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December 08, 2004

Chapter Thirteen

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany began World War II by bombing the hell out of the Polish capital of Warsaw. By September 27, the Germans were dipping their feet in the Vistula river, which bisects the city; shortly thereafter, the Jews of Warsaw were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto -- 500,000 of them, initially, in an area roughly one mile square. In July of 1942, the Nazis began deporting the Jews en masse from the ghetto. Between July 22 and October 3, 300,000 were deported to the various concentration camps -- Treblinka and Chelmno were the closest to the city of Warsaw -- and exterminated. In April of 1943, the 40,000 or so Jews who remained in the ghetto were attacked by the Nazis. They fought back, heroically, for three weeks. And then nearly all of them were killed.

One who survived was Rachel Spiegelman. In pre-War times, Rachel and her family were well-to-do professionals; the daughter and granddaughter of physicians, Rachel herself had studied law and worked as the office manager of her husband's law firm. In addition to Polish and Yiddish, she spoke German and English, and had even been to America as a child, to visit family members who had emigrated there. She was a daughter and wife of privilege, and the fall from having servants and summer homes to living six to a room in the ghetto was a long one.

And yet, inasmuch as one can in the circumstances, Rachel thrived. She was tough-minded and sensible -- and also formidable. When the Nazis informed the ghetto residents that they were to form Jewish councils that would oversee housing, sanitation and manufacturing production, she forbade any member of her family from joining the councils, declaring that those who worked with the Germans were leading the rest to the slaughter. When her husband disobeyed her and served on a council, Rachel threw him out of the room that they shared with Rachel's parents, her brother, and her brother's wife.

She then organized her neighborhood to operate around the councils and clashed with them repeatedly over their edicts. With a young Pole who was rumored to be her lover, she operated a black market, somehow finding meat and sweets when the Germans allowed only turnips and beets to be sent into the ghetto. When the Nazis ordered the Jewish councils to find "volunteers" for deportation, Rachel , working desperately, found her neighbors work in armament plants or hid them, delaying but ultimately failing to stem the death flow out of the ghetto. She fought alongside the remaining Jews during the ghetto uprising for two weeks, one of the very few women left in the ghetto to do so; in the third week, against her better judgment, she attempted to escape the ghetto with her young Pole. They actually did it, only to be turned in by one the Pole's "friends". He was shot and killed; she was sent to Treblinka.

From April until the beginning of August, Rachel slaved in the camp; on August 3rd, it was decided that she was no longer needed. She was sent a mile up the road to Treblinka II, where the "bathhouses" were. These bathhouses were connected to huge diesel engines that pumped in carbon monoxide -- deadly, but not very efficient. It typically took nearly a half hour before the hundreds crammed inside the "bathhouses" died. It was a long and terrifying death, and between 700,000 and 900,000 people died that way, in that camp.

On August 3rd, however, there were some surprising deaths at Treblinka II; namely, an SS officer and several guards. They were killed by some of the Jews who worked at the camp, performing the executions, excavating the corpses for gold teeth and other valuables, and transporting the bodies to mass graves. The Jews chose that day to attempt a revolt, and while it was not successful, over 200 Jews escaped the camp during the chaos. Rachel was one of them. Most of the escapees were eventually recaptured or killed. Rachel was not. Rachel went north, eventually finding passage to Sweden. After the war ended, she emigrated from there to the United States.

Rachel's story would be remarkable enough if it had ended there. But it did not. Once Rachel arrived in the US, she was outraged to discover that her adopted country, the one that had fought for the freedom of Europe, was dealing with Black Americans like the Germans dealt with the Jews. Even some of the laws were effectively the same -- No intermarriage, segregated schools and services, and violence either ignored or actively condoned by those whose job it was to keep the peace. "There are black shirts beneath those white robes," she would later write.

So she did something about it. She went back to law school and got her J.D. -- and the next day got on a bus to Montgomery, Alabama, the Heart of Dixie. She passed the bar and set up shop: a female, Jewish lawyer, offering legal services to black sharecroppers and factory workers. Her office was firebombed twice in the first month. The next, someone drove by and put a bullet through her window. It ricocheted and struck her in the leg. She went to the hospital to have it removed, and was denied medical help by the emergency room resident, who refused to work on a "nigger-loving Jew." Rachel responded by prying out the bullet herself, right there, slamming it down on the resident's clip board, and walking out under her own power. Then she sued the hospital and the resident. She won. Her office was firebombed again.

