A storm wrecked a filmmaker’s set and will ruin him unless his ex-lover rides to the rescue. 4,758 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“Don’t look sullen, David.”
“Sullen? I was shooting for serene.”
Even at 40 — with her loose-fit trousers and black ankle boots brown with dust — Kay Winters was still the image of glamour. Though she was never fodder for People or Us Weekly, candid shots of her alongside her more famous friends appeared regularly in red carpet feeds during awards season.
Best he could, he’d maintain an outward calm. He was David fucking Pierce. A grown man. Forty-four years old but still the Comanche Kid.
He had hoped a phone conversation would suffice. He hadn’t wanted to see her, and he knew she hadn’t wanted to see him. Nonetheless, she’d told him that if she was going to humor him, if she was going to even consider rescuing his movie, well, she had to see the shit show. For one thing, she had to make sure he was really working. Had to make sure he wasn’t just wasting away on booze in his Laurel Canyon condo. Wouldn’t be the first time, after all. Another drunk Indian. What if he had a needle in his arm? A rope around his neck? What if he was just trying to milk her before checking out, making it look like she was financing a debauched suicide? The media would love that.
She had mused over the hypotheticals. Had made him bring her up to speed on the picture in detail. Had insisted on seeing his proposed budget, his actual expenses, his personal account holdings. She had reviewed his casting choices and cinematographer — an Austin transplant who’d assisted Malick — and had even read the script. A rigorous woman. A ruthless woman, same as ever. He used to love her for it. Now here she was in the flesh, nosing in. Bearing the heat. Staring out at the desert, inspecting the galleys, the proofs, the kerning, frowning at the crafty table where there used to be snacks and refreshments and where now there was only water in enormous insulated jugs and paper cups and a husk of snakeskin. A shedding. A strange decoration that someone had found and thought would make a good prop — or maybe a memento. God knew.
They were in the shade of a sun tent that covered an area the size of a tennis court. It had open walls that let in the occasional breeze. “The storm fucked me,” David said, looking back at Kay. “Fucked me and fucked everything.”
“You were overextended before.”
He had shown Kay the financials. He didn’t feel like arguing the point. He should have been at the economic pinnacle of his life. He said, “Rain in the desert. I mean, it’s the desert. How do I account for that?”
“You grew up here.”
“Exactly. That’s why it’s so fucking mind blowing.”
“No point in blaming God.”
His anger was building and he knew he should keep his mouth shut. Find another topic. Instead he hedged and tried to put humor in his voice as he said, “I blame the woman, babe.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Well, God’s the man. The man keeps his head. Right?”
“I think you’re losing touch.”
“Bear with me. Nature’s the woman. Women are hysterical. By nature. Nature is a woman and a woman is hysterical by her very nature.”
“Women hate me.” He wanted to make her laugh — he thought he’d about kill to make her laugh. But everything he said met skepticism. He remembered a time when she’d looked at the world through the same jaded lens he did. He’d do better shutting up, but he’d never been any good at shutting up. “That’s the truth. All you womenfolk. Every female from every fucking species. Cows. Hens. She-wolfs. I’m ganged up on.”
She said, “Isn’t it funny now that you need a woman to save you?”
“You, babe. It’s always been you.”
“It’s me by default.”
“No one else will take my calls. The Kid is on his knees, babe. Begging you, and I admit I’m begging you, and I’ve been open about it.” His mirth was leaving him again. How quickly! A moment and then gone. Then reality. Melodrama. Oppression. The articulation of his prostrate position.
He said, “If we’re being accurate, let’s get this thing clear. What I need from you is backing for the film. Concrete. M-O-N-E-Y. I do not myself in some metaphysical way need saving.”
“Have it your way, but your movie is you. You know that.”
He exhaled with audible disgust. David pulled Wayfarers off the collar of his t-shirt and set them on the tip of his nose. Then he stood, rubbed his little belly, and peered at Kay over the rims. “Let’s take a walk.” His voice was pacifying. Fatherly. “I’ll show you the damage.”
“I get to see what the storm did to your pretty picture?” Her smile was supercilious. “Splendid.”
As he strolled out of the tent in his tattered jean shorts and thong sandals, David was aware that he was not the picture of success, competence, or cash flow. Since the storm wrecked his set two days earlier, nothing had gotten done. No rebuilding. No new booze. He had just enough left to keep everyone hydrated and cool, and 20 pounds of ground beef he himself had taken to cooking after sunset over open coals. In another day, the generators and trailers would be past due.
