The Assistant

by Michelle Blair Wilker

A big-time film producer hires an assistant and experiences unintended consequences. 2,765 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.


Frank’s throat burned. It was scratchy and the taste of acid crept up to his teeth. He swallowed hard and gulped down a lukewarm Red Bull. His stomach churned and tiny beads of sweat trickled down his forehead. He wiped them away violently and turned on the ignition of his trusty blue Honda.

The car started easily with a quiet hum.

“Get it together, Frank,” he said to himself.

He wasn’t going to let a little stomach ulcer ruin this opportunity. After working for two wretched years for Marty Greenberg, he was finally going to pitch him a movie. His movie. Granted it was going to be while Frank drove Marty to LAX, but at least he was finally getting a shot. Frank opened a plastic bottle of Tums and crunched down on two Assorted Fruit chalky pieces. He glanced in the rearview mirror and combed his left hand through his sweaty black hair.

It was L.A.’s version of winter, so Frank turned up the passenger seat heater to a medium three and double-checked that Marty’s soy latte was still warm. Actually It was pretty hot, so he blew on it a bit. Out of the window he could see Marty rushing towards the car, taking two steps at a time.

Marty had his silver cell phone earpiece fastened snug and he was talking loudly. Frank could vaguely hear Marty’s muffled rambling through the purr of the engine. Marty would take a few steps and then stop and make exaggerated large gestures with both hands. Marty dressed more like a Starbucks barista then a 60-year-old film mogul. He wore crisp Rag & Bone jeans, black Air Jordan’s, and a navy hoodie. His white curly hair was slicked back taut, and he wore small wire spectacles on the tip of his bony nose.

Frank didn’t get why the cheap bastard didn’t just order a car service. Marty would surely complain about Old Blue.

Marty opened the door, almost pulling it from its hinges. He then sat down abruptly while still conversing. He didn’t even look at Frank. He put on his seat belt and continued to yammer. His voice was high pitched and whiney.

“Freddy, don’t take the 405, it will be a nightmare. Take La Cienega,” Greenberg ordered in a curt rasp. He held his index finger up like a mini stop sign and then continued on with his conversation.

Frank,” Frank muttered.

Frank sat in silence and began to go through the pitch in his head yet again. It needed to be perfect. He had the manuscript in the back seat, and he had carefully written notes to himself on 3×5 index cards. He had spent weeks memorizing each line, reciting every word slowly and methodically in the bathroom mirror.

FADE IN.
EXT: CAFÉ PLA BARCELONA- NIGHT (GOTHIC DISTRICT)
We hear the clanking of glasses and the bustle of the popular tapas restaurant. Twinkle lights and candles dot the landscape. It’s noisy and waiters rush about speaking Spanish.
CUT TO:
The bar. The camera slowly pans to reveal a young woman Jessica (Thirty). Her back is to us. She is wearing a long white sequined evening gown and drinking a whisky sour. She is very pretty, but as the camera gets closer we can see dirt smudges across her cheeks and a pool of dried blood at the bottom of the dress. Her fingernails are crusted and filthy. She signals the bartender.

‘Camarero, uno mas.’

CUT TO:
Museu Picasso. Doors ajar, broken glass, ripped paintings, and three dead bodies sprawled across the entrance.

Frank stared at his reflection in the rearview window. The pitch was good. He got goosebumps just thinking about the plot. It was clever and it was mysterious. A definite win-win. He was ready for Marty. He better be because his girlfriend was so sick of hearing the script that he worried she might break up with him until it sold.

Before working for Marty, Frank had a great life: hanging out with a ton of buddies, reading a novel a week (mostly David Baldacci), and playing in a beach volleyball league in Hermosa. He couldn’t believe that he had lasted this long slaving for such a miserable son of a bitch. But Marty was powerful and connected to all the right people. Plus, he had a five-year development deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Marty had just finished post on three films all set for release in 2016. George Clooney, Emma Stone, and Bradley Cooper were attached as talent. Frank just needed to bide his time a little longer and then he wouldn’t have to deal with Marty’s OCD bullshit and constant abuse. For crissakes, he was a Harvard graduate. Summa Cum Laude. Frank was only 25 but he knew that he was infinitely smarter then this Hollywood prick.