She stayed on -- on through the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, when she bought her first car to avoid riding the buses and ferried black friends to and from work. On through the Birmingham protests of 1963, when she was arrested twice by white policemen and bitten three times by their dogs. On through Martin Luther King's 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, when she and King walked arm-in-arm as they strode past her offices, now staffed with partners -- half of them black.

Just before she died in 1975, she wrote in Time magazine, "I feel the work I have done was the work I was destined to do. I know what it is to lose my rights and to be told that I have no right to exist, to see my family, my friends and my humanity stripped away from me. These are hard memories, couched in sorrow and anger. But I also know what it is to see others begin to gain their rights and their humanity, to be told, yes, you are our brothers and sisters. Come join us at the family table, and be welcome. My work, though such a small part of a larger whole, has helped to make this a reality. It makes those hard memories a little easier to bear, because these memories -- they are glorious."

This is the woman that Michelle Beck wanted to portray. Could she do it?

Well, she was the right sex.


By the time Michelle and I waited in Roland Lanois' anteroom, however, any hint that I felt Michelle to be utterly wrong for the role had vanished. After a certain point as an agent, you simply stop worrying about the far-reaching implications of what you are doing and deal with the at-the-moment details. Some would call it enforced amorality. But it's really just a matter of being there for your client, and doing what needs to be done. At the moment, I was trying to keep Michelle from hyperventilating.

"Breathe," I said. "Respiration is a good thing."

"I'm so sorry, Tom," Michelle said. She was gripping both sides of her chair so hard it looked like she might dent the metal. "I'm just so nervous. I didn't think I would be. But I am. Oh, God," she said. She started thumping her chest with her fist. "Oh, Tom, I'm sorry." She sounded like a helicopter.

I grabbed the fist before she could break her ribs. "Stop apologizing. You haven't done anything wrong. It's okay to be nervous, Michelle. This is a pretty big role. But I don't think you need to bruise yourself over it. Have you read the scene Roland wants you to do?"

"Yes," she said, and then grinned sheepishly. "I actually memorized the whole thing. All the parts. I didn't want to blow it. Isn't that stupid?"

"No, not really," I said. "You know, when Elvis started work on his very first film, he memorized the entire script. All the parts, not just his own. No one told him there was any other way to do it."

Michelle looked at me, confused. "Elvis was an actor?"

"Well, I don't know that I'd go that far," I said. "But he was in movies. Jailhouse Rock. Love Me Tender. Blue Hawaii."

"I thought those were songs," Michelle said.

"They are songs," I agreed. "But they're also movies."

"Oh, great," Michelle said. "Now Elvis songs are going on in my head." She stood up and started pacing. Watching her was making me tired.

Rajiv, Roland's assistant, came out of Roland's office. "Okay," he said. "We're setting up the video camera, so if you want to come on in, we'll get started right away."

Michelle took in a sharp intake of breath; it sounded like she was trying to inhale the ficus plant on the other side of the office. Rajiv jumped slightly at the noise.

"Give us just a minute," I said.

"No rush," Rajiv said, and closed the door.

"Oh God," Michelle said, wringing her hands. "Oh God oh God oh God oh God."

I went over and started massaging her shoulders. "Come on, Michelle," I said. "This is what you wanted."

"God, Tom," Michelle said. "Why am I so nervous? I've never been this nervous about an audition before."

"It's because you're finally using a script that has words longer than two syllables," I said.

Michelle wheeled around and pushed me, semi-hard, in the chest. "You're a jerk," she said.

"Noted," I said. "On the other hand, you're not hyperventilating any more. Now, come on. Let's do this thing." I took her hand, walked her to the office door, and opened it.

Inside was Roland, his assistant Rajiv, and a woman that I did not recognize. Roland and the woman were sitting comfortably on the couch; Rajiv was standing over a video camera, fiddling with something.

Roland got up and strode over to us as we came through the door. "Tom," he said. "A pleasure to see you again. I hope you are well."

"I am, Roland, thanks," I said, and motioned to Michelle. "This is my client, Michelle Beck."

