from NER 41.2
Buy the issue in print or as an ebook
Coming out of the freeway tunnel in Santa Monica is a transformation. Dark, subway-tiled, no radio reception, then, instantly a burst of music, blue sky, white sand, and the glory of the ocean across Pacific Coast Highway. I feel like an ancient Greek coming out of the underworld. I am on my way to a Christian college in Malibu, a place I haven’t been to in over a year, since my banishment. Under the terms of my non-disclosure agreement I won’t mention the name. Like a lot of cults, they are extremely litigious.
What I mostly remember about the place, aside from the incredible views, green lawn sloping down to the ocean across PCH, was the incredible dissonance of the parking lots. The shaded student lot was nestled close to the heart of campus. We adjuncts called it the Opera Lot, because like opera, Italian and German prevailed. The names of most cast members ended in i—Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini. The Wagnerian section ran toward custom Mercedes, after-market Porsches, Beemers for the non-working poor. Then there were the Unicorns, cars I couldn’t name with doors that cantilevered out, pivoted, and swung skyward with the pneumatic grace of a debutante after twelve years of cotillion training.
The adjunct faculty lot was a mile downslope, with shuttle-service so irregular we all developed healthy Christian hiking habits, which may have been the point. We ran toward pallid and paunchy. Our sunbaked cars ran toward oxidized Civics, Sentras, and Corollas, most bearing parking stickers for two or three community colleges. Mine may have been the only American car, a Saturn as ragged as the rest. We were Freeway Flyers, the true name residing behind adjunct professor. The most tattered among us bore bumper stickers—Question Authority, Boycott Grapes—dating to the decade when we still cared.
I was heading to Malibu because one of my former students, Omar Saud Tayi, had won the annual campus screenwriting competition, the Veritas Lux Prize, $20,000 which he didn’t need, and a meeting with a William Morris agent, which no one needs.
Like every Saudi student I’d ever worked with, Omar claimed to be royal, but in his case it might have been true. He made sure he left no secular traces that might get him recalled to the homeland. He went by Omar, or Homer, “like Simpson” or, sometimes, “like Seempson,” he’d tell his Christian fellow- students, but his screenplay and social media pseudonym was Aladdin Ellay, as in A.Lad.in.LA.
I’d had Omar/Homer/Aladdin for an introductory screenwriting class and we’d hit it off. He couldn’t write a lick, but he could talk really well, which is sometimes enough for a career in my biz, and he brought really good wines for our after-class discussions
He started talking me up with his fellow students—probably the start of my downfall—calling attention to my IMDb credits and Writers Guild currency. This is almost always a mistake in academe, particularly when the head of the film program, also the Dean for the Arts—on sabbatical when I was hired—had mustered three credits on Christian television over thirty years before and then listed producer credits for twenty-nine years of student films on his CV. As we say in the trade—Christian filmmaking is to filmmaking as military music is to music.
When I was hired to teach, I was required to sign a statement attesting to my belief in God, in Jesus Christ his only son, and my regular attendance at church services, not required to be the Church of Christ, but strongly suggested. With my screenwriting background, minor league lies like these were as involuntary as breathing. I did list an ex-brother-in-law, who had bought a Universal Life Minister’s certificate, as my pastor.
Once Omar put the heat on me, even the Dean had no problem building a case. My ACLU membership (though lapsed for non-payment of dues) was a matter of public record, my Facebook friends skewed seriously Semitic, and my ex-brother-in-law, my pastor, denied me. I was declared a Secular Humanist.
My classes were cancelled, my former students were counseled, “at great expense,” I was told, in the letter that explained my potential liabilities should I be inclined to sue. Only Omar reached out and hired me, privately, to help with his screenplay. Months of hard work on someone’s part—a collaboration much like those I’d previously experienced with the executive wing—produced Omar’s award-winning screenplay, Bang!, a thriller with a threatened nuclear apocalypse and Middle Eastern ambience.
