The three men sat at a small round table, drinking orange juice and coffee. It was an uncomfortable table for a group of grown men, but it was the first table seen on entering the hotel dining room and was considered, for that reason alone, to be one of the best tables in the house. Neither the writer nor director could have reserved it himself, but the third man, an older, veteran producer, still possessed the necessary clout, even if it were true that his last three pictures had been unqualified flops.
All three men sat facing the door, and a fourth, unoccupied chair. Pulled slightly back from the table, a full setting laid out in front of it, the chair had the posed, haunted look of some kind of memorial. Ordinarily, the waiter would have removed the setting when he’d seated the men, but when he reached for the plate the producer had raised his hand and said, No, please, we’re expecting a fourth. That was more than half an hour ago and by now the waiter, a young actor who’d once sat for three hours in this same producer’s office only to be finally told that the producer wouldn’t be returning from lunch, was surprised to find himself feeling embarrassed for the producer and more than a little annoyed and envious towards the missing guest.
The writer and director weren’t feeling much better. They wouldn’t have minded if the producer had invited some piece of local scenery as a fourth – they could have simply talked around her – but empty, the chair was impossible to ignore. Neither man could believe the producer would leave himself open to such a slight. Maybe he really was slipping.
On the pretense of straightening his jacket, the director half-stood and shifted his chair slightly to the right, turning his shoulder, if not his back, on the empty chair and the still empty lobby beyond. He looked quickly at the others to see if they’d noticed his move, but the writer, looking even heavier than usual today in a checkered sports coat at least a size too small, was picking something off his sleeve, and the producer had taken out a pen and was scribbling figures in a small black notebook. The director shifted his chair again slightly, so the empty chair was now only a blur in his peripheral vision.
He looked across at the producer, “So Jack, I read Paul’s rewrite yesterday. It’s great stuff.”
The producer closed his notebook and put it in his inside pocket. He looked at the director and said with sudden vehemence: “Christ, it better be! That goddamn Blandings nearly ruined me. I spent a fortune on that Pulitzer-Prize winning putz and he hands me fifty pages of the worst shit I ever read!” He turned to the writer and eyed him suspiciously; “You don’t …write novels, do you?”
“I haven’t yet.”
“Good. Don’t start. We need screenwriters out here not Nobel prize winners.”
“Jesus, Jack,” the director said, leaning forward between the two men, “Let’s not go through that again. I told you Paul could deliver a shooting script and he has. Forget Blandings already. He’s finished around here.”
“Not soon enough for me.”
“What the hell Jack. Leave it alone.”
“Not soon enough,” the producer repeated, but his voice had softened and carried a whisper of defeat. He sat back, sighing heavily, his shoulders slumping in resignation, “Yeah, what the hell,” he said after a moment, looking down at the table and running his finger along it’s edge,” That’s all under the bridge right?”
He reached over and put his hand on the writer’s arm, “Forgive the cloudburst Paul. I shouldn’t drink coffee on an empty stomach. Rattle my nerves.” He sat up, brightening. “Bobby tells me you doctored Hearts and Flowers. I loved that picture. It shoulda done a lot better.”
“It won the jury prize in Montreal,” the writer said, not defensively.
“Really? The screenplay?”
“Uh…no. The picture.”
“Oh. Well, still, one feeds the other right?”
“Uh…right,” the writer said, feeling dull and foolish and not exactly sure why. He was very hungry and having trouble keeping track of the conversation. Though he pretended not to care about such things, he was secretly convinced that people out here didn’t take him seriously because of his size, expecting writers to have a lean and hungry look, even those who were well-paid and well-fed. Consequently, he always ate sparingly at these breakfasts, passing up the eggs benedict for a slice of melon and maybe some wheat toast, unbuttered. But since the meeting had yet to start, he hadn’t even had this Spartan fuel and he was starting to feel light-headed. He told himself that when they did order he’d go for the French toast and appearances be damned.
“And now you’ve written another prize winner,” the producer was saying, “Only this time you’ll win an Oscar.”
“I hope so,” the writer answered, embarrassed.
“Forget hope. This is a great story. And with Eric Rydell in the lead this picture can’t miss.”