"But of course. Miss Beck. The woman who has driven my poor assistant to traitorous activity. It is a pleasure." Roland took Michelle's hand, and in a playfully dramatic fashion, kissed it. Michelle smiled uncertainly and glanced over to me. I gave a shrug that said go with it.

"And now, if you'll both allow me to make introductions of my own," Roland said. "First, Miss Beck, I should like to introduce you Rajiv Patel, my assistant, with whom you have had many long and interesting phone conversations. I believe somewhere in the office he may have erected a shrine to you."

Rajiv was dark-skinned enough that it was somewhat astonishing to be able to see his blush. "Hello, Michelle," he said, and went back to fooling around with the video camera.

"And this," he said, turning to the woman on the couch, "Is Avika Spiegelman, who is one of the assistant producers of the film."

I walked over to shake her hand. "A pleasure," I said. "Are you related to Rachel Spiegelman?"

"She was my aunt," she said. "Actually my second cousin, or cousin twice removed, or whatever you'd like to call it. But we all called her 'Aunt Rachel.' It was simpler that way."

"In addition to being one of our producers, Ms. Spiegelman is acting as an advisor to the film, giving us insight to the real Rachel Spiegelman," Roland said. "As such, I thought it might be prudent to have her give us her thoughts."

"I loved you in Summertime Blues," Avika said to Michelle. "You were perfect for that role."

Roland and I caught the subtext of that statement; Michelle did not. Instead she smiled brightly. "Thank you," she said. Avika smiled thinly. It was going to be a tougher crowd than I had expected.

"All right, we're ready," Rajiv said.

"Splendid," Roland clapped his hands together and turned back to Michelle. "My dear Miss Beck, if you wouldn't mind sitting in the chair in front of the video camera. Ms. Spiegelman will be feeding you lines while Rajiv records you. Do you have a copy of the script?"

"She memorized the scene, Roland," I said.

"Really," Roland said. "Well, that's certainly a point in your favor, my dear. Let's have a seat, shall we?"

Michelle sat in front of the video camera. Rajiv fixed the focus on the camera and then stepped back. Avika opened up her script. Roland sat back down on the couch. I stood back by the door.

Roland looked at Michelle. "Are we ready, then?"

Michelle nodded. Roland glanced over at Avika and nodded. Avika scrolled down her page until she found the line she was looking for. "'How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do,'" she said, tonelessly. "'You are my wife, not my master.'"

Michelle blinked, opened her mouth as if to say something, and then closed it again. "I'm sorry," she finally said. "Could you say the line again?"

"'How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do,'" Avika repeated. "'You are my wife, not my master.'"

Michelle stared at Avika, then stared over to me, panicked.

"Is something wrong, Miss Beck?" Roland inquired.

"I...uh...I," Michelle began, and placed her hand on her chest. Eventually she got out the words. "That's not the scene I memorized," she said.

"It's scene 29," Avika said, peering over the top of her script.

"I memorized scene 24," Michelle said. "I thought we were doing scene 24."

Roland looked over to Rajiv. "Rajiv, did you tell Miss Beck we were going to be doing scene 24?"

"I don't think so," Rajiv said. "I'm pretty sure I said scene 29."

"I must have read it wrong after I wrote it down," Michelle said. "My nines and my fours look a lot alike."

"As do mine," Roland said. "It's a common mistake, I'm sure. Why don't we just do scene 24, then."

Avika was already there. "This scene only has four lines in it," she said. "Three of them are spoken by other characters."

"What's Rachel's line?" Roland asked.

Avika looked down at the page. "'Yes,'" she said.

"Hmmm," Roland said. "Not a lot to work with."

"Now we know how she memorized the scene," Avika said. Even Michelle couldn't miss that one. She blushed and began taking in sharp breaths.

Roland clapped his hands together again and stood up. "Why don't we do this. Rajiv will go get a copy of the script for Miss Beck, and we'll spend a couple of minutes preparing scene 29, and then we'll be ready to give it a go. Sound good? All right. Rajiv, if you wouldn't mind getting that script and working with Miss Beck for a couple of minutes, then. I'm going to go for a little walk." He wandered out of the room, distracted. After a moment, Avika Spiegelman followed him. Rajiv hovered, and then went out into the main office to get another copy of the script.

