Sexy little p.a., breezing down the 101 in her ’72 Impala convertible, arm draped over the side, long blond hair semaphoring to the male drivers she passes, face guarded by oversized Dolce & Gabbana’s. Her passenger, the long sleeves of his polo shirt shoved up against the heat and humidity, taps on the seat back in time with the radio. With a ten-hour TV shoot behind him and a building L.A. rush hour in front, he’s anxious to get back to his hotel.
Coldplay tune blasts from between the p.a.’s thighs, drawing the man’s attention. She reaches down to the V of her short, short cutoffs, grabs her cell phone, flicks it open. Caught looking, the man swivels his head to the right, but not before registering the girl’s smirk, which he reads as not unreceptive, as the Impala’s deep-throated V-8 thumps his insides. He spots a run-down motel through the thick L.A. air, and when the p.a. takes her foot off the gas and taps the brakes, the sudden discordant sound of her thigh peeling up from the hot, sticky seat jerks him inside one of the motel’s dim rooms, the sound quickly becoming the urgent suction of bare skin on brown, plastic sofa.
The man smiles at the thought and half expects to see himself step out on a second-story balcony and draw deeply on a Marlboro, as the languid little p.a. calls him back inside.
“Okay,” the p.a. says into the phone. “‘Bout an hour, I guess. I said okay!”
The man turns back. “Have to go back to the set?”
The p.a. flicks her phone shut and drops it between her thighs with calculated casualness, knowing the quick movie of it bouncing around, settling, will replay in his mind, keep him entertained. “Production assistant’s job is never done,” she says, sounding resigned. “Gotta help load out.”
Load out? That’s what musicians call hauling out all their gear after a show, the man thinks. Do film crews call it that, too? He doesn’t ask. “Seriously cool car,” he says, gazing up and down its lean, blue-and-rust length. These old metal cars, he thinks, somehow manage to look thin and heavy at the same time, unlike the puffed-up plastic ones today.
“Found it online,” the p.a. says, bright enough to convince him she’s not snickering at someone almost twice her age saying cool. “Guy had it stored fifteen, sixteen years somewhere in Honolulu.”
The man catches himself before he says cool again. They round a curve, move past an embankment to the left, and the city spreads out all the way to the horizon. Sudden holes in the clouds sieve the California sun into long shafts that anoint buildings here and there with a dingy brightness. The sun bursts clear of the clouds and backlights the p.a.’s face, framing it in a wholesome, makeup-free shine. The light sparkles off her sunglasses and outlines her perky little nose, which tells the man she’ll have correspondingly perky little breasts without his having to check, though he does. Glancing back up, he notices a few blond hairs sprouting on her otherwise perfect chin. She senses him staring and rubs the area self-consciously as she talks.
“E-mailed the guy right away when I saw the photo of Elvis. That’s what I call my baby.” She smiles, straightening her driving arm, reaching back to the memory. “We e-mailed for a coupla weeks. And not just about the car. Relating, you know? Really seemed to want me to have it. Liked the idea of me naming it Elvis, too. Then, last minute, he stuck me with the shipping, which totally sucked.”
Around the next bend, traffic’s at a dead stop. The cars ahead bunch up Slinky-style. The man’s cell phone rings. He reaches into his front jean’s pocket just as the low-riding little p.a. slams on the brakes, dipping the convertible’s front end. He shoots his hands to the dash, and his cell phone bounces open on the worn carpet next to his satchel.
“Whoa,” he says. He strains to bend his thick body and retrieve his phone when the car stops rocking. “Still there?” he asks the caller. The line producer with the TV production company says yes and asks if he wants to see the dailies while she looks for a p.a. to take him back to the hotel. Puzzled, he looks over at the driver and answers that he’s on his way to the hotel now.
“Really,” the line producer says, her voice tight with surprise.
Traffic starts moving again, the girl smiles, gives him a thumbs-up.
“Is Lisa driving you?” the line producer asks. “Blond? Kinda cute?”
