Temping in Hollywood can be boring or blissful or even brilliant. 2,886 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It’s an insurance company,” she said, idly swiveling in the black leather manager chair with the receiver cradled against her shoulder. “Yeah, Culver City. It’s in the movie business but as borderline as you can get. It’s all they had for me this week. I got bills to pay, babe.”
She looked up, startled to see a man standing over her desk. “Gotta go,” she said, hanging up the phone.
“Hi, I’m Brad,” he said, beaming down at her.
She straightened up. “I’m Sara from the temp agency,” she replied, “filling in for Todd Pierce’s secretary while she’s on maternity leave.”
Sara gave Brad a quick once-over: tan skin, angular jawline, aristocratic nose, blue eyes and blond hair. His perfect teeth glistened through a radiant smile.
“Welcome to Fortress Insurance.” Brad said and started to leave, then stopped. “By the way, how you were holding the phone,” he cocked his head to the side, “you’ll get a crick in your neck. Use the headset.
She waved a hand over her silky auburn mane. “You know how long it takes me to do my hair?”
“I’ll pass on that one. Outside my area of expertise,” Brad answered, moving away from her desk.
“Smart,” she said, watching him go. "I’ll let Todd know you dropped by."
“If you need anything, my office is right around the corner.” He waved as he disappeared.
An hour later, Sara’s rIpe red lips filled the small mirror, pressed up in a sexy pout. She closed the compact and blew it like a smoking gun before returning it to her purse. She smoothed her skirt, threw back her shoulders and stepped confidently into Brad’s office, manila folder in hand.
“What can I do for you, Sara?”
“Memo,” she said. “Thought I’d drop it off myself.”
“Thank you. Just set it on the desk.”
Sara laid it on his desk, putting some extra motion in her walk. Brad sat back, smiling appreciatively. Sara took a quick look around. The décor was minimalist to a fault. Sleek chairs arranged around a modern pedestal table which no doubt cost an arm and a leg. No paintings or sculptures, just a lone movie poster. No photos. The only sign of life was crisp white sheets of paper filled with tables of data. When Sara looked up, she noticed a video projector mounted on the ceiling.
“Have you considered getting some art?” she asked.
“You don’t waste any time,” he said.
“It’s just a suggestion. A few paintings, a sculpture over there, would do wonders. If you want to stick with the whole modernist theme, there’s a sculptor named Kylo Chua who does these really amazing organic pieces. Very minimalist.”
“I’ve been meaning to decorate, I just keep putting it off.”
“I minored in art history,” Sara explained. But I’m trying to be an actress. Auditions aren’t easy to come by, I’ve discovered. Currently temping my way to the top.”
“How’s that working out?”
“I just came off a three-week job as an admin for an accountant at Fox. Before that I did two weeks in the contracts department at CBS. And before that I screened calls for a marketing director at Paramount for a few months. And now I’m-”
“At a film insurance company in Culver City.”
“Everybody’s been so nice,” she gushed. “And it’s still in the movie business, right? Don’t you guys insure, like, Zoe Saldana’s legs, Julia Roberts’ mouth, Jeffrey Tambor’s tits?”
“That’s Lloyds of London,” said Brad. “We do completion bonds. The producers pay us a premium to protect the financiers if the film goes over budget.”
“Uh, sounds interesting,” she responded, with a playful arch of her eyebrow.
“You really can act,” encouraged Brad. “Insurance isn’t the most glamorous part of the business, but it nevertheless plays a critical role. What no one remembers are the torrential rains that cause weeks of delays and a three-point-two million dollar payout from Fortress to complete the film. Sometimes it’s more complicated. Say a certain maverick director gets busted for cocaine possession flying into Heathrow or a producer goes MIA during a shoot. In rare cases like that, Fortress will take over the picture and replace some of the key people.”
“What if something really terrible happens?”
“In the worst cases, we have no choice but to shut down production. Those are the ones that keep me awake at night.”
“Better get back,” she said, checking her watch. She turned to leave, smiling at Brad in profile. She intended to walk away nice and slow, giving him plenty of time to watch. That was part of the fun of being a temp: she could salt the pot then move on by the time it reached a boil. But before she completed her turn, she stopped. Because she noticed several flecks of red on Brad’s shoulders and shirt collar. Her eyes lingered, transfixed. Brad looked up from the sheets of data on his desk and smiled. She returned the smile and left his office.
When Sara arrived at work the next morning there was a note on her desk from Brad. She set her purse on the chair and walked over to the copy room and made herself a latte. She arrived at Brad’s office with coffee in hand. “What’s up?”
He appeared the same as yesterday, white shirt, tan skin, radiant smile, blue eyes. “I recently lost my admin.”
“Have you checked under the cushions?”
