The Hollywood agent learns that every offer comes with consequences. 1,813 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Cliff crossed Mulholland and drove into the Valley, through Sherman Oaks, past Studio City. As he passed through the cemetery gates, he saw the beautiful lawn and how expertly it had been maintained. The network of streets was challenging, but the Hollywood agency chief had a map with him. Five minutes later, he was kneeling and staring at a stone that read: EDWARD A. GEHR 1931 – 1987, Beloved Husband and Father.
Cliff knew he should cry, but what he felt instead was an absence. The absence of a father who had always been on the road selling insurance. And the absence of a boy who had covered up his hurt and come to understand that a father isn’t always there. But had it really been necessary for Cliff to skip his Dad’s funeral to exact revenge?
The tenpercenter leaned over and touched the headstone. “I’m sorry, Dad. I shouldn’t have missed your funeral. I should have” – and here Cliff choked for a second – “loved you more. I miss you. Dad.”
Cliff pulled back his hand and let the lump in his throat dissipate. How long had he promised himself he would do this? Well, now it was done and who was to say that be wouldn’t do it again in another month?
The final leg of his trip took him west and deeper into the Valley. As Cliff pulled into the Reseda Mall, he felt a sense of purpose that had eluded him on his other trips there. Getting out of his car, he spotted a heavy-set father and two boys getting out of the family’s KIA. Cliff walked over to the man and said, “Sir, I’d like to offer you something special today.”
Suspicion shaded the stranger’s face.
“Just take this when you go shopping.” Cliff handed him a one hundred dollar bill. The man looked at it, then at Cliff, and then broke out in a laugh. He hugged Cliff and headed into Toys”R”Us with his two sons.
That set the pattern for the afternoon. Cliff spent a full hour going quietly from family to family and offering them a hundred dollars. Some were shocked, others overjoyed. It was the expressions on their faces that was the payoff for C;iff.
Late in the day he handed the money to a Hispanic woman who was carrying a baby while trying to supervise three noisy children. She reacted with shock when Cliff gave her a hundred dollar bill.
“What is this?” she asked as a small boy with a large smile that was missing one tooth tugged at her skirt.
“This is for you to take your family shopping today,” replied Cliff. “Buy whatever you need. Something special for yourself, perhaps.”
The mother offered Cliff a slow smile “Gracias,” she saidnand slipped the money into her purse.
As Cliff walked back to his car, he heard someone calling after him.
“Mistah! Mistah!” It was the small boy missing the tooth, running towards Cliff. The child placed a brown cloth scapular, the kind most Catholics wear, in Cliff’s hand. There was a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Blessed Virgin, on the scapular. “Mama says this is for you.”.
“Thank you,” said Cliff, taking the scapular and giving the boy a hug. Cliff kept moving towards his car, getting there just before the tears started. Then the tears quickly grew into sobs as Cliff laid his head on the steering wheel, all the while holding the simple cloth scapular. The little boy’s decency had shattered him, and so the sobs kept coming, like waves crashing against a wall.
As he drove to Brentwood, to Katherine, to the life he had always lived, Cliff sensed a strange stirring inside him. Like a child riding a two-wheeler for the first time. Joy.
Joy on such a level that, as he pulled into the driveway, Cliff honked the horn the way he used to when he and Katherine were first married. In turn, she opened the door just the way she had years ago.
“How are you, dear?” he asked as he got out of the car.
“How the fuck do you think I am?” she snarled back, hurling a copy of Vanity Fair at him that clipped his left ear.
“What’s the matter?”
“Like you don’t know?” she screamed, aiming a copy of Town And Country at him that made a nasty gash in his forehead.
Cliff surmised that if Katherine still had the September issue of Vogue, he might have been a dead man. More ominously, he knew something had gone wrong.
Katherine strode down the driveway in a fury. “Where the hell have you been all afternoon?”
“I’ve been at work,” he said evenly.
“No you haven’t,” Katherine continued. “Because I called Ted and he told me you weren’t there. That he had no idea where you were.”
Cliff went cold with fear.