If Kay Winters didn’t join production, finishing filming would be impossible. For David defaulting would be unspeakable. He had five credit cards maxed to the collective tune of $110,000. He had mortgaged his condo and was three months late on payments. He’d put every cent he had and every cent he could borrow into the movie. The only other person who knew that was Kay, and she was toying with him now, making him show her exactly how far he’d fallen.
He sweated easily in the sun. The sweat started at his temples, paused where his sunglasses pressed his face, then ran to his chin. His thin shirt was soaked under the pits and at his breastbone.
They paused at a bulge of uneven earth and sand that marked the toe of the mudslide. Twenty feet higher on the hill and half-covered in soil, tipped so that the roof pointed toward hell, was the house.
The mass of earth that had moved in the span of a single night was awesome and horrifying. How many tons? A thousand? More? The house had been uprooted, flipped, and ferried along so easily. It was his only major set, the movie depended on it, and the mud had destroyed it. They stared as if it were a memorial.
“That was my baby,” he said.
He needed a new house built, which would cost money — and which would take time, meaning more money.
He’d already told Kay all of this but explained it again as they hiked up parallel with the slide. Half the damn hill had slumped downward and spilled onto the desert floor, leaving a concave gulley a 100 yards wide. The hillside reminded him of a tub of ice cream with the middle scooped out.
Kay knelt and ran her fingers through the dirt. He crouched beside her. She was to his right, a half-step uphill. Between them was the shell of a dung beetle in the shade of a concrete slab unmoored from the house’s meager foundation.
“You shouldn’t have built on this slope,” she said. “Pretty stupid, I think. You’ve got miles of flat desert. You pick a hill.”
“No, see, this is how it was. This is how it looked. The real house was on a hill. Just like this. A few trees. You shoot up-angle and the sky in the evening is blood red above the porch and you can see crags on the horizon and you can understand why an artist would love this spot, love this desert.”
“Which is another problem. You’ve lost perspective, David. You’re too close to see when you have to be smart.”
“That’s shit.” He inhaled deeply and tried to relax his body. “I was smart. I am smart. I made the bet that in a place where the annual rainfall is five inches we wouldn’t have eight in two days. We were less than a week from finishing. Three days, maybe. If I’d had three more days before the rain, I’d look smart now.”
“You’d still be broke.”
He hefted the concrete in his hand. Seven, eight pounds? Certainly not too light. Easy to swing, hard to throw.
Kay was watching with a look of apprehension as he weighed the slab. She was within an arm’s reach.
“David?” she said.
He had the concrete in his right hand; with his left, he took his sunglasses off and held them to her. She hesitated, then grabbed them.
With care and deliberation, David scooted down into the wake of the mudslide.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said.
The ground was uneven and unstable. With every step, David was sending little avalanches of rock and dirt rolling toward the base of the hill. Above him were a few buffalo-sized clumps that he supposed he should worry about. But he wasn’t concerned. Dying in the wake of a natural disaster wouldn’t be half as bad as dying a failure. He traversed the hill quickly and scrambled toward the exposed glass door of the house’s patio. Everything was upside down; he stood on the eaves, the deck over his head. He couldn’t help thinking of old cartoons—of himself smashed paper-thin when the house collapsed.
He tried to slide the door but it wouldn’t slide. The frame was bent; the pane was cracked. He used the concrete to smash it. It took a few blows, the glass webbing and splintering. He knocked shards loose. He cut his knuckles. Kay was still calling but her voice was far away, a kind of background static. David, what the hell? David, what the hell? It might as well have been the theme song to their relationship. He kept working at the door. In a minute, he had a hole large enough to step through.
He moved slowly, hoping his presence wouldn’t cause a change in balance or send reverberations into the ground that would cause another slide. Prop tables, lamps, and rugs were strewn across the ceiling; the light fixtures at his feet were bizarre. The floor above was ripped and bulging: how much earth was it supporting? How cheap was the construction? He’d never seen pine slats warp like blown glass. He seemed to watch himself from afar as he moved toward the hearth: a miniscule man in a house of horrors, picking through debris. There, under a pile of prop envelopes and blank sketchbooks, was the only non-prop in the place: an oil painting of whites and yellows. A desert-scape vaguely abstracted, the horizon line too definite to resemble real life, too off color, intentionally so. The painting was a five-by-five-foot square. He hoisted it on its side. On the back, the frame over which the canvas was stretched was damaged and splintering; on the front, the paint was still in good shape. David lifted it by the crossbeam and teetered with it toward the patio.