“Francis, what the fuck are you doing? Are you trying to kill me? Pay attention to the road. Are you sure this latte is soy? Tastes like dairy to me. You can’t even manage to get a decent cup of coffee.” Greenberg shook his head in disgust but took a baby sip. He gripped the cup with both hands curled and interlaced like twisted knotty branches.

“Marty, it’s soy. I watched her make it myself,” Frank said.

They had this conversation every morning. Greenberg always accused Frank of tampering with his coffee order. He wanted to and thought about it every damn day, but refrained.

“Did you Google us today? What number are we at?” Marty took another tiny sip and then screwed up his face so he looked like a wrinkled raisin.

“Three,” Frank replied.

“Three? Are you shitting me, Freddy? You need to call Google and fix this. There is no reason that Ethology Entertainment should be anything less then number one in market share. I expect you to fix this by the time I get back from New York.” Marty reached into his leather satchel and took out an iPad. He began to check his email by tapping the screen angrily.

Frank blew out a long labored breath and counted to 10. He needed to calm down. Sometimes he hated Marty so much that he wanted to punch him square in the teeth. The image of the old guy shocked and bloody made Frank smile. He used to stay up late at night thinking of small ways to get even. Breaking all Marty’s pencil tips, lowering his office chair from the perfect setting, wiping mayonnaise onto his dry sandwiches, keying his brand new seven series BMW. Too bad Marty’s ex wife beat him to the punch on that. Frank couldn’t believe that his Ivy League education had led him to a mind-numbing existence of picking up dry cleaning, making dinner reservations at Craig’s, and running errands for Marty’s monthly blonde bimbo. Frank should have been paid extra for this, but usually he got paid only in added abuse. Last month he got a full cup of coffee thrown at his head by Marty, whose office wall still had the large brown stain on it in the shape of a Rorschach inkblot. Wide and free like a Monarch butterfly.

For Marty, Frank had to shop for tampons and condoms when needed, ring hotels before check-in to have the room aura cleansed, and babysit bratty grandchildren. Thanksgiving two years ago, Frank had just started working for Marty. Frank was thrilled the kid couldn’t afford to buy a ticket home. So Marty asked Frank to come to dinner. Frank went to House of Pies and bought a chocolate silk and pecan, his mom’s favorites. But Frank was put to work unloading party furniture and setting the table. At feasttime he was relegated to the kitchen to eat his meal with Maria the housekeeper.

“Francis, are you even listening to me? Sometimes I feel like I talk to myself. You are so fucking incompetent. Jesus, where did you get this hunk of junk?" Marty asked about the archaic Honda.

“Yes, Marty. I’m listening,” Frank lied as he readjusted his grip on the steering wheel. His hands were sweaty and sticking to the leather. Frank sniffed the recycled air. He probably stank too.

“I need you to go to Chanel and get Tiffany’s sunglasses fixed. Also, the goddamn neighbor keeps parking that yellow Mustang in front of my house. Please install that  ‘No Parking’ sign that we talked about. I don’t want to have to stare at that piece of shit any longer.”

Marty wasn’t always a first-class asshole. In fact he had been a pretty sweet kid from Brooklyn. He was picked on quite a bit in high school. Back then he was short, scrawny like a string bean, and into Alan Ginsberg and Beat culture. He dressed in all black and topped his curly red hair with a beret. He went to poetry readings and worshipped Jack Kerouac. On a weekly basis the football team kicked Marty’s ass for being a “freak.” He took it silently, vowing that one day they would be sorry. He worked his butt off and got a scholarship to NYU and then made his way out West and into the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. He was self-made.

Marty rolled down the window and dumped out the remainder of the latte. He looked at Frank and smirked. He then threw the coffee cup on the floor and stepped on it. Coffee remnants seeped out and began to leak onto Frank’s freshly shampooed car rug. Marty began to make another noisy phone call.

“Hi, baby, on the way to LAX. Freddy is taking me. He promised he would take care of the sunglasses,” Greenberg cooed.

