We are very pleased to present a story from the brand-new novel Immortal L.A. by Eric Czuleger.
His fingernails are clean. His belt buckle is silver. You can see the ceiling in the toes of his shoes. He speaks in a silken baritone.
“My question is this: Are you using it for anything?
“Because if you’re NOT using it for anything, why have it? You know what I mean?
“I had a– you know? A Bowflex once. You know the Bowflex, right? Yeah, the Bowflex. It’s a workout machine. I was going to get in the best shape of my life. I don’t really NEED to work out, but I thought I would see what the fuss was about.
“I ordered the thing off of the TV because IN THOSE DAYS–
“In those days– you could order stuff off of the TV.
“I’m old. I get it, but I don’t look a day over 30 right?
“I know that the answer is ‘no’ so don’t bother being polite.
“I was around in the days when you ordered from the Sears and Roebucks catalogue! I was around in the days when you went to a blacksmith. I was around in the days when you snuck up on another person in the forest and tried to break their head with a rock so you could take their food.
“Online stuff is new to me, but it’s good. I’m adjusting, that’s the secret to longevity in this business or any other. Always adjust. Oh, so the Bowflex! I get the thing. I don’t know how to put it together. I don’t know how to use it. The instructions didn’t even come with it. So, what does it do? It sits in its box. It collects dusts. It’s not helping anyone and no one is helping it. It may as well not be there. If a friend came by and said, ‘Oh hey, a Bowflex.’ I would say:
“‘Yeah! Do you want it? I’m not using it.’
“I’m a good friend. I’m a good friend with some useless crap that I’m not using. First and foremost though: I’m a good friend.
“I’m not saying that it’s useless crap. I’m just asking you… Are you using it?”
Rachel shifts in her chair. The chair is rich, expensive leather. She wants to be wrapped in it for winter hibernation. It sits across from an enormous mahogany desk. This is the only office on the top floor of a completely empty building at the corner of Francisco and 7th street in Downtown Los Angeles. It is the kind of building that you dismiss as another honeycomb of corporate workspaces or multi-national bank offices, populated by the faceless yet well dressed.
If you have the time to watch and wait you will see that no one ever enters that building except for the occasional homeless man looking for a place to use the restroom. You will see a blonde secretary at the front desk. You will see a security guard with a baton and a handgun. The secretary is smiling, the security guard is not. They are both waiting, watching. If you go at any hour of the day or the night you will see them: waiting, watching. But you won’t notice this, because you are too busy doing other things. There is only one security guard and one secretary because there is only one office. All of the other floors are completely empty. Steel support columns, concrete, and whistling wind.
Rachel sits in his office. He waits for her answer. There are no walls. Only windows. The skyline of Los Angeles encircles a desk and a chair. An elevator bank and a washroom spring up from the floor. Interior architecture of the infamous and infinite. He is the most important person in Los Angeles and he knows it. This makes him the 14th most important person in the world, though he thinks he is the 4th.
He sits on his desk. His feet do not touch the ground, because of its size. He kicks his feet back and forth like a child. He is never still. He moves like a dancer, like a cat. He is coiled energy ready to spring. His reputation precedes him like a freight train.
“Are you using it?” he asks again, smile broadening like melting butter.
Rachel considers her answer to his question and adjusts in the leather chair. She wears her best clothes, a red pencil skirt, white blouse, and a red Prada jacket that she plans on returning immediately after this meeting. She cannot afford this jacket. When she got an invitation to this building she immediately vomited and then went on a juice fast. She used a teeth-whitening kit three times, she hit her yoga class twice a day and began going to bed at 9 P.M. when her schedule permitted. Which was never. She is hungry, and tired, and minty, and flexible and shiny, and she looks wonderful. She feels like a hollow cathedral. She does not know the answer to the question. He doesn’t mind.
He hops off his desk, and his shoes clack on the black marble floor. He sucks air in through his teeth and rubs his pure white hands together in slow concentric circles.
“Don’t answer yet. I’m not a namedropper. I don’t need to impress anyone. You know about me because you know about me.
“You probably have some idea of who I am and what I do. No one can drop my name because no one knows my name. That’s a valuable asset. This is all about developing assets. I want you to be an asset to me. I could tell you a long list of names of people who are assets to me. These are people who do good, wonderful, things in the world for you and me and starving children and everyone. They’re able to change the world for the better because they have come into my unique fold.
“This, like so many offers, is only a one-time thing.
“I’m sorry to say that, but it is the case. I need a producer for this project, and it needs to be someone I have on the team. It has been handed to me personally by… Well, let’s say the team captain. I want you on my team. So, what do you say Rachel?”
