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December 08, 2004

Chapter Six

I glanced through the window into my office. "Tell me that's not Tea Reader I see in there," I said.

"All right," Miranda said. "That's not Tea Reader you see in there."

"Thank you for conforming to my reality," I said.

"Not at all," Miranda said. "It's an honor and a privilege."

I grabbed my door knob, took a deep breath, and went into my office.

If nothing else, Tea Reader was heart-stoppingly beautiful; half Hawaiian, half Hungarian, five feet ten inches, and naturally possessed of the sort of proportions that most women insist exist only on foot-high plastic dolls. Her record company publicist once drunkenly confided in me that his company estimated at least 45% of Tea's record sales were to boys aged thirteen through fifteen, who bought them for the CD insert that featured Tea rising from the waters of the Pacific, clad in a thin t-shirt and a thong bikini bottom, both a particularly transparent shade of tan.

I drunkenly confided to him that, when I had inherited her from my former podmate, I held the poorly masked hope that she might be one of those actresses who occasionally slept with their agents. Then I got to know her. I learned to be glad that she was not.

"Hello, Tea," I said.

"Hello, Tom, you miserable fuckhead," Tea said.

"Always a pleasure to see you, too, Tea," I said. I walked to my desk and set down. "Now," I said. "How can I help you?"

"You can explain to me why I suddenly seem to be represented by Little Miss Hysterical over here." Tea motioned to the far chair in the corner, where Amanda Hewson sat, crying. At the mention of her existence, Amanda let out an audible sob and lifted her feet, in an attempt to curl into a fetal position while still sitting. The chair was getting in the way.

"Amanda is a full agent here at the company," I said. "And she's quite good."

"Bullshit," Tea said. Amanda gave another sob. Tea rolled her eyes dramatically and shouted over her shoulder at Amanda. "Could you please shut the fuck up?" She said. "I'm trying to talk my real agent over here, and it's hard enough without you crying a fucking river."

Amanda exploded from her seat like a flock of birds flushed out of the underbrush, and attempted to flee the room. She grabbed at the door, pulled it, and whacked herself on the side of the face. I winced; that was going to leave a mark. Amanda wailed and sprinted towards her pod. Tea watched the scene and then turned back to me. She had the expression of the cat who ate the canary and then threw it up in her owner's favorite shoes.

"Where were we?" she said.

"That wasn't very nice," I said, mildly.

"I'll tell you what's not very fucking nice, Tom," Tea said. "It's not nice to get back from Honolulu, where I've been visiting my family, and having a message from Mandy, telling me how excited she is to be working with me." From her sinister stretch, Tea straightened up, preternaturally perky. Her voice became a dead-on ringer for Amanda's Girl Scout-like tone. "'I have your album! I love to listen to it while I'm exercising!'" Tea slouched again. "Great. Add that to the half that are whacking off to my picture on the cover, sister."

"It's actually only forty five percent," I said.

Tea's eyes narrowed. "What?"

"Forty five percent whacking off," I said. "Your record company's own estimate. Tea, Amanda's working with me. She's my assistant."

"I thought Miss Bitch back there was your assistant," Tea said, jerking a thumb towards Miranda's desk. "She almost didn't let me in to your office today. I was getting ready to smack her."

Before getting her act together and working her way through college, Miranda spent a reasonable portion of her teen years gang-banging in East LA. One night, at a company party, Miranda showed me her collection of scars, inflicted by razors in a number of cat fights. The other girls got it worse, she said. I didn't suspect Tea realized how close to death she had gotten this morning.

"Miranda is my administrative assistant," I said. "Amanda is working with me with some of my clients."

"Well, I don't want to work with her," Tea said.

"Why not?"

"Hello? Tom? Did you not see Miss Mandy in here today? What a fucking crybaby."

"How did she get that way, Tea?" I asked.

"Beats me," Tea said. "We were just sitting here, waiting for you, and I was just telling her that there was no fucking way on the planet she was going to be my agent."

"How long were you in here before I got here?"

Tea shrugged. "A half hour, forty five minutes."

"I see," I said. "And you don't think being shat on for three-quarters of an hour is a good reason to get upset."

"Hey," Tea sat up again and jabbed a finger at me, "You're the one that put her in that situation. Don't get angry at me because I went off on her a little."