Frank accelerated. His stomach continued to rumble and his mouth was dry like it was full of tiny sand particles. He thought he might vomit, but he swallowed the grains down and gulped more liquid. There was no way he was going to let Marty’s typical foul mood intimidate or deter him from his pitch today. Frank waited patiently as Marty continued to spew sentiments to his latest model/actress/whatever. Marty used the same lines over and over. Frank had heard them a million times.

“Baby, I’ll call you when I land. I gotta go. Kisses.”

Frank cleared his throat.

“Are you fucking sick, Francis? You better not breathe your nasty germs on me.” Greenberg covered his mouth and scooted closer to the door. He crossed his legs tightly and pressed his nose up against the window.

“No, Marty, I am not sick.” Frank said. Then he started. “I wanted to talk to you about my screenplay. Remember you promised that you would let me pitch to you on the way to the airport? I’m really excited to get your thoughts. I have worked really hard and think it will make a terrific film.”

“What? Your screenplay?” Marty raised his eyebrows but didn’t look up, continuing to read the trades on his iPad.

“Yeah, it’s a cross between Lost in Translation and Delicatessen. I really think it’s something that The Weinstein Company would pick up.”

Frank felt good. He had won third prize at the Ivy Film Festival, and he was accepted to attend USC graduate school of film next fall. He knew he had the talent. He just needed Marty to listen and take him seriously.

Marty looked up and glared. He pursed his dry lips and took off his glasses. He squished his eyes shut making them into tiny slits and then sighed.

“Listen, Freddy. I am sure your shit art-house idea is worth it to some other crappy producer. But I’m the big leagues and I don’t have time for amateur hour,” Marty sneered, then put his glasses back on. “Fucking kids,” he muttered under his breath but loud enough for Frank’s benefit.

Frank re-focused his gaze on the road ahead and fell silent.

He was gripping the steering wheel so tight now that his knuckles turned a creamy shade of pale. His face was bright mauve. The knots in his stomach tightened up so much that they were trying to squash all his organs flat. His mind was racing, and the cars whizzing by seemed to move in slow motion. He really only saw colors and shapes in a rainbow of blurs. It was like he was swimming underwater, tumbling and sinking.

Frank looked from side to side trying to regain his composure.. He must have made a wrong turn because suddenly he didn’t recognize the neighborhood where they were. Looked like Jefferson, far far east of Rodeo. Rundown apartments lined the street where two homeless guys wearing at least seven layers of shirts and vests rummaged around in a large green dumpster. They looked like puffy Michelin Men.

Frank pulled the car over, put it in park, and turned off the ignition. He rested his head lightly on the steering wheel. It was wet from all his sweat.

“Francis, Francis!!! What the fuck are you doing? I’m going to miss my flight,” Marty yelled at him.

Greenberg was pink and spitting, but Frank couldn’t see or hear him.  Frank was laughing out loud. He couldn’t help it. He fingered the long silver door handle, locking it with a loud snap, and continued to laugh, throwing his head back and clutching his stomach. His abs ached like he had done 1,000 sit-ups, but he didn’t care.

“Freddy, I am not fucking around. Turn the goddamn car back on and get me to LAX this instant!”

Marty’s right fist was clenched tight. He had inched himself to the far edge of his seat and his left hand was wrapped around the door handle.

Frank opened the driver’s side and slowly got out. He left the door ajar and strode to Greenberg’s side. Marty was still yelling and waving his hands around. Frank stood gazing at the pathetic hooded man. Greenberg’s eyes were deep set and blinking like a startled owl. He stopped talking as soon as Frank got to the door. Frank was pretty imposing when he stood up straight. He was fairly tall at 6’2” and dwarfed Marty who was only 5’6”. Frank swung open the backseat door and grabbed Marty’s brown leather satchel and heaved it onto the sidewalk. It skidded and hit the parking meter in front of them. Frank heard the iPad shatter with a loud spiraling jingle.

Frank leaned in gritting his teeth. “Get the FUCK out of my car,” he ordered Marty.

Marty’s mouth gaped open as he clutched his cell to his chest.

“What? What?”

“You heard me. Get the fuck out.”