I’m approaching Malibu. The pier is to my left, Christmas lights wrapped around the pilings, but I enjoy only a millisecond glance. The stoplight has blinked orange, and with only a quarter mile to the intersection I have to start pumping the brakes. The problem has been explained to me many times. The brake pads are gone, the rotors are warped, and the master cylinder is going. I have my priorities. I paid for the new battery and starter. The important thing is to get to the meeting. You can figure out how to stop along the way, and once you are there, no one can see your car. That’s why, like a lot of writers, my phone is worth more than the car it rides in.
Each time I hit the brakes, the steering wheel kicks side to side and the pedal pulsates. I slow enough, with honking behind me, that the light is green when I reach it and I slide on through and ease over, a mile up the road by the campus entrance.
The long and winding road up to campus central is once again marked by the signs that confused the hell out of me the first time I saw them. Just after the entrance is the first, a long rectangular sign with block lettering: one way!, which makes no sense at all, as at that point the road is four lanes wide with grassy center medians, and cars and trucks are coming down in those opposite lanes. A partial explanation comes 400 yards later with the second sign: the only way! Another quarter mile and three staggered signs give the final explanation: one way! the only way, and then the payoff sign with gold-flecked highlights, jesus christ—our savior. The signage is provided by Christian Splendor, which is considered the cutting-edge evangelical club on campus. The signs appear and then vanish depending on administrative whim. Security and the relative sophisticates hate them, the more open-minded among the deans think it’s youthful missionary fervor and ask the question that is raised in all campus debate: What would Jesus do?
I park discreetly at the lot closest to the faculty dining wing of the student center. At the information desk, I wait to ask directions to the Veritas Lux awards banquet. Chiseled into the marble wall in front of me is the school’s affirmation statement. Number three on the list is the one they nailed me on: That the educational process may not, with impunity, be divorced from the divine process. As I said at the time, the school may believe in grace, but that does not extend to writing style. The clear-eyed young man who gives me my directions actually says, “Gosh. They’ve got you in the John the Baptist Room. This must be a big event for you.”
I don’t make it all the way to the Suite John B. In the hallway next to the kitchen’s swing doors is an angry knot of old white guys and Omar, arguing and blocking the way of the laden waiters and waitresses trying to move food.
I recognize my nemesis, Dean Wayne Harolde. Dean Wayne is flushed to a raspberry hue usually reserved for the cheeks of Hummel figurines.
Omar has his hands out in full supplication. “But he’s my guest,” Omar pleads, “I invited him!” Every time one of Omar’s hands moves, Dean Wayne flinches slightly. Then he spots me. He raises an arm and points at me, finger quivering like a compass needle settling on Vile North. “That man is not allowed on this campus!” Omar looks shocked, he clutches the sides of his head. “Dale Davis! You can’t come in here,” Dean Wayne quavers.
I wave to Omar, who looks like his hands are keeping his head from exploding, then to the Dean, and try the theological option, “Ummm . . . Hate the sin, forgive the sinner?”
Dean Wayne turns to his hench-boys. “Go get Security!” They back away and then jog off, one turning to smile at me with delight as they slip out the back door.
Dean Wayne glares, “Did you park in the visitors’ lot?”
I hold out my parking ticket, “Do you think I could get validated?” That turns the Dean theological: “We’re not going to validate you. We’re not going to validate you!”
Dean Wayne starts to back away, feeling behind him for the kitchen door. When the swinging door gives, he jabs a finger at me. “We’ll have you towed. We’ll have you towed!” He butts open the door and pivots to the kitchen. As the door swings back and then forth in diminishing arcs, there is a satisfactory crash from somewhere in the depths, glasses, dishes, maybe even crockery.
“Well,” I tell Omar, “that went about as well as can be expected. Can I borrow ten bucks for parking?”
Omar shifts gears in a way that makes me think there may be diplomats in his family. “So they wouldn’t let you come to the awards luncheon. So what? We’re going to lunch, Buddy. Just you and me.”
The networking conciliator in me wants him to cover his ass. “Don’t do it, Omar. This is your day, you should enjoy it. They’re going to say nice things about you. Don’t piss them off.”
“Don’t worry about it. I got it covered. I already got the check. Where do you want to go?”
Where do I want to go? It’s Malibu, there’s only one answer. “Malibu Seafood.”
