One of the downside risks of producing your own suicide is that you probably won't get the opportunity to reshoot. It's pretty much a one-take business. Barring, of course, a complete disaster, in which case you won't be in any frame of mind to consider the results with any objectivity. You may not, in fact, be in any frame of mind at all. You may be reduced to hanging in there out of pure reflex, your organism metabolizing in spite of your express wishes to the contrary.
This ugly thought occurred to Charlie Berns as he fed a rubber hose through a specially drilled hole in the doggie door that led out to the patio of his 5,400-square-foot house in the Beverly Hills Flats. If push came to shove, he would rather go through with the indignities of his present situation than wind up in vegetableville. Charlie shuddered at the prospect and resolved to be very careful.
The 560 SEL was parked as close to the house as he could manage, its rear wheels trampling the flower beds that his vindictive gardener had denuded months ago. José GarcÍa y GarcÍa and his brother-in-law Pepe had backed up a truck in broad daylight and gone around the yard uprooting and reclaiming unpaid-for plants. As a parting gesture his gardener had chain-sawed a lemon tree with such precision that it fell squarely into the pool, where it still lay, its dying limbs drooping in the air. Mr. Kim, the pool man, had at first merely cleaned around the tree, fishing out the soggy, overripe lemons and stacking them like cannonballs on the edge of the patio. Then when Charlie failed to remit in the little envelope stuffed under the door every month, he too stopped coming. His parting gesture had been a paroxysm of expletives in Korean, accompanied by spitting and stamping his feet on the deck.
That morning Charlie had gone to Thrifty on Canon and bought seventy-five feet of hose, some putty to fill in the air pockets around the hole in the doggie door, masking tape to seal off any windows that were not airtight, a microwave cherry cheesecake and a half-gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy.
In the house a CD of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik blared from the player. It had been a choice between Mozart and Mitch Miller, with Mozart winning out in the end because of the class factor. Charlie wanted to go out in a classy manner. At this stage of the game, gestures were important.
After leaving Thrifty, he had dropped two envelopes in the mailbox, one to Daily Variety and the other to The Hollywood Reporter, containing up-to-date résumés of his credits. Often, in the deadline pressure, they mixed up credits or omitted the most significant ones from the obit. And there wasn't much you could do about asking for a correction.
As he ran the hose along the Spanish-tile patio, he heard the whine of the vacuum machine sucking up leaves down the street in counterpoint to the low-key hum of pool motors. Sounds of a Beverly Hills morning. Empty houses being tended. For months, since Charlie had been evicted from his office at the Burbank Studios, he had been home on this street all day long, and he was familiar with the quiet and the sounds that punctuated it: the pizzicato of lawn mowers, the drone of air conditioners, the whomp of tennis balls, the whoosh of German-made disk brakes, the demented chirping of overfed birds.
He looked down at his Rolex and saw that it was almost eleven. It was Sunday. No mail. No last-minute reprieve from the governor. His mailbox was filled daily with a collection of letters from lawyers all over Southern California containing threats of varying degrees of explicitness. Before he stopped returning Charlie's calls, his own lawyer, George Melvin, had recommended Chapter 11, after, of course, Charlie took care of his legal fees.
"You can't expect me to handle bankruptcy papers for you on a contingency basis, Charlie, can you?"
They were in George Melvin's Century City office with a view clear to Mulholland and back. The lawyer was sitting beside his beveled-glass conference table cracking pistachio nuts. Nobody in town had desks anymore. Desks were out ever since Los Angeles magazine ran a feature on the new type of interactive executive.
"Who else is going to do it?"
"I can't do contingency work. It's against the bylaws of the firm."
"George, isn't everything in this town on contingency, one way or another?"
Well, whether George Melvin liked it or not, as executor of his will, he would soon be presiding over the distribution of Charlie's assets, such as they were. It would be a feeding frenzy with meager pickings.
Charlie carefully slit the end of the hose with an X-Acto knife and fit it over the exhaust pipe of the Mercedes. Then he took a large piece of heavy-duty electric tape and bound it around the tail pipe tightly to prevent leaking. When he was finished, he tugged gently on the hose and was pleased when it didn't slip off.
He had considered various ways of pulling the plug. Completely hopeless with firearms, he immediately eliminated blowing his brains out. Charlie had never handled a gun in his life and didn't see why he should start now. He ruled out pills as well. You never knew exactly what the right dosage was, or whether you'd throw up first and just get very sick. In any case he would have been reduced to an over-the-counter product. His Valium prescription had been shut off months ago. His doctor wasn't returning his calls either. And hanging was just too technically complex, requiring a strong-enough rope, a strong-enough place to hang the rope, the proper noose. If you didn't do it right, it could be a terrible mess.