When he stepped into the light, he needed a moment to readjust his eyes. Kay was there on the lip of the hill, buttoning up her shirt. Lily Alvarez was with her, a few other crew members, too. Gingerly, David reached through the hole in the door and pulled the painting outside. He was careful not to cut the canvas on the jagged glass.
He lifted the painting above his head and turned it.
Now she’d understand.
She knew his mother’s work was irreplaceable.
As he made his way into the shade of the sun tent, David let out a war whoop. He imagined how it must have been to return victorious from battle. Two hundred years earlier, the Comanche people had conquered the Southwest. He thought about his hero, Quanah Parker, the last great Comanche chief, who’d waged campaigns against the white men who slaughtered bison. Parker had fought and killed for his life, his people, his pride; still, he couldn’t stop the slaughter. With Quanah, David felt true kinship. Everyone expected failure. David was a burnout. A poor businessman. An alcoholic. But he would not go easily.
His mother’s painting was in his hands. His arms and shoulders ached from carrying it. He loved the ache. His skin was sticky, his body encased in sweat. He loved the sweat, too. He was alive in that moment, feeling that he’d proven himself to the doubters—his crew, Alvarez, and Kay especially. No one could question his passion.
When David was 22 years old, he’d just finished his first film and was something of a Hollywood darling. Or not quite. At that age, he was still in New York City, raw, full of untapped molasses, as his mother used to say. He’d taken his inheritance and produced a movie with it that he directed himself and doubled his stake — which was not quite the story he told reporters. He told reporters he’d made a small fortune betting on racehorses. He had an eye for winners — animals, scripts, you name it. It was the Indian in him. The Comanche in his blood, and that’s how they started calling him the Comanche Kid.
He had met Kay at the opening. She was three years his junior, an heiress curious about movies, a beauty eager to learn what he knew. How long ago! She used to braid his black hair. She used to treat him like a prophet.
They made for awkward lovers — inexperienced, ashamed of their desires and bodies. Neither would have admitted to that shame; they used alcohol increasingly as a means to explore each other, and the alcohol, David knew, had ruined them. He wished he’d been older when they met. How could he be blamed when he was so young?
Now here they were, decades later, stepping into his trailer. He hadn’t seen her in years. Kathleen fucking Winters. His Kay. The woman who’d made a fool of him publicly, who’d screwed everyone in Hollywood when she was supposed to be screwing him.
He set the painting against the back wall. She closed the door; the windows were cracked, and the murmur of conversations outside and the hum of generators mixed and filled the room.
“I thought you were going to die,” she said. She cleared a tamale husk off a vinyl bench and sat down. She still held his sunglasses. She turned them in her hands, examining the reflection in the lenses. She used the hem of her shirt to wipe them, then put them atop a mini fridge.
“Hell, I thought I might die, myself.” He smiled broadly. “But I didn’t. Life’s turning around.” He gestured at the painting. “I was worried I’d never get it back. But up on that hill, with you, I knew I could. I believed. With you, I see so clearly. You know? That painting was there and I knew it was but I needed you. I needed your energy.”
“David, I think you’re out of your mind.”
He leaned over, opened the fridge, and took out two beers. Thank God there was still diesel for the generator. The bottles were cold as the color blue. He tossed one to Kay.
She looked at hers doubtfully. She said, “Really, David, you need help. This movie’s too much for you right now. Leave it. I’m telling you as a friend.”
“I’m not leaving shit. I’m 10 feet from the finish line.”
“I know,” she said.
“This is my life. And people are finally going to see it.”
“It’s your mother’s life.”
He nodded. Phoenix Gulch, on its face, was about his parents, a sort of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in which Martha is an acid-tongued Georgia O’Keefe. There was no character based on himself. He had effectively cut himself out of the picture. It’s what he’d had to do to get clarity on the story. The script was sharp.
“We don’t need a ton to finish this thing.” He opened his beer with a bear claw wine key then extended it to Kay. The beer was wonderful when it touched his lips but the taste was anticlimactic the rest of the way down. That was always the way — you came for that first kiss. Glass, booze, and lips.
“I’m not giving you the money,” she said. “I’ve considered and I’m not investing. I’m not EP-ing. You’ve lost control, David.”