I went over to Michelle. "Don't panic," I said.

"What was I thinking?" Michelle said. She ran both her hands through her hair.

"You just memorized the wrong scene, that's all," I said. "It's nothing to worry about."

Michelle rolled her eyes at me. "Tom, the scene has four lines," she said. "Don't you think I should have figured out it was the wrong scene?"

"Well, I think that the fact you're only line was 'yes,' should have been a tip-off," I admitted.

Michelle looked restless. I quickly held my hand up. "But -- even so. It was an honest mistake, Michelle. You need to roll with it, and do the scene right." I took her hand and clasped it, lightly. "You can do it, Michelle. Just be calm."

"Did you see how that woman looked at me?" Michelle said.

"I get the feeling that Avika Spiegelman doesn't get many thrills out of life," I said. "Think of her as an object of pity, not of fear."

"She made me feel like an idiot, Tom. Like I'm back in grade school and the nuns are out to get me."

I grinned. "That's a pretty good simile, Michelle," I said.

"A what?" Michelle said.

Rajiv came back in the office with scripts in hand.

"Listen," I said. "Practice the scene with Rajiv. I'll track down Roland and schmooze the man. It's what you pay me the big bucks for."

Michelle smiled wanly as I exited.

Roland's office was tucked into a corner of the studio lot; to the left were huge sound sets. To the right was a little park in the center of a collection of offices. Roland was in the little park, standing. Avika Spiegelman stood next to him. As I got closer, it became clear that Avika was chewing Roland out over something. Before I could hear what it was, however, she saw me approach, clammed up, shot Roland a look and walked away from him. He stood there, a rueful little grin on his face, as I came up.

"Looks like you two had a nice chat," I said.

"Lovely," Roland said, watching Avika walk back into the office. "It reminded me of some of the more painful dental experiences of my life."

"Up the anesthesia," I suggested.

"Or simply get defanged," Roland said. "Which is, now that I think about it, the process I'm undergoing at the moment. Tom, would you mind terribly if I had a smoke?"

"Not at all," I said.

"Thanks," Roland said. He fished out a Marlboro, and lit up. "I'm trying to quit," he said. "But I'm afraid now's not a good time."

"The audition is that bad?" I said.

"Well, Tom, we haven't really had the audition yet, have we," Roland said. "We have to actually have lines read to see if they're being done properly."

"Ouch," I said, on behalf of my client.

Roland picked up on it. "Sorry about that, Tom," he said. "I'm don't mean to run Michelle down. She's a lovely girl. And I'm afraid I haven't been straightforward with her or with you about this reading."

"What do you mean?" I said.

Roland took a long drag on his cigarette before answering. "To be brief," he said, "I have less than a month left on my option for Hard Memories. If I don't have the lead cast by that time, I'll lose the option. The buzzards are already circling, you know."

"I didn't know," I said.

"Yes. Well, that's why Michelle is having a reading today, not because of your own work last week. In fact, once it became clear Ellen was going to drop, I told Rajiv to do whatever he could to encourage Miss Beck to read. I don't really expect her to be brilliant, mind you. But if she was passable, I thought I might convince Ms. Spiegelman to let us make the attempt. Michelle is, as you say, quite a draw at the moment."

"Not to be rude, Roland," I said. "But why does it matter what Avika thinks? You're the director and producer."

"Funny about that," Roland said. "One of the conditions the Spiegelman family put on my optioning the official biography was the right of refusal for the lead actress. At the time, when I had everyone from Ellen Merlow to Meryl Streep interested in the script, I considered it the least of my worries."

"I take it that Avika isn't impressed so far," I said.

Roland used his cigarette as a pointer towards the office. "In our conversation prior to your arrival, Ms. Spiegelman declared that she's met pets who are smarter than Miss Beck."

"Well, so have I," I said, truthfully. "But they haven't brought in $300 million with their last two films."

"And I wish you the best of luck convincing Ms. Spiegelman with that argument," Roland said.

"I didn't realize you had so much riding on this audition," I said.

"That's why I said I was sorry, Tom," Roland said. "I wasn't entirely honest with you on the matter. I don't know that it would have changed anything if I had; still, I try to be more honest than the typical Hollywood producer."