Asphyxiation by Mercedes exhaust seemed the best way of going about it. Nothing jarring, nothing overly technical or unpleasant. He would just drift across the border without any formalities, transported by the efficiency of German engineering. Auf wiedersehen...Have a nice day....
It was while imagining the purring pistons of the engine of the 560 SEL that he suddenly realized the gas tank was low. Typical of all the decisions he had made lately, he hadn't filled up the car, figuring there was no point in checking out with a full tank. He had no idea how much exhaust it took to do the job. This was one time he didn't want to be caught short.
He tried to remember where he had left the keys after coming back from Thrifty that morning. He put away the X-Acto knife and walked back through the bleeding flower beds to the patio, looking around on the rusting deck furniture for his keys, which were nowhere to be found.
He retraced his steps, starting from the back door to the kitchen where he had entered earlier. While in the kitchen he absently opened the refrigerator and found nothing but a bottle of flat Perrier. On the counter, however, was the rapidly defrosting
cherry cheesecake. He sliced off a small piece to tide him over, eating it right off the knife. He decided to put what was left in the freezer. Opening the freezer door, he discovered a microwave pizza that he thought he'd already eaten. The last pizza. There was no point leaving any assets unamortized. He took it out, popped it into the microwave, then resumed looking for his car keys.
They turned out to be in his jacket pocket, draped over the banister in the hallway, where he had left them when he had gone upstairs to tape the windows shut. Charlie went back out the patio door to the Mercedes, turned the key in the ignition and watched the gas needle barely budge off the empty mark.
Back inside the house, he grabbed his $1,900 French leather jacket and then couldn't remember where he had left his wallet. The microwave beeped. He opened the door, looked at the bubbling cheese strands running off the edge, and decided to pass.
It required all his concentration to remember that his wallet was in the back pocket of a pair of dirty jeans lying in a heap upstairs in the bathroom. His cleaning lady had volunteered to go on the cuff when he explained to her about his cash-flow problem, but Charlie hadn't wanted anybody around these last few weeks as he sank into the mire of genteel poverty. Since he rarely went out, he didn't need much in the way of clean clothes. Frozen pizzas were basically maintenance-free. So he wound up living off the fat of the land, a Bedouin in his own house.
Actually he had been doing quite well in this scaled-down existence until they disconnected the TV cable. The sons of bitches came right in the middle of Donahue and pulled the plug. Charlie lay there on the couch and watched three transvestites and their mothers dissolve into snow. Sometimes, late at night, he could get a decent signal off the rusted 1950s roof antenna. That was the point at which he started sleeping during the day.
There was no one to disturb Charlie during the day because his phone was cut right after they clipped the cable. Not that anybody would have called him. Certainly not Brad Emprin. When his agent of twenty years, Jerry Belcher, bought the ranch after a triple bypass, the agency had tossed him around to various people until he finally landed on the desk of a twenty-eight-year-old ex-network development director.
They had their first and last lunch at a trendy pasta place on Melrose. They sat uncomfortably on minimalist Italian furniture, amid a cacophony of conversation from tables too close to one another, as his new agent put away a skimpy pasta primavera without cheese.
Brad Emprin was concerned about cholesterol. He ate a low-fat, high-fiber breakfast every morning, then ran three-point-five miles, showered and got into the office by eight so that he could read scripts before the phones started ringing.
"You know how many scripts I take home on an average weekend?"
Charlie shook his head.
"Twelve, maybe fifteen. They're piled up next to my bed. Sometimes on a Friday night, I just grab something to eat and get right into bed, knock off a half a dozen before falling out."
"That's great, Brad."
"You got to keep up with the material. That's the name of the game -- material."
Charlie nodded again. There was an extended silence as Brad attacked lunch. Finally, Charlie looked at him and asked the inevitable question, "So what's going on?"
Brad took a sip of his San Pellegrino water and cleared his throat. He flexed his jaw muscles trying to dislodge a pasta strand from his teeth.
"Things are a little slow at the moment, Charlie, but I've got feelers out all over town. In fact just yesterday I was talking about you to someone."
"She's a very bright lady. Started out as a reader for Mike Corvene a couple of years ago. Now she's at a major studio."
"She's a reader?"
Brad drained the Pellegrino, looked off for a moment at an anorexic woman talking like a machine gun at the next table.
"She's this close to Norman." He indicated by placing his thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart.
