Thursday, February 5, 2009

First Draft Theater 2

First draft theater presents the second in a series of posts featuring a few pages of a first draft or a work in progress. (Check out the first here.) The following is the beginning of a story I've come back to a few times in the past year. Give it a read. Let me know what you think. Am I going to Hollywood? Or someplace even hotter? You decide.

Waiting for Hugo

Hugo aimed his manual camera out the drivers' side window of his 1986 Mustang. Though he had California plates, people always asked him where he was from. “Your car’s rusted,” they'd say. Cars don't rust in L.A. The Mustang was fine for just getting around but it was a lemon, in the shop every other month.

Hugo worked the lens and zoomed in for a close-up of the ranch house’s front windows. He tried to shoot fast but was dazzled by the bright orange curtains. He zoomed out and snapped a wide angle. The front of the house was overgrown with bushes and ivy. He had imagined a more streamlined environment, but he could work with it. He wondered if this was the Charles Manson house. He knew it was here in Laurel Canyon someplace, along a pleasant tree-lined street like this.

A woman came out of the house and walked down the driveway, watching him. She carried a tray.

Hugo hadn't planned on spying on this mid-century modern in the neighborhood where Manson did the deed. Lack of supplies had driven him out of his apartment; when he went to make coffee that morning he found his roommates had brewed the last of it. When he wasn't at his part-time temp job, he was home working on his screenplay. To write with any passion he needed coffee. With sugar if he could afford it. That meant a drive to Ralph's.

He had been ambitious when he left Kansas City and his tight-knit family and moved to Los Angeles. During his first year in L.A. he wrote a screenplay, a 150 page opus about a zoo of anthropomorphic animals that helps a lowly zoo employee outsmart the state lottery system. He was convinced it would get snapped up during an outrageously lucrative bidding war. Months were spent sending it to agencies and producers. He revised the script to make it a family-friendly PG-rated movie. When that didn’t work, it became an action movie, and finally he spun it as a hard-R suspense thriller. Nobody read it. When Hugo's passion for his sapient creatures dulled, he knew it was time to get busy on another screenplay.

At Ralph’s, Hugo walked the busy aisles, dropping essentials into his basket: a pound of Eight O’Clock coffee (cheap, but not the cheapest), a pound of sugar, wheat bread, baloney, macaroni loaf, Pepsi. At the checkout his card wasn’t accepted. Flushed, he had the girl put aside the sugar and the baloney then paid cash for the rest. Outside a man in a Nova with tinted windows tried to flag him over. "Hey buddy. You want a sandwich?" the man shouted to him. His face was beyond wrinkly, it was corrugated.

"I'm all set," Hugo said.

"Yeah? You look all set."

What did he need a sandwich for? Did he look like the kind of guy that would buy a sandwich out of a non-air conditioned car? Hugo drove onto Victory Blvd., realizing the sandwiches the guy was selling must have been drugs. He rolled down his windows. The dry air triggered his asthma and he started to cough but the wind cooled his hot skin. He hung a right, trying to remember all the drug dealer details so he could use him as a character in his script. His second screenplay. He got excited thinking about writing it and headed up into the hills of Laurel Canyon to carry out another errand.

His second screenplay concerned a tight-knit family living in a perfect Mid-Western suburb in the 1970's. The daughter gets pregnant and turns her middle-class family upside down. Hugo wanted pictures of a house to use as a model for the house his movie home. When he found the perfect house he would populate it with his characters like a life-sized dollhouse. Actual photos helped him visualize his family.

The woman walked into the road, ten feet from Hugo's Mustang. He slid his camera into his backpack. “It’s a public way,” Hugo said. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

The woman smiled and held her tray in front of her. She was tall and gangly; at one time she had probably been thin. Her hands looked swollen. He couldn't stop looking at her clown-sized digits. He could use that detail. The boyfriend, a drug dealer, dropped the Baggie of dope because of his huge meaty hands. On the tray were white bread sandwiches.

“Monty’s home. If you’d like to talk to him,” the woman said, taking another step toward the car. “I’m sure he’d be interested in what you have to say. I'm Eve. Eve Garland?”

Hugo started the Mustang and was about to put it in gear when he realized the woman had not told him to leave.

"What?" he said out the window. Eve Garland. That struck something familiar in his memory. She was an old actress. She had been in some B-movies. Maybe some minor TV roles. He recognized her. Just.

She looked toward the house then back to Hugo. Her smile changed from greeting to imploring. It would have been creepy or pathetic but Hugo found it more ingratiating than anything.

"Monty’s been waiting."