“I think you’ve been sneaking around with some little whore. Which is why I hired a private detective weeks ago. Which is why I know…” Before she could finish the sentence, Cliff jumped into his car and was gunning it back down the driveway. “And Ted told me the Japanese kept calling,” Katherine screamed after him. “And you weren’t there.”
Cliff stormed down the main aisle of his office, stopped at Ted’s desk and flung his briefcase at him. Ted ducked just in time.
“You’re fired, you moronic little asshole,” Cliff seethed. “Get out of this office right now!”
Ted put down the correspondence he’d been working on. There was a look of calm on his face that Cliff had never seen before.
“I don’t think so,” said Ted. “Follow me.”
He led Cliff to the conference room and ushered him in. Cliff’s actor client Carlo Carpetti was sitting on one side of the table. At the other end, the chair was turned with its back to Ted. Smoke rose toward the ceiling.
“What the hell is this?” demanded Cliff.
“The end of the picture,” giggled Ted.
“End credits and you’re out, bro,” echoed Carlo.
The chair rotated slowly to reveal Mr. A holding a cigarette.
“There’s no smoking in here!” shouted Cliff. “Somebody better tell me what the hell….”
Mr. A silenced Cliff by raising his hand. He dropped his cigarette into a water bottle he carried with him and rose to address his frustrated client. “There is no such thing as Doubles, Mr. Gehr. It would nice if there were. Having a robot to take our place and close the deals, eat the lunches and dinners, and sleep with the people we no longer desire would be a child’s wish come true. Who wouldn’t want that? There is however the Doubles Corporation. And that is what you are dealing with here. The Doubles Corporation offers a new way to live your life, creates a robot to help you believe that, and then banks your money. Yours has been in Hong Kong for over three weeks now.”
“This is extortion,” said Cliff. “I can send you to jail.”
“It’s actually a game, Cliff,” volunteered Carlo. “If you choose to play it, you can get your money back.”
“I just got my money back by conning you into this,” continued Carlo. “I fell for it six months ago after my divorce. When I realized it’s a scam, I was told that I could redeem my losses by finding someone else who wanted to join Doubles.”
“Mr. Carpetti gets his one million dollars back,” said Mr. A, “We make a nine million dollar profit, minus our production expenses. And everyone is happy.”
“So you just keep conning people, and when they realize it, they have to go and find someone to take their place?” asked Cliff.
“Yes,” replied Mr. A. “We like to think of it as a Ponzi scheme of the soul.”
Cliff turned to Ted. “And what about you? Are you part of this?”
“Oh no,” Ted replied. “I just played along because I hate your guts.”
“I came to him with the idea and he was all for it,” added Carlo. “Loyalty. You can’t beat it.”
Cliff paced angrily, then pointed his finger at Mr. A. “You only charged Carlo one million dollars. But you’ve taken me for ten million dollars.”
“Yes. And the next client will have to spend twenty million to join Doubles. That way you get your money back and we still make our nine million, minus expenses.”
“You’ve taken my dreams from me,” howled Cliff.
“We all have to grow up sometime,” counseled Mr. A.
“It wasn’t just the escape. It was the chance to do something better that attracted me. To redeem myself.”
“Well, first you have a debt to pay. And, let me remind you, Mr. Gehr, that when you underwent the procedure, we took a number of photos of you. And then photoshopped those into indiscrete photos. You will get them back and the negatives when you bring us a new client.”
Cliff paused. Then he turned to Ted. “Get me the Japanese.”
“Get them yourself,” said Ted. “I’m taking ten of your clients and starting my own agency.”
Cliff rushed into his office and dialed Sab Shimo’s private line. As the agency chief waited for the video game maker to answer, Cliff rummaged through his pockets for his cell phone. The first thing he pulled out was the brown cloth scapular which the little boy had given him at Reseda Mall. The rep looked at the scapular, sighed, and dropped it in the wastebasket. At that moment, Sab Shimo came on the line.
“Sab, it’s Cliff. Let me ask you something. Are you happy? I mean, really happy?”