"Brad, she can't say yes. What's the point of talking to someone about me doing a picture if that person can't say yes?"
"I think she's having sex with Norman. Maybe not. Someone told me he thought she was having sex with Norman....Look, Charlie, the point is that this lady is going to be running a studio someday. She's hot. I know it. And she's aware of you."
"Aware of me?"
"Name of the game. Client awareness. We talk about it in the staff meeting all the time."
"She's a pistol. I'm telling you...."
Charlie closed his eyes for a moment, rubbed them gingerly. Often this was an effective means of dissipating anger. When he opened them, however, Brad Emprin was still sitting across from him talking about client awareness. Charlie put his finger to his lips to indicate that his agent should be quiet.
"Brad, I want you to watch my lips carefully, okay?"
Brad nodded dutifully.
"I don't need any more people aware of me. There are a number of lawyers and collection agencies around town that are already aware of me."
"I understand what you're saying, Charlie."
Brad Emprin sat across from him nodding for a long time, then excused himself to use the phone. When he got back, the check had arrived.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to split this, Charlie," he said, shaking his head sadly. "It's the new agency policy. No more client lunches."
He stared at the check for a minute, then: "Thirty bucks'll cover you. You got a parking ticket you need validated?"
The phone calls that followed were punctuated by long beats of silence interspersed with Brad's list of people who were aware of Charlie Berns. Then Brad was in meetings when he called and took a day or so to get back. Eventually, when Brad returned one call six days later Charlie hung up on him. And when the phone company yanked the line, he wasn't bothered anymore by Brad Emprin.
As he drove south on Beverly Drive Charlie wondered what the reaction to his suicide would be at the Monday-morning staff meeting where they sat around and discussed client awareness. Whatever else Brad Emprin and his colleagues would say, they wouldn't be able to say that people weren't aware of him that particular morning. They all would have read the trades on their Exercycles before the staff meeting and they would be aware that Charlie Berns, fifty-two, producer of such films as et cetera, sucked a Mercedes tail pipe that morning in his Beverly Hills home.
He pulled into the gas station on Little Santa Monica and went directly to the full-service pump. The short Iranian with the klos T-shirt handed him the clipboard. Charlie signed on a Union 76 credit card that had been cut off two months ago. It gave him some satisfaction to stiff the Iranians. They were taking over the goddamn town. They could have it, as far as he was concerned. He was out of here. Let the Iranians line up behind the rest of them.
Charlie left the gas station and headed back across Beverly Hills. He drove up Canyon Drive for the last time, dry-eyed, without regrets. Turning the corner at Elevado, he passed a minivan full of tourists with their maps to the stars' homes. There were no stars anymore on Charlie's block; the houses were all owned by Arabs, Iranians, Koreans and people like Charlie, who had bought in the sixties and couldn't afford to pay their gardeners anymore.
Charlie pulled to the end of the driveway, then put it in reverse and backed carefully over the vacant flower beds, getting as close to the patio as possible and out of view from the street.
Leaving the engine on, he got out, crouched over the tail pipe and started to reattach the hose. The door chimes rang. Charlie ignored them. When they persisted, he got up, went back inside, cranked Mozart up louder on the CD player.
Back outside, he returned to the task of reattaching the hose with a leakproof fit. Humming along with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, working intensely, Charlie did not notice the figure approaching him from the end of the driveway.
"Hello?" the figure called.
Charlie didn't hear. Mozart was at a crescendo. The figure was practically on top of him before Charlie turned around and looked up at a tall skinny kid standing over him with a knapsack.
"I think your bell's out of order."
Charlie stared at this young man, drawing a blank.
"I tried calling you lots of times, but your phone's out of order. The phone company said it's been disconnected....When I decided to come out here, you were the first person I called. When I couldn't get you on the phone I decided to come out anyway. Nobody knows where you are. My mother's kind of worried....What are you doing anyway? You left your motor running...."
He was shouting to be heard over the Nachtmusik. Charlie scratched his head. Recognition flooded through a moment before the kid said, "You okay, Uncle Charlie?"
His sister Janice's youngest kid Lionel. Several years ago at a funeral in New Jersey Lionel had gotten him in a corner and bent his ear about wanting to write for the movies. Charlie had mumbled some vague encouragement, promised to help him when he was ready to come out to Hollywood and try to break into the business.
Charlie hadn't expected him to show up. Certainly not on the day of his suicide.
"I would have called if your phone wasn't on the blink. But you said that whenever I got out here, I should get in touch. So here I am."
"How long are you out here for?"
"For as long as it takes."