“Sounds right,” the man says, almost adding: With chin hair?
“Tell her to hurry back after she drops you off, will ya?”
The man closes his phone. “Line producer,” he explains, getting a silent Ah in response. “Says hurry back.”
Mile down the road, his phone rings again.
“Listen, Lisa’s here, so who’s driving you?”
He angles the phone down. “Line producer wants to know who’s driving me.”
The girl chuckles, then leans over and shouts, “The idiot who almost stepped in the shot this morning. Decided to make myself useful and scarce at the same time!”
Phone back to his mouth, the man says, “Didja catch that?”
“Hey, on my crews, that doesn’t happen. What’s her name?”
Something strange is going on, the man tells himself. He can appreciate someone finessing a situation, but not when it involves him. He covers the phone with his hand. “She says tell Stacey things are going okay and not to come back after all.”
“Awesome,” the girl says, beginnings of a smirk. “First good news today.”
The man studies her, neither Lisa nor Stacey, from her angel’s face down to her long tanned legs. She has the kind of lithe body that can draw itself into one of those no-trespassing hugs, arms around knees, smoky little sideways glance adding meaning to a moment his twenty-year age difference might describe as dangerous, sacred.
Why is she pretending to be a p.a.? A chill tells him he’s either about to get real lucky, or real unlucky. He hears the line producer repeat, “Who is driving you?”
The man keeps his eyes on the driver and tosses a mental coin. “Say again, you’re breaking up! Must be a dead zone! I’ll call you back.” He snaps his phone shut, feeling a little electric charge.
He wills the girl to look at him, to see how serious he is. Once she does, he’ll switch to understanding. He can guess her story, came out here to be an actor, huge city full of fast talkers working angles. Maybe she got on with a film crew once, maybe she’s on with this one now, but he doubts it.
He detects a flicker of innocence still in her childlike face and wants to grab her shoulders and shake her back into the girl she was when she first arrived, the one he could have warned, his concern earning appreciation.
Maybe he should be alarmed, but so far the situation’s manageable, though he’s certain she expects to profit from this ride. Is she planning to proposition me or rob me? The writer in him chuckles, thinking: Either way, she’d have me by the balls!
But her residue of innocence gives him something he can work with. Besides, here they are, riding along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, surrounded by hundreds of bystanders—which he realizes is what we all are until circumstances divide us into victims and witnesses. So what’s the worst that could happen? He thinks back to that second-story motel room and his mind watches her sashay over to the door and let in three bikers with a roll of duct tape.
Underneath the girl’s calm shell, he senses tension, a person on the verge, and the seesaw of possible outcomes makes him dizzy.
What made her pick him, anyway? He feels vaguely belittled, thinking she must have seen him arguing with the director, or rather listening to the director go on and on about some grand vision for the commercials. He didn’t argue back—she might have mistaken that for weakness. Anyway, he knew it would all work out later in the edit suite.
His cell phone rings again, but he ignores it. He decides it’s time to get the girl to commit, let him know which way things are going to go, because right now, it’s stretching out in directions he can only guess at. She needs to see he’s not afraid to force a conclusion, hold a pin close to the afternoon’s ballooning skin, allow it to expand, get as taut as she dares, and if it presses too far into the pin and explodes, hey, that won’t be his fault.
“So, Stacey,” he says, coolly. “What now?”
A sudden loud BAM causes him to duck. The girl hits the gas and jerks the wheel to the right, cutting sharply from the middle lane onto the off ramp, bumping up on the curb, popping a hubcap.
“SHIT, SHIT, SHIT!” she says, fighting the steering wheel. “Flat fuckin’ tire, that’s what!”
When she stops the car, they get out, walk around to the right rear and inspect the damage. The girl glances at her watch and runs her hand through her hair. Control the aftermath, he tells himself, and you control the situation. “I got it.” He grabs her keys, opens the trunk, and hauls out the jack and the spare, old and bald as the one that blew.