“That’s the advantage of the Kristalia chairs,” he said, slapping a seat back. “No cushions.” He paused. “I was hoping you could help with my business affairs, as well as Todd’s, until a suitable replacement is found.”
“I guess that wouldn’t be a problem. Will you have many affairs for me to manage?”
“Not too many,” he said with a wink. “I try to keep the chaos to a minimum.”
“What does an actuary do again? I should know that.”
“The official answer is measure and manage risk and uncertainty. Basically, I make predictions. For example, that a three-week location shoot on the island of Phuket in the Indian Ocean has a 1 in 1,548 probability of being wiped out by a tsunami.”
“Oh,” Sara’s face fell,. “Sounds like a lot of math. I’ll get my planner,” she said, turning to go. But before reaching the door she noticed an accumulation of red spots on the back of Brad’s shirt collar. When he looked up, she quickly turned away, narrowly missing the wall.
Later that day, while passing Brad’s office on the way to the conference room, Sara did a double-take when she looked in and saw him talking to superstar actor Tony Billings and acclaimed director Jack Dante.
Brad called to her. "Sara, I’d like to introduce you.”
She turned around slowly, eyes wide. Her face felt hot. Tony eyed Sara lasciviously over aviator sunglasses, rolling a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. Sara stood at Brad’s side, watching the two talents disappear into the elevator.
“What were they doing here?” she asked, a bit starry-eyed.
“They were paying a visit to reassure me there won’t be any problems during production. Come on inside. I want to show you something.”
Brad picked up the remote and clicking his projector’s play button. On the wall screen was a video recording of the meeting that had just taken place in his office.
“What are you looking for?” Sara asked.
“The usual things: nervous tapping, scratching, sweating, sniffing, needle marks, bloodshot eyes.”
On the screen, Brad compliments Tony on his sunglasses and asked to try them on. Tony reluctantly hands them over. “Do you see it?” Brad asked Sara. “In his eyes? The white light? Freebase cocaine. And Jack Dante is a known heroin addict, going on 30 years.”
“So you’re not going to insure them,” she surmised.
“It’s not that simple. We have a very delicate relationship with Palomar, the parent company. There are many competitors lying in wait for an opportunity like this. It’s a gamble. But the smart play is to move forward, come what may.”
“What if they OD or something?” Sara asked.
“They’ve made it this long, so they’ll probably make it another six months. With this picture it’s not the drugs I’m concerned about. Those are manageable risks. This is Hollywood. A certain amount of eccentricity must be tolerated. It’s the cost of doing business. The trick is to make sure I’ve covered my bets. I’ve got to have that sixth sense.” Brad tapped his finger against his temple.
When she turned back to ask if he wanted his door open or closed, he was facing away from her and she noticed not just large spots of blood on his shirt but also a missing clump of hair at the base of his skull. She left.
Later, Sara headed for the file room. As she passed Brad’s office, she looked in and saw a man thrashing around on the floor in the throes of a violent seizure. She watched, unable to move. When she recognized the contorted face as Brad’s, she dropped the documents and rushed to help him. But before she reached Brad, two men dressed in white were standing over him and closed the door.
The next day, Sara entered Brad’s office carrying a cup of piping hot coffee. Brad’s radiant smile and sparkling appearance were almost blinding. “Do you know the secret to attraction?” he asked her.
“Pheromones,” she said. Then added with a laugh, “Money.”
“Salt,” he said. “When you boil us down, that’s all we are. It’s what binds us together. Are you familiar with the myth about the king who trades in all the wine in the land for one drop of his long lost lover’s sweat? A film pitch I heard once. At a dinner party. In the bathroom. Didn’t pan out.”
“See, you are a player,” she responded.
“People think that if you touch the money then you can get a movie made.”
Brad smiled, and she tried to smile back. A moment passed during which neither of them spoke. “Are you, like, okay and everything?” Sara asked.
“Fit as a fiddle. Why do you ask?”
"The other day, I was walking by your office. I saw. You were having some kind of…"
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said, cutting her off. “Happens every now and then. They know what to do.”
“Isn’t there some kind of medication?”
“I stopped taking it a long time ago.”
“It didn’t work?”
“It worked too well. It cut down on the episodes, but it also cut down on the visions that tell me when something bad is going to happen.”
“And yesterday, you had a vision about Tony Billings and Jack Dante’s movie and what would happen if Fortress insures it?”
He nodded. “I saw a river of black, fire and screaming.”
“That doesn’t scare you?”
“It does but I have no other choice, under the circumstances.”
“I’ve been seeing some visions, too,” Sara confessed. “Ever since I started working here.”
“It happens to certain people when they’re around me for any length of time.”
He stepped toward her, and she could see a blood vessel raise up, red and pulsing, inside the white of his eye. “I have to go make some copies,” Sara said, backing away. She turned and went out the door.