"Forty five minutes is not a little, Tea," I said.

"What the fuck does that mean? I'm the one getting screwed here." She slumped back, sullen.

I was getting a headache. "Tea, what do you want from me?" I asked.

"I want you to do your fucking job," Tea said. "I'm not giving you ten percent so you can palm me off on Mandy, the Teenage Agent. I can think of about ten agents in town who'd get on their hands and knees to represent me. You're not doing me any favors, Tom."

"Really," I said. "Ten agents."

"At least."

"Fine," I said. "Name one."


"Name one," I said. "Give me the name of one of those agents."

"Hell, no," Tea said. "Why should I tell you who your competition is? Stay nervous." Tea said.

"Nervous? Hell, Tea, I want to call them up," I said. "If they're so gung-ho to have you, I'll let you go. I don't want you to be unhappy. So let's do this thing. Let's get it over with. Unless you're running off at the mouth."

That got her. "Alan Finley at ACR," she said.

I buzzed Miranda. She came to the door. "Yes, Tom?"

"Miranda, would you call Alan Finley over at Associated Client Representation, and put him on the speaker when you get him?"

"Sure, Tom."

"Thanks," I said. "Oh, one other thing. After you get Alan, would you mind bringing me Tea's file?"

"Not at all," Miranda said. "Do you want the whole file?"

"Just the clippings, please, Miranda."

Miranda smiled slightly and glanced at Tea. "Delighted to, Tom. Tea," she said. Tea fairly snarled at Miranda as she closed the door.

"Fucking bitch," Tea said. "Did you see that look she gave me?"

"I must have missed it," I said.

Miranda's voice clicked in over the speaker phone. "Alan Finley at ACR, Tom," she said, and left the line.

A male voice piped up. "Tom? You there?"

"Ho, Alan," I said. "How are things over there at ACR these days?"

"The land of milk and honey, Tom. We're giving away Bentleys as party favors. You want one?"

Two weeks ago, an ACR internal memo made its way to Variety; in it, ACR's CEO Norm Jackson offered a Rolls Royce to the agent who stole the most A-list clients from other agencies in the next three months. Jackson first declared it a forgery, and then tried to chalk it up as an inside joke. Nobody bit. Long-time clients were offended that they, by implication, were not A-listers, and started jumping ship. Clients in the process of being wooed by ACR stopped returning calls. Variety suggested that the second-place winner get Norm Jackson's job.

"I'll pass for now, Alan, but I hope you remember me during the holidays," I said. "Listen, Alan. Got a question for you."


"I have a client who has recently become, shall we say, dissatisfied with the quality of representation she's receiving here. She's thinking of going over there."

"Well, aren't you just the helpful one, Tom," Alan said. "Is it Michelle Beck? You can send her right along. I'll get that Rolls after all."

I laughed. He laughed. Tea glared at the speakerphone.

"Sorry, Alan. The client is Tea Reader. You know her."

"Sure. I bought her CD. For the picture on the inside, mostly."

Tea looked like she was about to say something, but I put my finger to my lips. "Right," I said. "So are you interested? Want to take her on?"

"Jesus, Tom, you're actually serious?"

"Sure am, Alan. Serious as a heart attack."

"She wouldn't happen to be there at the moment, would she?"

"Nope," I said. That, at the very least, would keep Tea quiet for a few minutes. "Just you and me. You want her?"

"Fuck, no, Tom," Alan said. "I hear she's a harpy."

Tea looked like she'd been slapped.

"I hear she drove her last agent insane. You knew him, right?"

"Yeah," I said. "We were podmates."

"That's right. Cracked up like Northridge in a quake is what I heard. Became a moonie or a Scientologist or something wacko like that."

"Buddhist, actually."

"Close enough," Alan said. "No offense, Tom. I have enough clients who make me want to get religion, so I could be assured that there was a Hell for them to be sent to. I could look at Tea for hours. Wouldn't want to be in the same room as her, though. Certainly wouldn't want to represent her. How do you manage it, anyway?"

"Just a saint, I suppose," I said. "Well, look, Alan, you know anyone over there who might want to have her?"

"Not off the top of my head. I think everybody's perfectly happy to let you represent her for as long as you want, pal. I'll remember you in my prayers, if it will make you feel any better."