“Cool,” Omar says. “Find a parking spot down by the nursery. Call me when you’re there, I’ll pick you up in ten.” Kindness on Omar’s part, he wants me parked in the shade. Also discretion, it’s far enough from campus he probably won’t be seen picking up a shabby old guy driving a car that does not signify. We’re outside now, and I spot a doughnut of security guards rolling toward the back door of the building. Guns are not drawn, but they are present. I head for the parking lot as Omar reaches for his wallet. “Kidding about the parking,” I say. “It was the perfect scene-ender.”
In ten minutes I make the call from Consentino’s Nursery. Ten minutes later I watch a gleaming red sculpture ascend the hill and glide to a stop like honey pooling. Omar is too cool for school. Omar is so cool he has removed the prancing horse insignias from his Ferrari—which confuses the shit out of most of Malibu. “I don’t want to be a cliché,” he explained.
The door swings wide, displaying tan leather so supple I must assume it comes from unborn calves. Behind me, I can feel my Saturn shrink. “Get in, Buddy,” Omar says. “It’s time to celebrate.”
“Omar, you shouldn’t have pissed off the Dean.” Distilled wisdom from my own experience. I try, at least.
“Don’t worry,” says Omar. “I will explain it all to you. Get in.”
I lower myself into the tan lap of luxury. The door closes with a precise click, the same sound, I imagine, as that of a bank vault in Zurich. Two seconds later, before I can find my seatbelt, Omar punches it. In three seconds we are past sixty miles an hour and I realize I don’t need a seatbelt. I am pressed back so hard in the seat I think of the giant octopus movie I once rewrote. Omar shifts to second and within ten seconds I’ve become the total cliché, old white guy in a red Ferrari, hitting a downhill 90 per, while scanning the sand and water ahead. The turistas we pass crane their heads to see what famous, fabulous creatures might be inside God’s red capsule. It raises a smile, and Omar, looking over, smiles as well and slaps my shoulder, “Your day too!”
He really is a nice kid. You usually have that double-edged thing with the really rich: They expect you to listen intently when they talk, they’ve been raised on that. But they’ve also learned that attention might be because of the money. Which makes them wary and you get watched carefully in those one- sided conversations. They are prepared for betrayal and ready to turn on a dime. Omar doesn’t have so much of that. He actually listens. And he’s genuinely funny. The whole “Buddy” thing is his invention, based on Iranian née Persian stereotypes from the ’90s. I’ve watched him deal with his Christian counterparts. The whole “Omar, like Homer, like Seempson” is another invention. Makes them comfortable, even though they have no idea who he is. Or that he can pronounce Simpson better than most English actors.
Corral Canyon Beach on our left, we ease up the steep driveway of Malibu Seafood. My legendary parking luck is in play. A turista van backs out of a parking slot, right in front of the building. Omar accepts this as his due, but my version is this: When I was born, I was asked, You wanna be the Messiah? And I said, What else you got? They said, Parking Luck? And I said, yeah, I’ll take that one. And it is true. I can arrive at the Vista Theater on Sunset, famous for its lack of parking, ten minutes before the special screening of Double Indemnity, and Barbara Stanwyck’s chauffeur will vacate my spot next to the theater.
Parking luck does not, however, also grant me parking lot grace. The Ferrari is so low that when I open my door and lean out to swing it wide, I am looking at pebbled asphalt eight inches from my nose. I trust that everyone is watching Omar emerge on the driver side and adjust his plumage, so I make my crablike slide, roll, gather, and stand. Like, What? I join Omar as we join the line. He lets me go first.
Malibu Seafood is the one egalitarian oasis in Malibu. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you want to spend, you start at the end of the line.
The sunburned tourist ahead of me, sporting an Arizona State Sun Devils’ hat, says, “Nice car.” He’s actually addressing Omar, but I take charge. “Thanks. It’s a rental. Me and the driver,” I chuck my head toward Omar, “are here to scatter my wife’s ashes. She always wanted to see Malibu.” I turn away on that conversation-ender and watch Omar assemble his insulted but still-hoping-for- a-tip chauffeur face.