Rachel feels like she is breathing either too quickly or too slowly, she cannot tell which. Her calf is shaking and she is trying to silence the rhythmic tap-tap-tap of her heel on the marble. She speaks.
“I think I use my soul.” Silence, except for the tap-tap-tap. He smiles.
“And, I’m… If this… If what you’re saying… if this is a real thing…” Rachel leans forward and raises her eyebrows, giving him a chance to announce that this is all an overdramatic test of ethics. He leans forward and raises his perfectly manicured eyebrows. He says nothing.
“I… I try to be a good person,” Rachel continues. “I try.
“And I use my soul.”
The word try echoes in her head like a scream in a cave.
She just told a lie. She knows that she shouldn’t lie. The room feels wrong because nothing feels wrong about it. A leather strap is pulling tight deep in her gut. She is promising herself bed, Xanax, and celebrity news if she can make it out of this office without falling to pieces.
He runs a hand across his face and up the back of his neck. He smiles like a sunbeam coming through an open window, gently warming a piece of carpet that a cat is napping on. He leans casually on his desk.
“See, that’s not your fault. That’s the culture. That’s just THIS culture. You’re mistaking religion for business.
“You’re mistaking belief for ethics. You’ve got it all mixed up!
“Here, in this place, and this time, it’s all divided. But business is different. We’re talking business here.
“You have something that I would like to trade you for.
“I will trade you astronomic success for your soul. Simple simple. No monsters, no saints, no big bad wolves, no ulterior motives. I get something, you get something, and we all get a movie.
“Is it a cliché? Yes. I’m aware of that. Do clichés come from somewhere? Duh. Do I have this exact conversation every single time I meet with someone here? Oh, you bet. I’m not going to say names, but there is a reason that these windows don’t open any more. We’ve had some things happen. But I know who to bring up here and who to leave down there.
“I know that you’re a climber. I hear things. I see things. Your name comes up in certain circles. I invite you to my office. And here. We. Are. Get good and bad out of your head. If you’re thinking good and bad, you’re not going to get anywhere here. We’re just talking about two sides of the same coin. We’re talking about THE MOVIES gosh darnit!
“It’s all make believe.”
He walks around his desk. He picks a screenplay and he drops it on his desk with a loud slap! He looks at her. He jumps up on the desk and kicks his legs back and forth. He picks up the screenplay and flips through the pages.
“What… What is that?” Rachel asks.
He tosses the script across to her and it lands perfectly in her lap. It reads Untitled.
“Is it good?” She levels her eyes toward him. A smile splashes on his face and she wants to perish in it. She puts out the flame. She needs to negotiate. She knows how to negotiate. He clears his throat.
“Honestly, no. It’s not great. It’s not so much that it’s BAD, it’s just been done about a billion times. But it’s the movies! We reinvent the wheel every day; we just package it in different ways. It’s exactly the kind of thing WE like. It’s the kind of thing the interested parties I represent appreciate. It’s vampires, and angels, and permissible teen eroticism under the guise of fantasy. Fun, fun, fun stuff. Harmless. The good thing is; we get everybody into the theatre. Tweens, teens, inbetweeners, millenials, twentysomethings, flirty-thirties, DIRTY-thirties, and of course the forgotten forties, everyone else will be dragged by someone they know.
“Blockbuster material here. People wait their whole lives for a stack of pages just like that.”
Rachel suddenly has to pee. She squeezes her knees together and riffles the pages. Words, phrases, character names, screen directions, jump out at her, meaningless without context. Doesn’t matter. If he says it’s a winner it is a winner. She runs a tongue along her slick white teeth. She squeezes her knees together tighter. She wonders what her family in Fairfield, Iowa would say about this if she told them. They’re transcendental meditators and Olympian relativists. They share the convenient dinner-party acceptable beliefs of the economically fortunate. God is a difficult word problem that isn’t on their test. She would not tell them. She couldn’t tell them. They would not recognize her in her jacket.
She feels her heart beating in her chest beneath her Prada jacket. With each beat she has to pee more. She wonders if her soul is somewhere between her heart and her bladder. She imagines it like a blue mist with a soft light at its core. It emits a gentle warmth, and it helps her discern right from wrong. It tells her what music she loves. It smells like the melting sugar on the top of a crème brule. It grows brighter when she holds her dog to her chest. She can’t afford her dog, but she loves him. She wonders what it would be like to just have a heart in her chest with no soul to accompany it. What would it be like to feel your heart beating and nothing else?