“All I lost is one prop house. A single, solitary set. All I’m asking for is enough to shoot one scene. You help me finish filming, I’ll do the rest. The movie will sell itself. Look, I’ll show you everything we’ve got. Great stuff.”
“David, you think I didn’t know what you were doing up there? I was scared for my life and you were enjoying it. You’ve lost yourself.” She set her beer on the floor. She hadn’t opened it. As she got up, David rose to his feet and stopped her. He put his hands on her shoulders, gripping the collar of her shirt and looking down at her breasts, her bra, her skin so deeply tanned. When they first met she’d been pale. He pulled his arms wide and the shirt ripped and the remaining buttons scattered. He peeled the blouse halfway down her arms, and she began to kick at his shins.
The toes of her boots were hard leather — they’d leave bruises but that didn’t matter. He outweighed her by 70 pounds, muscle and gut. If he didn’t want her to scream, he could make that happen. He could kiss her — r move a palm to her mouth.
He let go and stepped back.
She brushed past him, opened the door, and was gone.
He sat heavily on the floor, picked up her bottle, and twisted off the cap. Her beer in one hand, his in the other. Double fisting. Double fisting in the desert. Another porno.
He told himself that he had prepared for this. He didn’t like it but had to accept it. He’d only ever seen two options since the storm hit and the house fell, and as much as he’d willed himself to believe there was a chance Capital Kay would come through, he had always doubted. Why should she treat him any differently now than before?
“My baby’s gone,” he said to himself half amusedly. “She gone.”
He capped Kay’s bottle, put on his sunglasses to mask his face, and went outside. Kay, her shirt ragged and flowing from the crook of her arms, was hurrying toward a silver Mercedes where her assistant — a woman in black slacks and a tank top — was waiting and staring at her in wonder.
He didn’t care what anyone thought of him now. To the southeast was uninterrupted desert.
For five hours, David’s anger drove him forward through small dunes and then into scrabbles of rock and brush in the low hills. The movie set was east-by-northeast of LA, off of Highway 127, Death Valley Road. His anger was waning, but he’d planned for that: A small man in an enormous desert. You start thinking of yourself in proportion, you get a good idea of how absurd you are, how preposterous it is that anything you do could have any meaning. When his mind and body were exhausted, he knew it would be that sense of insignificance that would allow him to either keep going or stop. The big end scene.
He’d manage through the night and the next day easily, probably the day after that as well. At some point on day three or four, he’d become desperate — but if he could stave off desperation long enough and put enough physical distance between himself and the asphalt, well, the will to live wouldn’t be enough to save him. They’d find his body eventually, desiccated, organs bloated. The image was unnatural in the context of civilized men but in the context of the wild he wouldn’t be much different from a deer carcass.
He started singing to himself in a whisper because it killed time and took up mental energy. His steps fell with the rhythm. “Gone, gone, my baby’s gone.” Any expenditure would speed up the process; the beer would speed up the process. He was down to one bottle and saving it. When night came, David took off his sandals and made a shallow hollow in the sand that he lined with grasses for insulation against the cold.
Growing up in southwestern Utah, his mother had taught him how to survive and thrive in the desert. She wore her hair in plaits and let the sun wither her skin; she told him she was a half-blood, a descendant of Quanah Parker. He remembered hiking with her above Cathedral Wall in the dark so that they could watch the sunrise from the peaks. She went up there every morning. When he was a boy, he thought she did it for the thrill of the false dawn that cast a cool glow on the land and for the first direct light that threw color into the sky. Later, when he was in college in New York and she was freshly dead, he revised the theory. He came to believe that she went up there because she needed to affirm her place in the hierarchy of her personal universe. She was an artist, blessed, divine; everyone else was below her, at her feet, under her gaze.
By noon on the second day, David had consumed the last drop of his last beer. His sandals had raised blisters between his big and index toes. His lips were badly cracked. His stomach was empty and cramping; several times he had to stop until the pain passed. By evening, his blisters had broken and the thongs had cut through the webbing. He discarded the sandals then tore his shirt into strips and wrapped his feet. The wind had long before erased his tracks.
Finally, on the morning of the third day, David was too weak and too delirious to shuffle more than a couple of steps at a time. He collapsed in the shade of a Manzanita bush. He had the euphoric realization that at least the hard work — the physical hike through hell — was finished. He could rest and let his mind bloom with visions and fantasies and paranoias until those, too, subsided. Soon he felt the need to vomit but had nothing in him. He heaved with his face in the sand. When he felt urine trickle down his thigh, he curled and began to lap it up like a dog.