"It does, it does," I said. "Thanks, Alan."

"Sure, Tom. Be sure to let me know when Michelle gets bored with you. Her, I'd put up with." He hung up.

"Well," I said. "That was certainly instructive."

"Fuck you," Tea said, and stared off out a side window. Miranda came in, dropped a file on my desk, and left.

"What is that?" Tea asked.

"This is your clipping file," I said. "Our clipping service scours the trades and the magazines for a reference to any of our clients and sends them on to us. So we always know what people are thinking about the people we represent."

I separated the clips into two piles. One was very small. The other was not. I pointed to the smaller pile. "Do you know what this is?" I asked.

Tea looked over, shrugged. "No."

"These are your positive notices," I said. "They're mostly about the fact that you're built like Barbie, although there's one here that says you were the best thing about that Pauly Shore flick you were in, with the further admission that that is a textbook example of damning with faint praise."

I thumped the other, much larger pile with an open palm. "This," I said, "is your pile of negative notices. We have an office pool here, you know. We've got bets on how thick this pile is going to get by the end of the year. Right now, it's a modest three inches. But it's early yet."

Tea looked bored. "Is this going somewhere?"

I gave up. "Tea, I've been trying to find some way to put this delicately. Let me make it simple: Nobody in town likes you. No one. You're monstrously difficult. People don't like working with you. People don't like being seen with you. People don't even like being in the same room with you. Even the thirteen year old boys who fantasize about you know enough not to like you as a person. In the grand pantheon of contemporary bitches of Hollywood, it's you, Shannon Doherty and Sean Young."

"I'm not anything like them," Tea said. "I still have a career."

"You sure do," I said. "And you have me to thank for it. Any other agent would have written you off long ago. You're good looking, but that's not exactly a rare thing around these parts. I have to fight to get you work. And every time I do get you work, I hear back about how everybody on that crew would rather chew glass than work with you again. Everyone. They have craft service workers who won't cater a set you're on. My best estimate is that you have about another 18 months before we run out of people who'll work with you. After that you'll have to find some nice, 80-year oil tycoon you can marry and screw into a coma."

Tea was dumbstruck. It couldn't last. It didn't. "Gee, Tom. Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"The vote of confidence isn't for you, Tea. I'm giving you two choices here. The first choice is to sit here, shut up and do what I tell you. We may have an outside chance of saving your career if you do. The other is not to sit here, shut up, and do what I tell you. In which case, I'm dropping you and you can get the hell out of my office. It really doesn't matter to me which you do. Actually, I'm lying. I'd prefer it if you left. But it's up to you. What's it going to be?"

Tea sat there with a gaze of pure, unadulterated hate. It was unnervingly arousing. I ignored it and went on.

"All right, then. The first thing you're going to do is apologize to Amanda."

"Fuck, no," Tea said.

"Fuck, yes," I said, "or we have no deal. I realize you didn't notice this while you were dismantling her, but Amanda may have been the only person in the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area who actually genuinely liked you. There are 17 million people in the LA basin, Tea. You need her."

"The hell I do," Tea said.

"Tea," I said. "Two words. 'Boinking Grandpa.'"

"Fuck," Tea said. "All right."

"Thank you," I said. "The second thing you're going to do is trust me. Amanda isn't much to look at at the moment, but she's going to devote more of her brain to you than she does to herself. Work with her. Try to be nice. In the comfort of your own home, you can stab life-sized dolls dressed up to look like her, for all I care. But give her something to work with. Understand?"

"Fine," Tea said. She was hating this.

"Great," I said. "Off you go, then."

"What, you want me to apologize now?" She was genuinely shocked.

"No time like the present, Tea. She's in the building, you're in the building. It's more convenient that way."

Tea got up, gave me one last glare, and exited the office, slamming the door on the way out. I sat there for a good fifteen seconds, and let out a tremendous whoop, and began spinning my desk chair around.

Miranda came into the office. She had something in her hand. "Tea left looking like she was going to implode, Tom. You must have done a number on her."

"Oh my God," I said, stopping the spin cycle. I felt pleasantly dizzy. "I've been wanting to do that for years. You have no idea how good that felt. "

"Sure I do," Miranda said. "You left the speakerphone on."

She extended her hand to me. In it was a tape cassette.