The Sun Devil conveys the news to his family. The line stirs. I am regarded by four pink balloon animals, swollen by sun. In Arizona, I assume, they spend their days in shade and AC. They avert their eyes as I look down at my shoes. Behind me, I can hear Omar choking back laughter. “Fucking Dale,” escapes him.
The line is short, for a Friday. We’re at the door in ten, after refusing the Zonies’ offer to move ahead of them.
Inside, the refrigerated case displays row after row of shining, bright- eyed fish on chipped ice: blue-fleshed Ling Cod, Petrale Sole, Sand Dabs, Red Snapper. Glossy piles of shrimp, spot prawns, mounds of black mussels, oysters, and clams. The joint is owned by commercial fishermen and their bounty is impeccable. Not a whiff of fishiness.
I have a history here. It was a weekly treat when I was teaching at the Christian college. Long before that, when I was still in the meet market and business took me coastal to discuss a producer’s whims and projects, I’d insist on Malibu Seafood.
I once ran in to Jesse Gallo here, ten years after he starred in my failed directorial debut with Head-in-Bag. Jesse hadn’t become what I’d hoped, the next Warren Oates. Instead he’d become the next Jan-Michael Vincent, but he’d done well enough as the lead in money-laundering thrillers shot in eastern Europe and Dubai to afford a cottage on the land-locked side of Point Dume.
I’d waved at him across the patio, and he came over. The healthy tan at a distance was cracked sandpaper up close, and even dark glasses couldn’t hide the spinning pinwheels behind them. We exchanged the usual Long time no see, etc., but by the time he’d segued to Nice to see you again, I understood he had no idea who I was, or had once been. Maybe it was wear and tear on my end as well.
The last bit of business I’d done here was about a year later, when my last agent bought me lunch and fired me. Ben Sturgis was a genuinely good dude, an old-line lefty, once a member of the Lincoln Brigade, and I think it broke his heart to fire me, but he didn’t have a choice. His boutique agency had been swallowed whole by CAA. Over day-boat scallops and fries, which Ben wouldn’t eat, he lowered the blade. The bottom line, Ben said, was that either I went, or we both did. At seventy-three, with three wives’ worth of alimony and four kids in college, he had no choice.
I absorbed the news, and about half of Ben’s fries. After Ben left in tears, I actually took his scallops home, which shows how distracted I was. The next day I sold the Mercedes and bought the Saturn, new.
We’ve reached the counter and Jeff, one of the owners, remembers me. “Good timing, Dale. Tom was in this morning.” Tom is Tom Moore, a locally famous diver in his eighties who specializes in Pacific lobster. According to local legend, he once bit a shark that had bothered him. I look in the live case, a half- dozen of the spiny beauties are piled up in the corner. Pacific lobster, cooked the day they are caught, is Food of the Gods.
“Grande or Chico?” Jeff asks.
“Chico and fries,” I tell Jeff, “and a bowl of chowder.” Omar is lobstered out this week. Visiting relatives have taken him repeatedly to Providence, Jonathan Gold’s top-ranked restaurant three years running. He wants fish tacos, with a twist. “Do you have any grouper today?”
“White sea bass,” Jeff says, “but only filets, in the market.” Omar buys a three-pound filet, donates two pounds of it to Jeff, happy to spend about twenty bucks each for four fish tacos. Omar flashes cash, Jeff hands us our buzzer, and Omar makes me accompany him to the Ferrari. He pops the trunk, in front on this mid-engined beast, and reveals the ultimate party car. Nearly filling the sloping space is a custom refrigerator, picnic hamper with accoutrements, and wine cellar. Omar gathers ice, two Riedell crystal wine glasses, and a leather- covered ice bucket, which looks like the same tan leather as the upholstery but embossed with the only remaining prancing horse on the car. He opens the wine cellar, which requires a key, selects two bottles, and plunges them into the ice.
We sit down at our prime, shaded cement table, just vacated by a Latino family, who seemed to have been waiting for us. Either my parking luck again or a surreptitious tip from Omar.