Frank leaned back to make room for Marty to exit. Frank was resting his forearm casually on the open door. Marty cautiously dipped one toe out, and then the other. He didn’t take his eyes off Frank as Marty hopped onto the sidewalk like a crazed bunny and then shuffled a few paces backwards. Frank slammed the door. The car wobbled back and forth and shook like it was a Hot Wheels matchbox.

“Hand me your cell,” Frank said.

“Huh? Please, no!”

Frank stuck his hand out and glared into Marty’s brown eyes. Marty plopped the phone into Frank’s palm. Frank then pulled his right arm back and hurled the iPhone as hard as he could. It landed far away but close to the two homeless snowmen digging through garbage.

“Wallet.” Frank said next.

“Wha…? Francis, really?” Marty plucked out the crocodile skin Gucci and handed it over.

“I need it for Tiffany’s sunglasses, remember?”

Frank walked back around to the driver’s side; he didn’t take his eyes off Marty as he made his way. Frank then sat back down behind the wheel and clicked on his seat belt.

“Frank, wait! Wait! I think there has been some kind of misunderstanding…” He heard Marty trail off. Frank slammed the driver’s door shut. “Wait, Frank!!!

Marty took one step forward but then froze when Frank put the car in drive and started to peel away from the curb. He watched Marty in the rearview mirror looking dumbfounded, like a lost dog. Frank almost felt sorry for him.

Well, almost. Frank rolled down the window and breathed in the fresh air. It smelled like gasoline, but that was fine. He noticed that his stomach didn’t ache any more. He smiled broadly. He pressed down firmly on the gas pedal and felt the car lurch forward. The image of Marty on the curb got smaller and smaller and then turned into a tiny dot. At least this time Marty got Frank’s name right.

About The Author:
Michelle Blair Wilker
Michelle Blair Wilker is a producer, writer and blogger whose TV credits include: Stand Up To Cancer, The Grammys, and Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies. She was recently published on The Huffington Post, a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2012 contest for new writers, and shortlisted for The Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. She is compiling a collection of short stories.

About Michelle Blair Wilker

Michelle Blair Wilker is a producer, writer and blogger whose TV credits include: Stand Up To Cancer, The Grammys, and Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies. She was recently published on The Huffington Post, a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2012 contest for new writers, and shortlisted for The Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. She is compiling a collection of short stories.

  18 comments on “The Assistant

  1. I enjoyed this story! I’m sold and will be coming back for more stories…thank you Michelle Blair Wilker and Nikki Finke! Oh, and Quendrith’s comment is spot-on. :)

    1. Thanks for that, Frances. What Nikki did was create a community of creatives — it wasn’t specifically the snark or the news she covered — it was her POV. She could have been writing about anything, news, non-news, or now a literary patina on an industry that looks down on its writers historically. That’s why she’s not just back, she’s Hollywood back, and her audience has followed — literally, it’s the one place where writers matter in LA.

  2. I have read and reread and reread most of the fiction on Nikki’s site. Not skimmed— READ and enjoyed! Nikki, your new endeavor is just the balls. A heartfelt thank you from a longtime fan.

  3. Could use some editing/tightening more (most of these reads do). Guess Frank’s out of a job now, but his newly paroled bowels will thank him in the morning. Overall, nicely done. Good job.

  4. Nikki: "Loving what I do now" is great to hear. There will be hits and a few (I suspect very few) misses, but you’re back on a roll. I’ve read everything and I’ve sent money and love what you’re doing, too.

  5. Please Nikki, come to your senses and be yourself again. It is painful to come to this site and read this poorly written, sub-amateurish pieces that embarrass you and all of those who’ve been following you over the years as the only source of real info about the business. This is not you. A group of folks who believe that having something to do with the entertainment business qualifies them to write prose or fiction (which clearly is not the case) parade here posing as "writers" and making it painfully obvious they’re not. These "stories" are pointless, boring and so badly written it makes one blush at the lack of self-conciousness of these wanna be "writers". Meantime, the real "stories" only you could cover are left buried and we get the bullshit from the [edited out: NF] masquerading as "coverage" and "analysis". It makes me very sad to see you’ve lost your way. I understand there might be legal issues and pressures, and that you’ve tried to find a way to do your thing, but this is not it. Please come back, Nikki, we need you. As for lousy, un-readable showbiz types that think they can write, the industry is already filled with them and we hardly need more outlets for them to exhibit how ridiculous it is to see somebody lacking in talent and skills posing as an "author". I say this as somebody who admires and respects you and the work you’ve done as an independent journalist over the years. Thanks for listening. I, and I’m sure thousands like me, still have hope the real Nikki will stand up and these no-talents will resort to get their "work" read and praised by friends and relatives.