“I just need a producer. And I need a producer that no one knows. We like to promote from the very bottom. We’re in the business of making dreams come true after all.”
He smiles. It is the smile from an advertisement for men’s watches. It is a smile like a good armchair. It is a smile that would make babies have sweet dreams and old women wink at one another. She crosses her knees and bites her bottom lip.
Rachel produces independent horror films and public service announcements about the dangers of huffing paint thinner. She takes jobs that are jobs. She takes as many jobs as she can. She crushes her personal life under the heel of the boots she cannot afford. She will have love and friendship and late night talks over cheap bottles of wine with people who she can share secrets with. She will have these things when she can afford them. She pushes and pushes against this city forgoing everything for the opportunity to afford stillness.
The screenplay is heavy, thick white paper. It feels good in her hands. She crosses her knees tighter and digs her nails into the paper. She wants it. She doesn’t care what is in the pages. She wants it. She goes for the kill.
“Fine. I know who you are. I know the reputation that you have. I would be an idiot to not take this project. And if you know about me, you know I am not dumb.” Rachel uncrosses her legs.
“So, why do you want my soul?” She raises her eyebrow.
“I want it because I want it.” He runs two fingers down the sides of his silk tie, smoothing unseen wrinkles.
“That’s not good enough.” He stops smiling. She takes a deep breath and continues.
“You don’t just invite anyone up here and I’m here. I bet that it’s a little bit harder than just finding anyone to produce a movie. You can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who calls themselves a producer around here. So, what do you want MY soul for?
“I don’t really believe in all of that, so it’s meaningless to me. I’ll give you my soul like my business card. Except my business card is worth more. I buy the expensive card stock.” That is another lie, her business cards are cheap and flimsy, but she needs some wiggle room.
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re an eccentric money guy who has a good track record for picking winners. I want a winner. I want to be an asset for you. But if I’m indulging you by claiming that I’ve got a soul, and that I can give it to you, you have to meet me half way. What do you want to do with my particular soul?” She felt like she was going to explode, but she couldn’t excuse herself to the restroom, it would show weakness, it would be a retreat.
He walks slowly around his desk. One. Step. At. A. Time. He sits down and kicks his feet onto the corner of the desk. He looks at her. His face is blank. He places his fingertips together under his nose.
“I’ve never talked to someone about the logistics of what I do before. This is interesting.”
Rachel grinds her teeth together and levels her eyes at him. Rachel is going to die if she cannot relieve herself. “Cards on the table. I’m a collector and an advertiser. A brand manager really. People in my position exist in, let’s say, areas of influence. I am trying to get a point of view across.
I am trying to promote my employer’s brand. What my employer cares about is what any employer cares about. They want their numbers up and their brand recognizable. I make that happen, and I have incredible resources. However, I need to make sure that any candidates are on the level. I need a commitment.
“Some people are Pepsi people, some people are Coke people.
“Let’s just say, I want everyone to be a Pepsi person. Two sides of the same coin. That script has a lot of product placement in it. Do you take my meaning?”
Rachel shifts in her seat. She fantasizes about knocking the chair over and hurling herself towards the restroom. Then she sees it. She sees a bit of sadness float past his eyes. She has a foothold. She steadies her voice.
“Am I to understand that you are an asset of your employer? You gave away your soul, too?” He looks out the windows at an uncharacteristically dark cloud moving across the Hollywood hills. He nods his head. A smile crosses his lips and then passes.
“Do you miss it?”
He takes a deep breath in and lets it out slowly.
“I don’t remember what it was like to have it. But, yes, sometimes I think I do miss it. Sometimes. It’s been a long time. It’s fine though. I’m great. I’m fine.” He looks to Rachel and places his hands on his desk, spreading them wide in front of him.
“Was it worth it?”
He nods his head. Slow, measured, absolutely sure.
“You love what you love in the world. You do whatever you can to keep doing it. I love the movies. I always have, and I always will. I have a very clear understanding of what always means. I know you love the movies too. So yes, it was worth it. I get to make those lights happen on that screen. If I had to explain to you why that is important, you wouldn’t be here.”
An arrow sinks deep into her heart. A chill runs down the back of her neck. The warm blue cloud in her chest pulses brightly, her heart beats.
“Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll give you my soul.”
He looks at her. He does not smile.
“You don’t believe in it anyway do you?”
“No.” She hears the word coming out of her mouth.
“Good. It’s better that way.” He opens the top drawer of his desk and takes out a contract.
“Do I sign it in blood?” She stands up and moves to the desk, trying to walk as normally as possible. She would sell her soul twice over to run to the bathroom.