Later that morning, Brad found Sara sitting at her desk with her head in her hands. Crying. “I’m just having a moment,” she said, straightening up and wiping the tears from her eyes.
He observed water spots on the fresh sheets of data. “Sara, you’re smudging the numbers.” As another tear traveled down her cheek, he wiped it away and licked it off his finger. “Salt,” he noted.
She looked down. By the time she looked up, he had already begun to fade, the features of his face melting into a vague white blur until he wasn’t there anymore even though she still could hear his voice like the sound of a distant radio. His words were strange and foreign like nothing she’d ever heard.
That afternoon, Sara entered Brad’s office after a light courtesy knock. Then she saw it: Brad’s empty skin lying on the floor like a discarded raincoat, his perfect hair strewn about in clumps, white teeth scattered like buckshot. She followed a trail of slime behind his desk where she found him curled into a ball, wrapped in immaculate skin as pink and tender as a newborn’s. She knelt down beside him and cradled his bald head. Then she saw the blood on her fingers.
“You really need some floor pillows. Or comfortable bean bag chairs,” she said. She sat up and shook out her hair. Brad sat up beside her. “I better go make those copies,” she said, rising to her feet.
He got up as well and walked to the desk, picking up a slender remote control. “Are you ready for your screen test?” he asked.
“I thought you weren’t a producer. But I bet you could get someone like me a part, if you really wanted to. My dream was to move to Hollywood and bEcome an actress. What if it’s the wrong one?”
“In every dream there’s something terrifying, even the good ones. What’s nice about L.A. is that the sunshine chases them away,” Brad said. “At least for a while. I’m not promising anything. Stand right there.”
Sara struck a pose in front of the projector’s white screen. “Do I get a script?” she asked. “Or at least a scene?.”
“That’s it,” Brad said, clapping his hands together. “All done.”
“I didn’t do anything,” she said annoyed.
He lowered the lights, and the ceiling projector turned on. Sara stepped out of the beam and turned to look at the image of a life-size x-ray of a woman, her skeletal structure displayed in radiant white against a black background.
“You really light up the screen,” complimented Brad, stepping in for a closer examination. “This is good. No pins, screws, staples, plates. I don’t even see any fillings. That’s important. Critical really. I have a very sensitive instrument. This whole office is a faraday cage,” he added, expanding his arms, “to protect against electrostatic and electromagnetic influences. This is my sanctuary. It’s the only place I can think.”
As Brad turned into the projector light, Sara observed that where entire clumps of hair were missing on the back of his head exposed a scarred and bleeding scalp with a patina of steel beneath it.
“So Brad is a robot,” Sara mouthed to herself.
She hadn’t even realized she was backing up until her elbow hit the light switch, instantly restoring the office’s stark optics and Brad’s previous immaculate state —tan skin, blue eyes, white teeth behind the familiar brilliant smile.
The next day, Sara arrived at the office early. She checked her face in the mirror of her compact, touched up a few spots, and made for Brad’s office. When she walked in, she saw Brad standing deep in thought. “I need eyes on the movie set. So I pulled some strings and arranged to get you a small part.” Brad handed her a script titled Tierra del Fuego. “It’s Wet Nurse #2. She has a fair amount of screen time but no dialog. At least not yet. But I have to warn you. Something bad will happen.”
Sara reaction was a mix of elation and disbelief. But when she turned the pages of the script they were all blank, just a fan of empty white paper.
“Was it written in white out?” she asked.
“It’s still in development,” answered Brad. “The offshore money demanded a script, so the producer sent the financiers this. I don’t think they understood the humor. When you’re on the set, I need you to tell me everything.”
“I think I need to think about it,” Sara said.
“You said I should invest in some art work. I have a surprise for you.”
He handed her a blindfold. She put it on. Everything went black.
“You can take off the blindfold,” he said.
She removed the blindfold and found herself standing in a white void.
“Where are we?” Sara asked.
“This is where the movie ends,” Brad said.
As her eyes adjusted, Sara realized they were standing on a vast salt flat that spanned to the horizon. A helicopter rested nearby, blades still spinning.
“Surprise,” said Brad, drawing her attention to a low curving form with two peaks covered by a red cloth which he ripped away, revealing a pair of human-sized salt crystal formations, the remnants of some dead sea. From the direction of the helicopter, a man dressed in black approached with a chain saw.
“Never look back,” instructed Brad.
Her eyes met his, then traveled to the salt formations.
“They’re beautiful,” she said. The wind was blowing and she brushed the hair out of her eyes. “You can put me in your picture.”
“I think we have a deal,” Brad said, flashing his trademark brilliant smile. He waved his hand and the man with the chainsaw stopped in his tracks.
Sara leaned toward the salt crystals and let the tip of her tongue caress the white surface.
“What do they taste like?” Brad asked.
“They taste like…” Sara’s eyes zeroed in on his. “Us.”