    1. This is Nikki Finke. Let me reply: Yours is only the second comment dissing any of these stories. Clearly, you wouldn’t know a good story if it fell on you. As for your opinion that I should go back to Hollywood journalism, I agreed not to compete. As I recently said in my Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), it was my decision to do this, not some enforceable or non-enforceable contract provision or California law. I take full responsibility for my decision to leave Hollywood journalism as of August 2014. And, while it made headlines, I have zero regrets. I accomplished everything I ever wanted in journalism thanks to a long and satisfying career as a national newswoman, foreign correspondent, Washington DC correspondent, and Hollywood columnist, not to mention starting an entertainment news and opinion website from nothing and building it into an internationally known franchise that’s still thriving without me. Plus, I became financially rich in the process. I am one happy camper and loving what I do now.

      1. OMG. This is so cool. Nikki, you’re wonderful. I don’t know why, but when I read this comment I couldn’t stop laughing. I love that you went back at this person. And this site is great. It’s unusual. These stories are so rare. Once in a while you’ll see something like Maps to the Stars, which seemed like an anomaly, until I got on this site. Way cool.

      2. Dear Nikki, if I may, thanks for your reply. I must apologize if I gave you the impression I was disputing any of your professional or personal achievements. Quite the contrary. Also, for you to return to entertainment journalism was a wish of mine, not something I am entitled to. It is not my place, or anybody’s, to tell you what you should do, no matter how much I’d personally like to see you doing what you did before. Of course you don’t need to justify or explain your decision to leave your previous career to anybody, least of all to me. I am also very happy to know you are financially secure and to hear that you feel happy and content with your new endeavor. I am guilty of wishful thinking and of trying to persuade you to return to a line of work that you clearly have no interest in anymore. I did that for purely selfish reasons. The only thing in which I may, respectfully, disagree, is in your evaluation of my knowledge about writing and storytelling. But that’s another story. Unfortunately, while all the points you make are hard to argue with, the question of the quality of the "fiction" featured here is entirely another matter. This is "prose" written by amateurs, by folks who at most read screenplays and/or write them and I guess that is OK, if that is what you want to do, maintain a website where amateurs and friends post stories they write for fun. If as you say everybody loves it, then I will say no more, and apologize again if I offended you with my comments. I wish you all the luck, prosperity, happiness and peace of mind in this new venture. I won’t be visiting back again, because I just think there’s nothing of interest in this material, but I remain respectfully grateful to you for all the years of courageous journalism you provided us with. Be well.

        1. Hey Richard, it’s your old pal, Bill Scheft. You seem to have a lot of time on your hands. Why don’t you look up any one of my four published novels, and then look up the word "amateur."

    2. What ‘richard’ has missed here is a lot: 1) Nikki completely breaks new ground here jus as she changed the Hwood news coverage game; 2) If Hwood journalism isn’t dead, it’s definitely twitching without her brand of clear-cutting to the issues; 3) It’s all changing in the collision of Digital^Entertainment – if you look at the moment we’re in, NF is acknowledging the flux, and giving the nod to original content, which is the only thing of value and overrides journo coverage which is temporal, whereas fiction is lasting. Whatever your value judgments on the individual stories, the point is, here’s someone with the guts to put it into play & reply to your comments, and stake the venture financially… think about that for a moment, to throw all your credibility on the line for your audience, and pay for it… just saying that what you’re reading is the future, ps.

    3. I’m always nervous when a "writer" puts "too" many "things" in "quotes." I’ve found these stories entertaining and quite professional and look forward to seeing more. Nikki Finke is doing a great job. Love this site, keep up the good work.

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