"What's this?" I asked.

"A momento of your special Tea time," Miranda said. "Sorry. I just couldn't resist."


Michelle speared a sliver of chicken from her salad. "I'm thinking of dyeing my hair," she said, and popped the chicken in her mouth.

"Blue hair only looks good on Marge Simpson, Michelle," I said.

She wiggled her hand at me. "Ha ha, funny guy. No, I'm going to dye it brown. You know, for the part."

"What part are we talking about, if I may ask?" I said.

"Hard Memories," Michelle said.

Now I knew why I was sitting inside the Mondo Chicken in Tarzana. Michelle and I had met there years ago, when she was a waitress named Shelly, looking for an agent, and I was newly-minted agent looking to get laid. She turned out to be the more determined one; I never did have sex with Michelle, but she got me as an agent. She took it as a lucky omen (the getting the agent part, not the part about not having sex with me); since then, any time Michelle had a special occasion to mark or an announcement to make to me, she did it at Mondo Chicken.

So far it had included six movie decisions, one double funeral when her parents died in a car accident, three engagements (and subsequent breakups), two religious epiphanies and one pet euthanization. There were a lot of memories between us, packed into one moderately overpriced eatery in the Valley. The fact that Michelle decided to tell me about wanting Hard Memories here was a very bad sign. It meant that she was determined, and that there was going to be little I could do to change her mind.

But, of course, I had to try. "Hard Memories is already taken, Michelle," I said. "Ellen Merlow's been signed for the part."

"Not yet," she said. "I called. It's only an oral agreement. I think I can make them change their minds."

"By dyeing your hair?"

"For a start," Michelle said. "I mean, it would at least signal that I'm serious. And if I look more like the part, maybe they can see me in the role. Brown hair would change my entire look." She stabbed at her salad again.

I set down my own fork and massaged the bridge of my nose. "Michelle," I said. "if you had brown hair, you still wouldn't look a 40-year-old Eastern European Jew. You'd look like a 25-year-old Californian Aryan with hair dyed brown. Look at yourself, Michelle. You're blonde. Naturally. You have Newman Blue eyes. And you have a body shape that wasn't even invented until the 1980s."

"I can plump out," she said.

"You throw up in panic when you have dessert," I said.

"I stopped doing that a long time ago, and you know that," Michelle said. "That was a cheap shot."

"You're right," I said. "I'm sorry."

Michelle relaxed. "I'll even have dessert today," she said. "I think they have non-fat yogurt here."

"It's not just how you look, Michelle," I said. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're just not ready for that part. It's a part that's meant for someone much older."

Michelle pointed her fork at me. "Summertime Blues was meant for someone older, remember? When we first got the script, it called for a 30-year-old woman to seduce those two teenage brothers. When I got the part, it got kicked back to a 22-year-old. That's what re-writes are for, you said."

"Summertime Blues was a comedy about two kids losing their cherry," I said. "Hard Memories is about anti-Semitism and six million people dying. I think you could agree there's a slight difference in tone there."

"Well, of course," Michelle said. "But I don't see what that has to do with the main character."

I sighed. "Let me try a different tack, "I said. "Why do you want this role so badly?"

Michelle looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, what is it about the role that makes you so passionate about it? What is it about this role that's getting you so worked up?"

"It's a great role, Tom," she said. "It's so dramatic and filled with feeling. I want to do something like that. You know, something with emotional baggage. I think it's time Hollywood started taking me seriously."

"Okay," I said. "Now, how much do you know about the Holocaust?"

"I know a lot," Michelle said. "How can you not know about the Holocaust? It was terrible, everyone knows that. I saw Schindler's List when it came out. I cried."

"All right, crying at Schindler's List is a good start," I said. "Anything else?"

"I've been thinking of going to that museum here about hatred," she said. "I forget what it's called at the moment. Simon something. The Norton Simon?"

"Simon Wiesenthal," I said. "The Norton Simon is an art museum."

"I knew it was one of the two," she said.

"Did you ever read that book of poems I gave you?"

"The ones by that Christmas guy?"

"Krysztof," I said.

"I started them, but I had to stop," Michelle said. "I had to put my dog to sleep around that time, and reading those poems just made me depressed. I just kept thinking about my dog and crying."