Omar twirls one of the bottles in the ice water, lifts it, cuts the foil with the folding blade of what seems to be a platinum-plated corkscrew. Three precise, full twists of the corkscrew and Omar hoists the cork, as gracefully as any sommelier I’ve seen. He smells the cork and smiles, then pours. I study the bottle when he sets it down on the table. It’s not a chateau I know, so I whip out my phone and take its photo. At home I will learn that what I guzzled that afternoon was the equivalent of what I was paid to teach at that Christian college.
Omar raises his glass in a toast. “To Dale and Omar,” he says. “What a team!” The cynic in me would think, a team requires a coach and players. But, fair enough, Omar played. He played at writing. He absorbed enough of the evil Bible—McKee’s story structure, beloved of suits and all those looking for a system that rids the biz of bothersome writers—to know he needed plot points. Omar had two solutions and two only: another car chase, another shootout. The first version of his script that I read contained nine shootouts and seven car chases. It also had a ticking nuclear bomb in a Versace purse. I suggested a suitcase might be the more appropriate size. Omar accepted the suggestion, “Louis Vuitton, right?”
My cynical reverie is interrupted by the first sip of wine. My eyes slowly shut, involuntarily, reverently, and a tear nearly squeezes out. “Omar. This wine is amazing.”
“Sometimes,” Omar says, “you just have to do things right.”
The buzzer vibrates and blinks on the table between us and Omar goes to collect our food. I won’t leave the table; this is a wine that needs to be guarded. It’s even better with the food, which demands our full attention. Omar opens the second bottle, probably a step down, but anything but Chateau d’Yquem would be. I finish the fries, dipping them in tartar sauce.
The sun has reached just the right angle and the ocean is now in full sparkle. A pod of dolphins, less than a quarter mile from the beach, is chasing a school of bait fish into the shallows, followed by gulls and pelicans, who drop like stones into the water. Hang gliders swirl around the point, riding the thermals in long spirals, and a long white yacht that looks like a sparkling recumbent hotel glides by close to the horizon. California dreaming. I raise my glass again, “I wonder what the poor people are doing.”
Omar goes to get our espressos and some special biscotti from the Ferrari larder.
Time to talk. “Omar, my son, this was a lovely lunch, but you have now thoroughly pissed off Dean Wayne by skipping out on his luncheon. How are you going to make that man happy again?”
Omar flicks a hand as expressively as an unworried Italian, conveying a trainload of nonchalance. “No problems,” he pats his pocket. “I got the check.”
“Yeah, but the man can hurt your career. You need him for letters of recommendation when you apply for film school. And what about your meeting with the agent?”
“That guy? They gave him a glass of wine before lunch and he took a nap on the table. Know what he worked in? Radio.”
“Okay, but you still need the dean on your side. Eyes on the prize. He’ll help you get in to film school. You’re still planning on film school?”
“I don’t know, Dude,” Omar says. “Since I got the Veritas Lux Prize things are changing. But if I want film school, I got the dean handled.” Omar starts to grin, “The dean has needs.”
Oh Jesús, I’m thinking, Christian schools are the worst. I look at him.
His grin widens. “Maybe needs is too strong a word. The dean has desires, he has ambitions. Waynie’s been working on a script, set in the Crusades. The pitch he made was, he’s got the Christians covered. He thinks I might be good at the Moorish side. Add authenticity.”
Ooh, I think, so maybe the putz has a few more smarts than I credited him with. A note of authenticity and, with Omar’s involvement, possible financing. I study Omar. “You know why he’s asking, right?”
“I know,” Omar says. “He thinks I’ll talk to my Uncle Ali and Ali will give him his carrot. He’s wrong. I hold the carrot. I just haven’t decided what the stick is. And besides, his script is terrible. Really terrible. I could never fix it.”
Terrible, I think, Omar now recognizes terrible writing when he sees it. Except his own. My job is done here. He’s on his way to producer-hood.
Omar is feeling good, almost jaunty. I remember having that confidence more than a few years back. I wonder if my own was as unfounded. Omar expounds, “So. I haven’t decided about film school. I may not need it. The Lux Veritas is kind of a big deal. Some agents have been in touch, and producers, who want to see more of my work.”