Twenty minutes later they’re heading up the exit ramp. The man’s grimy shirt and jeans are sticking to his skin, but he’s confident there’s been a shift in the dynamics. She feels it too, he thinks—changing the tire has built him some equity.
At the red light, Coldplay blares again, tugging at his attention, but this time, he doesn’t look between her legs, though he thinks he’s earned it.
She flicks her cell phone open, listens, glances at him, listens some more. “No worries,” she says, and closes the phone. To him, she says, “Probably better off sticking to surface streets from now on.”
He turns off the radio and draws a lazy circle in the air with his finger, encompassing the whole absurd afternoon. “You do this sort of thing often?” he asks, pressing the pin.
She tilts her head and looks at him a moment, seems to make a decision. She pulls off her sunglasses and drops them onto the seat, revealing her eyes, light blue, measuring. She smirks again, only there’s a touch of sympathy that makes him wonder if they’re becoming friends. After a beat, she says with a head tilt, “You make it pretty easy.”
His neck hair stiffens. Does she mean all guys or just him? He nods, her words replaying in his head: You make it pretty easy. He wants to tell her she’s wrong, but then here he is, caught in a situation he still can’t read.
Holding her gaze, he almost flinches at how matter-of-factly those five words sum up his life, at least from her perspective: middle-aged loner, dragging around a smaller-than-average bag of luck, itching to trade up. He feels transparent, wishing she’d put the sunglasses back on before she peers deeper, witnesses the failed marriage, shitty jobs, childhood taunts.
He looks away. “So what’s this really about, laptops? Cell phones?”
“Don’t forget credit cards!” Her laugh is pure and silvery, with no stain of defensiveness or guilt.
Now she’s making fun of me. Maybe it is just a ride. Maybe when I called her Stacey, she didn’t correct me because she was so glad she didn’t have to go back to the shoot.
“So what do you do?”
Her tone is so light, he sinks a little, feeling betrayed by the shift in subject. She’s skipped ahead to small talk, afterwards talk—the kinds of things you say after passion, resolution. He wonders if she’s been playing with him, sailing along with his paranoia, and he feels like a puppy who’s chased a ball someone only pretended to throw.
“Writer. Wrote the commercials we’re shooting.”
“Charlotte,” he says. “North Carolina.”
She turns, her look saying, I know that’s in North Carolina.
He tries to remember how he got to this point. They had just finished the final shot of the day, and he was talking with the art director who had created the commercials with him. They were having director problems—which isn’t unusual on a first shoot. This director’s idea of comedy, which is what the spots were, was to have the actors deadpan it—flat read, no expression, no emotion—every director’s model now. But the agency didn’t want that, nor did the client.
As the writer, he was supposed to help keep an eye on every aspect of the filming. Now he was tired, he had had it with the director’s conceptual essence, the vision everyone was going to love once it was on film, and by the way, had he given any more thought to dialing back the color, giving the spots a grittier, more realistic look?
He told the art director to battle the director, which the art director didn’t like, but so what? It was the art director’s turn to get into the director’s face, tell him they didn’t want a washed-out look, didn’t want to pay actors not to act.
Maybe he should have stayed in Charlotte. He had considered it. He had a stack of other assignments on his desk, other deadlines to meet. The art director would have come back with crap footage, of course, which he would have had to save in edit.
He was getting ready to tell the art director he was going to the hotel as soon as the line producer found him a ride, when this girl suddenly bounced up, big sunglasses, bright smile, jeans cut deal-with-it short.
“You need a ride?” she said.
“That, I do!” He turned, made his eyebrows dance for the art director.
“I’m your guy,” she said, did a quick about-face, and headed toward where the cars were parked a block over, leaving him no choice but to follow.
The light turns green at the top of the off-ramp, the girl honks a warning at an SUV creeping into her lane, and barrels across the bridge and up a hill, leaving the traffic-choked 101 below and to the left. Around another bend, traffic bunches up.
The girl’s phone beeps with a text message. She checks it, mutters, “Asshole.”