"Right," I said. "Look, Michelle, I think it's great that you want to do dramatic roles. I think you'll be great in them. I just don't think that this is right one. Hard Memories isn't just going to take technique, it's going to take knowledge. I know you think you know about the Holocaust and about this woman's life, but I don't think you do. If you were to take this role without knowing anything about it, it's going to come back to haunt you. Melanie Griffith once did a movie called Shining Through and on the press junket she said 'There were six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. That's a lot of people!' It didn't help her film any."

"Six million is a lot of people," Michelle said. "I don't see why people would be so upset that she said that."

"I know, Michelle," I said. "That's why I think you should skip this role."

Michelle glared at me angrily and appeared to be winding up to a tirade when her eyes slipped into her skull, leaving only the whites visible. Her mouth dropped open slightly. She dropped her fork onto the table. I stared, panicked -- I had made her so angry I caused her to stroke out. I was in the process of yanking out my cellular phone to dial 911 when she snapped back.

"That's better," she said.

"Jesus Christ, Michelle," I said. "What was that all about?"

"I've been going to a hypno-therapist," she said, "to help me handle my stress. He placed an auto-suggestion into my subconscious so that every time I get angry or stressed, I sort of float away for a couple of seconds. It's really helping me deal with my issues."

"Let's hope you don't have any issues while you're on the 405," I said.

"Well, I usually stress out in traffic jams, so it's not a problem," Michelle said. "I'm not moving anyway. Listen, you just made me very angry back there."

"I know that now," I said.

"You're supposed to be my agent, you know," she said, "and that means helping me get the roles I want."

"Yes, but I'm also your friend," I said, "and that means looking out for you. And also, as your agent, I have to look out for the longevity of your career. If Hard Memories flopped, it wouldn't stop you from making movies, but it would make folks think twice about hiring you for another drama. And then you would be stuck doing Summertime Blues and Murdered Earth sequels. Very profitable in the short run, but not what I think you want to do all your life."

"I don't even want to do this Murdered Earth sequel," Michelle said, sullenly. "Any way I can get out of it?"

"Afraid not," I said. "We've gone beyond the oral agreement stage. Besides, you've got twelve million plus back end. You're unbelievably rich now. Enjoy it."

Michelle poked at her food. "The only reason I got the first film was because Brad wanted to screw me."

"There was more to it than that, Michelle," I said, and that much was true -- at the time, she had also been cheap to hire. "But look at it this way: now you get to screw him. To the tune of 12 mil."

Michelle shrugged and looked down at her plate. "All I'm saying is sometime soon I'd like to get to do something where the reason I got it wasn't because someone wanted to get in my pants."

I remembered why I had started representing Michelle. I felt unbelievably filthy.

"You ready to go?" I said.

She looked up at me. "What?"

"Let's go," I said. I pulled out my wallet and set down a couple of twenties.

"I haven't ordered dessert yet," Michelle said.

"I believe that you would have eaten it," I said. "Now I want you to come with me. I have an idea."

Across the strip mall from the Mondo Chicken was a Crown SuperStore. We went in.

"What are we doing?" Michelle asked.

"Getting research materials," I said, and sat her down in on one of the store's benches while I went shopping. I picked up Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, Elie Wisel and Simon Wiesenthal. I grabbed Hitler's Willing Executioners, Denying the Holocaust,Shoah and Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? I went to the graphic novel area and fished through costumed superheroes until I found Maus. On the way through the fiction I spotted Sophie's Choice. I grabbed it. Couldn't hurt.

I had no illusions -- These books were enough to confuse graduate students, let alone Michelle, who was, at the very best, a middleweight in the intelligence arena. I couldn't even imagine what she was going to make of the concept of "The Banality of Evil". But we had eaten at Mondo Chicken, and that meant something. She'd kill herself slogging through all these. And who knows. It could take. Stranger things have happened.

Twenty minutes later, we stood at the checkstand while the overawed cashier rang up our purchases.

"You want me to read all of these?" Michelle asked.

"Try," I said. "Start with Maus or Sophie's Choice. Convince me that you're serious by reading some of these and I'll do everything I can to get you that part. Fair enough?"

Michelle squealed like the cheerleader she was and gave me a bearhug and a smack on the cheek. The cashier nearly fainted with envy.

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:02 PM