"I think you have the wrong—"


She was like a mother, her voice a little loud but caring; the sandwiches were cut into quarters and stacked in a circle like a Wonder Bread pyramid or a wedding cake for six year olds. Hugo wanted to cover them with plastic wrap in case a bird crapped on them or the wind tussled with tree-stuff and something landed from above. Or pollen. Was there pollen in L.A.?

"Follow me?" The woman walked back up the driveway then turned, waiting.

Hugo was the pathetic one in this strange, sudden scenario. In the three years since he lived in the Valley nobody had ever waited for him. He couldn’t get his phone calls returned; he couldn’t get the lowest-tiered producer to even open the envelope in which he mailed his screenplay, afraid of unsolicited hit movie ideas for fear of getting sued. When Hugo did solicit, sending query letters as feelers, he got no action. He tried personalizing the queries depending on which production company he approached. (I’m a big fan of your client Bruce Spunkmeyer. I believe my script, a cross between Die Hard and Madagascar, would be a perfect fit for MadCap Productions.) If he got any response at all it was always no.

But Eve Garland was telling him that Monty wanted to see him. Was Monty her husband? Maybe he was a producer or worked at a studio. He pulled his car into the driveway, locked it up, then decided to grab his backpack. Maybe he could take more pictures of the house. He followed Eve onto a stone walkway.

It was midday. The neighborhood was still. The woman pulled a ring of keys from a lime-colored apron and opened the front door. She had a light touch with those thick fingers. “How rude of me.” She turned and blocked the door. “You must be peckish after your drive. Sandwich?”

Hugo grabbed four triangle sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly. The quarter sandwiches created a whole one and he stood and ate. The sweet food was thrillingly familiar and set his stomach into a crescendo of gurgles.

“Thanks,” he managed.

"I'm so sorry I wasn't better prepared.”

Hugo followed her into a foyer that opened onto a wide sunken living room. The carpet was orange shag. The orange drapes, darker than the carpet, adorned all the windows. Sliding glass doors opened out onto a terrace and swimming pool. There was the hum of central air conditioning. It smelled musty but also like the scent of a flower Hugo couldn't place. But not an actual flower, but a powder derived from a flower. The furnishings looked ordered out of House Beautiful circa 1962. Nothing looked contemporary but was still pristine, as if the house had been kept in a hermetic time capsule.

That’s what he felt like he had walked into, a moment frozen in a different era; no questions asked, no reasons given. It was how he had originally hoped to be embraced by Hollywood’s decision makers and money providers. Hugo didn’t know what they expected of him. Would the real visitor drive up any minute? This could be an advantageous mistake. He needed contacts in the business; he had to make the most of it.


Robin said...

Dell -- I am so intrigued by this story and eager to find out what happens at Monty's house. Somehow I feel Hugo is walking into danger. Some of this is sad, of course, but the details seem right on (having never been to L.A. I can't vouch for authenticity) but I think you have captured a time and place very well. Typo -- movie roles (not rolls). The writing is good -- I like getting into Hugo's thoughts. The 2'nd to last paragraph also interested me -- the pristine circa 1962 house. I'd advise you to finish this and send it out. Go for it!

Dell Smith said...

Hi Robin. I do want to finish it. I originally had a one too many characters, so I'm trimming that and also reworking a few other details. Thanks for reading.

Neil Everett said...

Look forward to reading the rest. If you want to send me the first chapter (or even the whole book), Liz has my e-mail.

I was thinking that the third paragraph and fourth paragraph might be stronger first and second paragraphs. Just a suggestion.

Dell Smith said...

Hey Neil, thanks for reading. I think the first page, first few paragraphs, first sentences, always need tweaking. I guess I like to set the environment up a little, hence the first couple paragraphs. But, I agree, switching up the order might be more of a grabber.

Actually, this is a short story. I hadn't considered it for a novel. But when I complete another pass of the story, I'll send it to you. That'll give me the impetus to keep working on it!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I like it! Having spent quite a bit of time in LA, I can picture everything -- the house, the neighborhood, Victory Blvd, Laurel Canyon ;)

The story feels creepy, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. But would like to read more, find out what happens.

Lliz's Mom said...

I can never guess where your story is going to go next. That is good. Your writing is evocative, interesting, free of predictable situations and cliches.

Dell Smith said...

Hi Cindy. I still have vivid recalls of L.A., and obviously still have more to say about it.

Hi Liz's mom: thanks for reading. I'm not even sure where the story is going next. But I hope to find out.

Henriette said...

Dell, really intriguing story. I'm eager to read more. I love the failed screenplay--in all its ratings incarnations! And, as always, your prose is clear and witty.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading, Henriette. Welcome to the wonderful world of blogging. Once you get in, you can never leave.