The man needs to find truth here. “So tell me, is Elvis here really yours?”
She looks at him, rakes her hair back from her face. “Of course!”
“Yep.” That smirk again. “No. Friend of mine does production work in the Valley—that’s where they do all the porn—anyway, she found it. Owned by a nice old lady who rents out her house for their shoots.”
“Like my friend says, ‘It may be ass-fucking, but it’s a feature!'”
The man laughs. “How about you?”
“Me and porn?”
“You and production work.”
She turns, her look saying, C’mon, are you that naive? When he doesn’t react, she shrugs. “It’s fine. You know.”
The sun’s behind him now, lighting this side of the girl’s face, and he sees discoloration at her temple, a yellowing bruise that looks like it might have been ugly a few days before. When she pushes up her T-shirt sleeve to scratch her shoulder, he sees another one on her upper arm.
He no longer imagines her as a free spirit, blowing down the highway, Elvis wide open, a buzz of biker-drones surrounding her. She’s trapped, tragic. He feels protective and irritated that she can’t recognize that he’s her way out.
She gets another text, looks at it, speaks as she reads. “Line producer wants to know if you’d like me to pick you up in the morning.”
Everything shifts again. He almost relaxes, but wonders why the line producer would text her instead of calling him, then he remembers his comment about his phone being in a dead zone. Did the line producer finally figure out the driver’s name? Or is it a trick, should he ask to see the text? He knows it would break whatever connection was forming. She had removed her sunglasses, revealed her bruises.
“You don’t have to, of course . . . have me pick you up,” she says. “Line producer just thought it’d be easier.”
“No, that sounds good.”
A mile later, she says, “Check the glove compartment, will you, see if there’s crackers or something?”
He opens the compartment, flips through old gas station receipts, parking tickets, other papers. “Nope, nothing,” he says, and shuts it, realizing he should have looked for something with a name.
“Shit,” she says, “I skipped lunch.”
He sees a sign that says Hollywood Bowl with an arrow pointing straight ahead. He laughs at himself. He doesn’t know a lot about L.A., but knows his hotel is in Hollywood, can’t be too far away. “Listen,” he says, his mouth suddenly dry, “the hotel has pretty good food. Why don’t you come in and we’ll get something?”
She looks at him like she’s weighing the idea, then says, “Well, I don’t have to go back to the shoot, so . . . why not? Make an evening of it!” She looks down at herself, pinching the fringe of fabric at her thigh. “Can’t go like this, though. Let me run home, put something else on.” Before he can respond, she turns left and heads down a cross street. She looks at him and smiles, playfully adding, “But you have to wait outside with Elvis,” quelling his growing suspicion.
He smiles in return, replaying her words: Make an evening of it!
A half-hour later, she turns into an industrial-looking area. She makes a right down a narrow street—more like an alley. On both sides are the backs of beige buildings surrounded by beige walls topped with concertina wire throwing off pink and orange sparks in the setting sun. What few cars he sees are pulling out of the enclosed areas behind the buildings. Before the drivers leave, they close and lock the heavy, metal gates, also topped with concertina wire. A few floodlights come on weakly.
She pulls into a small, walled-in parking area in back of one of the faded buildings, and turns off the ignition. There are no other cars in the lot. The wall blocks most of the sunlight, but the man can see a bright red door at the left corner of the building.
Without saying a word, the girl jumps out of the car and runs toward the red door, opens it, and hurries inside, slamming it shut with a metallic sound so final, his scalp tingles. It doesn’t surprise him, though. He knew where this was heading when she left the driver’s side door open, and by the way her hair bounced dismissively as she ran without glancing back.
But the tire, I changed the tire, he thinks, realizing he changed nothing. The uneven scrape of leather soles on concrete behind him signals a group of four or five. His heart pumps in reverse, sucking every drop of blood from his body, leaving him cold, hollow.
He hears a deep murmuring from them, reminding him of Sunday mornings when he was a boy, sitting in a front pew, hearing the voices of the congregation rise unevenly in a psalm.