“Check it out. You got your baby.”
“Same as the last one.”
“The last one’s scrap.”
In the two weeks since the San Bernardino Search & Rescue team had found David, builders had arrived on set and erected a new matchstick bungalow. Ground and air crews spent the better part of three days searching before a canine unit discovered him half-naked in a ravine. He received intravenous salts and fluids and was taken by helicopter to the Loma Linda University Medical Center where he received further treatment for dehydration, heatstroke, and the onset of kidney failure. During that time, he’d been in and out of consciousness. The world was a collage of color and sound, and thinking back on it, the image that came to mind was his mother’s painting.
Kay had been his only visitor, looking at him as she might a leper. A pitiful, hideous creature. After three days, his kidneys had regained function and he was released into her care. There was no one else. She took over the duty of putting aloe and ointments on the burns on his shoulders. She provided him meals, promised to cover his costs, had her lawyer take care of his immediate legal troubles, got him an appointment with her personal therapist, and even helped dress and bathe him in the beginning when he was still weak.
Now he was back at the set and walking again, albeit gingerly on his destroyed feet. The actors and crew snuck glimpses at him the way they checked the position of the sun.
The last scene. The patio was lit with Christmas lights, the sky purpling as evening moved toward dusk. It was the final argument between his parents, played out in his head hundreds of times and now, finally, played out before his eyes. He hadn’t been there. He’d been at NYU that night, and he could only imagine it. His mother’s fury. It had taken him years to piece together the story, and it was still just guesswork. His entire life, every day he could remember, Cassidy Pierce had abused her husband — David’s father — telling the man how worthless he was, how ashamed she was to be with him, how pathetically beneath herself she had married. He was a hapless man: a mediocre guitarist, a miserable cook, an insipid lover without stamina. The only thing he’d ever done decently was take abuse, and he took it nightly. Over and again. He believed in Cassidy Pierce. He believed in her work, her talent. He never questioned her: not her alcoholism or tantrums or her fists. Sometimes David thought his father even liked the punishment.
Then, in the winter of 1984, Cassidy was celebrating a new show — and making a rare appearance in civilization, in Cedar City. She had been drinking beer and tequila since midday according to the acquaintances David found later. By night she was roaring mad. David’s father was preparing to file for divorce. And David knew that the divorce papers would be all the reason his mother would ever need. She was a tyrant. For 20 years she had ruled her household, her world, completely. She wouldn’t go through a single 24-hour period any other way. For Cassidy, it was better to die than lose her place. She locked herself in her bedroom and set fire to her home. David’s father died trying to break down the door.
“You know, there’s one thing I never understood,” Kay was saying. “The title. Phoenix Gulch. Who rises?”
“Phoenix Gulch was the name of our road. It was our address.”
“So, no one rises.”
“Not a one.”
“That is damnably bleak.”
“You know what’s bleak?” he said. “What’s bleak is I don’t have a drop of Indian in me. Not even a drop.”
“Went through my genealogy, couldn’t find connections. So I did tests. Blood work. I’m 100 percent Caucasian.”
After four takes of the penultimate setup, the actors finished the scene admirably, energetically. The cast cleared out, G&E relit for the exterior, and the pyro boys came in. As they doused the floor and walls in accelerant, David noticed that someone had taken his mother’s painting off the hearth. He’d guessed that might happen. A part of him hoped it would. He ran his fingers along the cap of a butane lighter in his pant pocket.
“Who moved the painting?” he asked.
Kay said, “You aren’t seriously going to burn it?”
David was already walking to the table. The painting was the only thing of any value he still owned in the world. He didn’t care. The scene had to be right. The canvas had been re-stretched over a new frame. When he lifted it, the breeze caught it like a kite. He seemed to rise with it, half-wondering if he’d fly away. He’d lost so much weight. He felt so light. He strode into the house and up to the hearth.
After hanging the painting and stepping back to see that it was level, he looked out through the patio windows. There was the crew. There was Kay, shaking her head. The smell of fumes was thick in the air. David fished the lighter out of his pocket. The flame was white in front of his face. “Don’t miss this,” he called out. “You better roll the damn cameras.” He walked out of the frame. The focus should be on the fire and the canvas, not on him. He let the flame lap up the pine slat walls. He sat on the floor. The house exploded in light and heat around him.