More of my work, I’m thinking. Would that be the remake of Cars, where it turns out the real problem is gasoline addiction, and some cars will kill to get it? Or the one about the killer whales, who start coming ashore for easy midnight snacks?
Making them killer whales was actually my idea. Omar had written them as sharks, hadn’t really thought through the whole gill thing.
“I’m thinking I’m going to enter some more contests and see what happens. I mean, I did win the Veritas Lux. Why shouldn’t I win some others?”
Something in this conversation snags in my memory, and when I finally realize what Omar is reminding me of, I start to laugh. Omar is prepared to be offended. “What’s funny?”
“It’s not you. But you just nailed one of the important plot points from one of my favorite novellas, Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot.” Omar is baffled. I really don’t want to step in any deeper here, so I say, “It’s too hard to explain. I’ll send you the book and then you’ll understand.”
The sun is starting to lower, shorter days in December, even in Malibu.
Time to go. Omar drives me back to my Saturn. As we park beside my ride, two thoughts: This morning, coming out of that tunnel, I compared myself to an ancient Greek, emerging from the underworld. Wrongo-Bongo. If I was an old Greek, I’d be driving a Kronos. I’m an old Roman. The second thought is that the Saturn has a lot more dents and scratches than I remember.
I lift myself out of the tan womb and Omar gets out as well. At my door he hands across a very nice Margaux and an envelope. In the envelope is a check. Two thousand dollars. “Ten percent, Buddy!” I’m touched. It means new brakes. It means I will make rent. It reminds me I’ll face the same dilemma next month.
“Thank you, Omar. This is great. Maybe we should get started on some of your other scripts, for those other contests.”
Omar looks down. When he looks up, those beautiful, buttery brown eyes are filled with sadness, or at least regret. “That’s the other thing, Dale. Since the Lux Veritas happened, a bunch of really good writers have gotten in touch with me.” He names some names. Their credits are much more recent and they don’t have my taint. The only thing we share is the Hollywood disease. We are not new. We are aging out.
I knew this would happen. It’s an over-and-over thing. I just didn’t think it would be this soon.
We shake hands, formally. “I will send you that book.”
Omar roars off. When I slide into Ion Boy, Saturn’s given name, I pat the seat beside me, and when he starts, first twist of the key, I pat the sun-cracked dash. I may be forgiven.
Driving home against a stunning sunset, I’m trapped by my own metaphor. Entering the tunnel is entering the underworld and Charon’s ferry stops in Culver City.
Rameau’s Nephew was the only book I remembered from a course on Utopian fiction taught by a historian. Rameau was a famous French composer when the novella was written in the 1750s. It wasn’t published in Diderot’s lifetime. He’d already been jailed for his Encyclopedia and knew this book would offend even some of his allies. The book is a dialogue between Diderot and Rameau’s nephew, a contradictory ne’er-do-well, who would like to be famous, or at least rich, but is appalled by the prerequisites—hard work, talent. He imagines a better world, in which he discovers some of his famous uncle’s unknown compositions, after the old man has died, and publishes them as his own. And then, he addresses himself, now the new Rameau, “Rameau, you’d love to have composed those two pieces. And, of course, if you’d done those two, surely you could have done two others. And when you’d composed a certain number, people would play and sing you all over the place. When you walked along, you could hold your head high. Others would point you out. They’d say, ‘There’s the man who wrote those lovely gavottes.’”
I kept my word and sent Omar a copy of the book. About two months later I got a long text.
Hey dale, Omar here, remember me? I really liked that Rameaus Nephew thing you sent. I couldn’t really read it, but I got a grad student to give me notes. I think it willmake a great script. Gonna make a couple changes. I’m mak- ing him Rambo’s nephew and I’m putting in a time-travel twist. The guy doesn’t wait for his uncle to give him stuff. He goes to the future and grabs it. So that means two things. Rambo’s nephew— I’m going to call him Xander Rambo—gets all the credit, and in the future the oldRambo guy looks bogus for trying to take credit from Xander. Cool huh. I also think I might make him an inventor instead of a musician. What do you think?
What do I think? I think Omar is well on his way.