"It takes to do what?"
"Make it. I got a script with me. I want you to read it."
"It's based on the life of Disraeli."
Suicide requires a fair amount of concentration. You don't want to get interrupted when you're in the middle. It opens the floodgates to all sorts of equivocations and doubts. Lionel's arrival on Charlie's patio at that moment did precisely that. It threw Charlie off. He had been cruising along, dealing with the preparations in an orderly fashion. Now, instead, he found himself in his kitchen splitting the microwave pizza with his nephew.
They were sitting across from each other at the bar as Lionel described his odyssey across the country in a Trailways bus, gathering material, as he put it. It was all grist for the mill, life real and raw out there west of New Jersey.
"My next script's going to be about Nebraska. The story of a modern-day cowboy, except this guy's a crop duster, but you intercut his story, see, with his alter ego a hundred years ago. Kind of a parallel structure..."
Charlie nodded, poured himself a glass of Hearty Burgundy.
"What are you working on now, Uncle Charlie?"
"I'm sort of between pictures."
"I saw Jailbreak the other night on TV. They cut the hell out of it."
"Yeah, they do that."
"Can't show tits on TV, huh?"
Charlie shook his head solemnly.
"They show almost everything else. They got people with their tongues down each other's throats on the soaps in the afternoon. That's why I wanted to do this picture on Disraeli. There were standards back then. People just didn't whip their clothes off. They didn't even sleep in the same bedroom...."
"Lionel," Charlie interrupted, "how'd you get here?"
"I took the bus, I told you. A hundred and twenty-nine dollars. From Newark."
"No. I mean to my house. You don't have a car. The bus station's downtown."
"I have a map."
"I see...." Then a moment of hesitation before asking, "Where are you staying?"
His nephew smiled a half-baked little grin, shrugged and said, "I was kind of hoping...here."
"You said that I could stay with you when I came out here."
"Uh-huh. I'm kind of short on money."
A silence of some duration followed. Lionel dove into the cherry cheesecake and Charlie poured himself another glass of Hearty Burgundy. Finally:
"How short of money are you?"
"I got a couple of hundred."
"Two hundred dollars?"
"A hundred eighty actually."
"That's not going to go too far in this town."
"I figure I'll sell my script."
"I don't know how hot Disraeli is right now."
"Would you read it? I really want to know what you think about it." And he was off the bar stool and into his knapsack. He dug out a thick bound manuscript, handed it to Charlie.
The title page read Bill and Ben. Charlie stared at it for several seconds. "William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli," Lionel explained. "They were kind of like Jules and Jim. I was thinking about Tom Cruise as Disraeli."
At three o'clock in the morning Charlie, not yet dead, lay awake in his upstairs bedroom, his mind spinning at high rpm. He wasn't thinking, as might be expected, about the fortuitous arrival of his nephew shortly before he was planning to pollute his brain with carbon monoxide. Nor was he thinking about Benjamin Disraeli, though Lionel had stood over him until he had read all two hundred pages of his screenplay. He was thinking about Bobby Mason.
One of the qualities that had helped Charlie Berns survive in Hollywood as long he did was a nearly photographic memory for details. Every morning he read the trade papers, culling a collection of seemingly trivial facts about the shifting tides around him. It was for Charlie a sort of ritual recitation, like the daily reading of the Koran. It gave him solace to know that the show went inexorably on in spite of earthquakes, assassinations and wars. Somewhere in town at every moment a deal was being cut. He slept better knowing that.
But he wasn't sleeping at the moment. He was remembering a filler item in the gossip column of The Reporter that mentioned that Bobby Mason, the biggest black box-office attraction in the world, was considering a conversion to Judaism following an emotional location scout of the Holy Land for his current picture. Bobby's manager had said that his client was interested in scripts with a Jewish theme.
One of the early scenes in Lionel's script depicted the baptism of the young Benjamin Disraeli into the bosom of Christ, renouncing his Judaism. It was an easy lift, as far as Charlie was concerned.
Downstairs in the guest room his nephew Lionel was presumably asleep. Charlie would have to explain some things to him in the morning.
A few hours ago Charlie Berns was a man at the end of his rope, or, more accurately, his tail pipe. But that was before Lionel showed up with a script. A producer was someone who had a property. And Charlie now had a property. Or would in the morning when he optioned the rights to Bill and Ben.
It was overly warm in his bedroom. And then he remembered why. He got out of bed, stripped off the perspiration-drenched pajama shirt and started carefully to peel the masking tape off his sealed windows.
Copyright © 1991 by Chiaroscuro Productions