“A pen will work. Blood is very difficult to write with. Some people stick to the old ways. We’re oddballs. Our office is trying to become entirely paperless to reduce our carbon footprint. This has to be signed in person. Honestly, it makes no sense to use as much paper as some of the other offices do. Just sign there.”
He points to a line with an X on it. The entire contract reads, I promise my soul to ________.
“Why isn’t the name filled in?”
“We fill it in later. Let’s just assume that you’re promising your soul to Pepsi.” He hands her a heavy silver pen. It feels cool and beautiful in her fingers. Her hand signs the document before she realizes what she is doing. She gives the pen back. He places his hands around hers. They feel warm and strong. He curls her fingers around the pen.
“Keep it. You’ll want it. I still have mine.”
“Thanks. Can I use your restroom?”
“Yeah, right back there by the elevator.”
Rachel tries not to run to the restroom. The marble floor makes her nervous in her heels. She throws herself into the bathroom and slams the door behind her. She wriggles free of her skirt, and her Spanx and forgoes the layer of protective paper between her and the seat. She relieves herself with eye-rolling intensity.
She gets up and begins strapping herself back into her armor. She catches sight of herself in the mirror. She undoes the buttons on her blouse and leaves her skirt around her knees. She is ribs and abs, with pale skin pulled tight. She can see the crow’s feet and laugh lines blossoming on her face. She sees everywhere she is hard where she should be soft, wrinkled where she should be smooth, and fleshy where there should be muscle.
She looks into her eyes. She cannot tell if there is a soul missing from where it should be. She smiles. White, straight, clear as the beach after a good rain. Those whitening kits must have worked. She washes and dries her hands under the blow drier. She doesn’t look at herself as she leaves.
Rachel carries the screenplay under her arm. She walks two blocks up 7th street to the parking lot where she left her Prius so no one would see it. The screenplay rides shotgun. She thinks about buckling it into the seat. She plays no music in the car. She listens to no NPR. She feels like the sound that an empty water tower makes when you hit it with a shovel. She looks at her cellphone; she wants to call someone and tell them everything. She realizes that she doesn’t have anyone to tell even if she could tell them. She is hungry, but she wants nothing to do with the vanilla Powerbars and coconut water she keeps in her glove compartment. She picks up a burrito and a bottle of wine. It’s dark out when she falls into her apartment.
Her dog stands smiling next to a pool of its urine. Its small pink tongue pokes out with every huffing breath. Rachel leaves her burrito, bottle of wine, and screenplay on an upturned moving box. She has lived in this apartment for nine months. She keeps meaning to throw the box out and get a real side table. She cleans up the pee with headshots from a long past audition. Her dog jumps onto its hind legs and paws at the air. It spins in circles for her. She scratches the roll of fat at the back of its neck with her manicured nails. She strips herself out of her clothes. She lays the Prada jacket on her bed so that she can return it in the morning. She washes her makeup off, puts her glasses on, and jumps into sweats and a t-shirt.
She watches The Actual Persian Housewives of Los Angeles. She drinks wine. She eats her burrito. Her dog watches her. She pats the space next to her on the couch. The dog hops up with a little bit of help. It head-butts her ribs playfully. She puts her arm around the dog. She squeezes. She feels her heart beat. It licks her cheek. She feels her heart beat. She holds it out in front of her and looks in its big dumb eyes. She feels her heart beat.
She turns the television off. She puts her burrito down. She picks up Untitled. She turns the first page. She feels her heart beat harder.
The opening screen directions read: We open on Angel.
© 2014, Eric Czuleger
Full Book Description: The San Andreas Fault is the gateway to hell. The Hollywood Hills are mass graves of angels. William Mulholland defies God himself. Satan gets plastic surgery on Sunset Boulevard. A dead boy is stuck in traffic next to a vampire who can’t sleep, and an angel who has a an audition for the role of an angel. The stars are in the sky and on the pavement. The wolves are prowling. The weather is perfect. The screenplay is written. The soul is sold. This movie is going to be big– really big. Welcome to Immortal L.A. You’re going to love it here.
Visit Eric’s site and buy the full book at www.ericczuleger.com
Immortal L.A. is written by Eric Czuleger, a novelist, playwright, & returned peace corps volunteer. He is the author of Falling Dreams, Moonburn, No. Saints Lane, Head Over Heels, L.A. Lights Fire, and the writer/creator of Live Theatre Blog. His plays have been seen in Los Angeles, New York, Kentucky, Washington D.C. & live streamed over the internet to twenty different countries. Full texts of his work are available for purchase from this site.
Follow him on Twitter @Eczuleger