“If he’ll do it,” the director said, looking at his watch.
“He’ll do it. It’s perfect for him. Believe me, if there was anyone else, I’d use them. He’s gonna be hell to work with.”
“I can handle him,” the director said.
“Sure, I know. I just wish there was someone else.”
“There are other actors.”
“Yeah, but he’s not just an actor. He’s a star. And we need a star to sell this.”
There was a sudden commotion in the doorway and the men turned to see the maître d’ arguing with a muscular kid in a sleeveless t-shirt, surfer shorts, and leather sandals. The maitre d’ was holding up a dinner jacket and shaking his head determinedly. The boy, no more than eighteen, was arguing half-heartedly, with the teasing self-assuredness of the young and beautiful. Finally he laughed, turned his back on the maitre d’ and held out his arm. Unsmilingly, the maitre d’ put the jacket on the boy, thanked him, and turned back to his reservations desk. The boy finished buttoning the jacket and looking up, saw the producer. He lifted his arms in mock crucifixion, shrugged, laughed again, and started for the table.
The three men stood up as the boy approached. The boy took the producer’s outstretched hand but before the producer could greet him the boy turned and shouted, “Hey Tiffany!” at a pretty blonde girl sitting at a table across the room with two older men. The girl looked up, feigning embarrassment, but clearly flattered by the attention. She smiled at the boy and shook her finger at him, like a mother scolding her errant but still favorite child. Several other people looked up to see who had shouted. Recognizing the boy, they too smiled indulgently, shook their heads, and went back to their breakfasts. The boy blew the girl a kiss and then turned back to the producer, whose hand he was still holding. He shook it weakly and then let it drop.
“Hey Jack,” he said.
“Hello Eric. Good to see you.”
The boy pulled at his drooping sleeves, “Jesus, this jacket,” he said.
The producer nodded, commiserating, “Well,” he said, “it’s an old hotel.”
“Yeah,” said the boy.
“Eric, you know Bobby Clifford,” the producer said, indicating the director.
“Oh yeah. Hi.”
“Hello Eric.” They shook hands.
“And Paul Harrison, our writer.”
“Good morning, Eric.”
“Well,” said the producer, “Let’s siddown.”
“Yeah,” said the boy.
The waiter passed out the menus, looking at the boy with faint distaste. The boy put his menu aside without looking at it and the producer, watching, gave his menu a perfunctory glance and then laid it aside, “Well Eric,” he said, making a broad gesture that seemed to take it not only the menu but the dining room itself and everyone in it, “What’ll ya have?”
“Oh, you guys go ahead,” the boy said; “I had something on the way over.”
The writer made a small sound in his throat like a man drowning.
The producer said, “Oh.” He smiled at the boy, his face tightening, and then looked down at his hands for a long moment as if he’d never seen them before and was surprised to find them at the ends of his arms.
When he looked up, he nodded at the boy, still smiling, and then turned to the director, “Well how about you Bobby?” he asked in a bright voice, “Some French toast maybe?”
“I’ll just have a refill.”
“Are you sure? You don’t want some….”
“Just freshen this,” the director said, looking up at the waiter and tapping a finger on his coffee cup.
The producer turned to the writer, “Paul?” he asked.
“Me too what?”
“Oh. Just some more coffee…I mean orange juice. Just some more orange juice, please.”
“And for you Mr. Goldman?” the waiter asked.
“Well, if no one else is eating,” the producer said, leaning back in his chair and patting his stomach, “I guess I can afford to lose a little of this extra baggage.” He winked at the boy. “Right Eric?”
The boy nodded, laughing.
“Just some more coffee for me too,” the producer said, handing the waiter his menu. The waiter collected the menus and left.
The producer put his elbows up on the table and made a tent of his hands. He looked at each of the three men in turn, “Well,” he said, bringing his cathedraled hands together with a soft popping sound, “Let’s talk.”
“Yeah,” said the boy.
R. D. Saporita studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Denver. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children and teaches at a public high school. When not grading papers or playing with his children, he plays guitar and mandolin in the bluegrass band, High and Lonesome.