their chemical tang making him wrinkle his nose.
He catches a glimpse of the principal, Mr. Toff, who is behind a large desk with his door open. Mr. Toff looks preoccupied, another word Jeffrey has recently learned that seems to apply primarily to his father who doesn’t speak to him much — or to anyone — when he is home.
A radio is playing in the background, when an announcer breaks in. It’s the voice of the man who is on the TV every night, who always signs off, "And that’s the way it is." He’s speaking now saying, "From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago."
The women in the office gasp. Hands come up to faces. The youngest secretary bursts into tears. Mr. Toff comes out of his office.
"What’s going on out here?" he says.
The principal looks from one woman to the other, stopping finally on the senior secretary, a woman who is usually hard-headed in all circumstances.
"The president," she stammers. "The president."
Mr. Toff’s shoulders sag.
The radio is now playing an audio recording of Malcolm Kilduff, White House press secretary: "President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1:00 CST today here in Dallas. He died of a gunshot wound to the brain. I have no other details regarding the assassination of the president."
Jeffrey is forgotten, standing there with the adults, their shoulders shaking, tears like none Jeffrey has never seen before. He goes back upstairs, carrying the stack of mimeos. When he gets to his home room, he fairly bursts inside.
"Mrs. Tudor," he says. "Mrs. Tudor."
"Jeffrey, I’m surprised at you, interrupting this way."
"Mrs. Tudor. The president is dead."
She is a large woman, broad across the hip, in a crisp white shirt with a bow and a tasteful skirt that falls mid-calf. She stares at her champion, a champion no longer, and shakes her head.
"Don’t lie," she says.