"You have other projects in the pipe, I'm sure," I said.

"No, not really," Roland said, and brought back the rueful smile. "I'm a prestige producer, Tom. One of those fellows you hire when your studio has been cranking out one too many action films, and you need to throw in an Oscar contender to prove you still care about the art of filmmaking. None of my films actually make money. Even The Green Fields only broke even, and that after video. So I tend to work one project at a time. I've been thinking about that Kordus project, but you know where we are on that one. Which reminds me, have you looked at that script yet?'

"I did," I said. "It's very good." Actually, it wasn't just good, it was astonishingly good. And written by a 23-year-old film student. Reading it, I had made the mental note to myself to get him to hire me as his agent, or steal him away from whichever one he currently had.

"It is, isn't it?" Roland puffed a final puff on his cigarette and threw it to the ground, snuffing it out. "If I don't manage to pull this project's chestnuts out of the fire, I'll have a nice long time to fiddle with it. Come on, Tom. Let's get back for the second act." We headed back.

Back in the office, Rajiv had pulled up a chair and was sitting with Michelle, going over scene 29. Avika, upon seeing Roland and me enter, pointedly looked at her watch and then at us both. "Well," Roland said. "Are we ready to begin again?"

Michelle looked for me, uncertain. I smiled back at her and gave her a thumbs-up signal. Rajiv rolled his chair back and took his position behind the video recorder. Roland sat down again and nodded to Avika. Avika recited her line.

My phone rang.

"Sorry," I said, after everyone glared at me. I ducked out of the office.

It was Miranda. "Carl wants to know when you're getting into the office," she said.

"Probably not long now," I said. "Michelle is self-destructing at the moment. Did he say why?"

"He mentioned something about someone needing a dog ASAP, and that Marcella would have details," she said. "I have no idea what that means. It sounds like code, and I've lost my secret decoder ring."

"I know what it means," I said. "But I can't. I have to be with Michelle this afternoon. I promised her I would go with her to have to her latex mask made."

"I'm just passing along messages," Miranda said. "I can't give you permission to defy the orders of your CEO."

I sighed. "Is Carl in right now?" I asked.

"Let me check," Miranda said, and put me on hold. My hold music, I was shocked to discover, was Olivia Newton-John. I was going to have to have someone drag my Muzak out of the Seventies. Before it became thoroughly intolerable, Miranda came back on the line.

"Marcella says he's in a meeting right now but can schedule three minutes for you if you really need it. She also notes that his tone indicated that you probably don't want to need those three minutes."

The door to Roland's office opened up and Roland popped his head out. "Tom," he said. "I think you'd better come in here. We've had a development."

"Gotta go, Miranda," I said, and snapped the cel phone shut.

In the office, Michelle was lying on the floor. Rajiv, panting, was placing ice cubes on her forehead. He had sprinted to the bar to scoop up the cubes, proving chivalry was not dead, merely out of breath. Avika sat on the couch, not knowing whether to look concerned or outraged.

"I don't know what happened," Roland said. "She was very nervous about doing the lines, but she seemed all right. And then her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell off her chair."

"You're kidding," I said.

"She's out cold on the floor, Tom," Roland said, his gentility cracking just for a second. "I don't generally brain the actors at readings. I usually wait until we're actually on the set."

"What a fucking nightmare," I muttered, and then turned to Roland. "It's her auto-suggestion," I said.

"What?" Avika said, from the couch.

I sighed again. "She's been going to a hypnotherapist," I said. "The damned fool put in an auto-suggestion that blacks her out every time she gets too stressed out."

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Avika said.

I ignored her. "Give her a few seconds and she'll be good as new," I said to Roland.

"What a relief that is," Avika said, and stood up. "Well, I've wasted enough time for one day. When she comes to, thank her for her time and then show her the door. She's not getting the role."

Roland looked at Michelle sadly. "Yes, right, all right," he said.

"I don't think you're giving her a chance," I said. "You haven't even heard her do a reading yet."

"Who has the time?" Avika said. "Between the wrong scenes and the fainting, by the time we run through the scene, Roland's option will be up, anyway. As if it matters. Frankly, Mr. Stein, I don't know what Roland was thinking. Your client is good for roles that require teenagers to be deflowered. But this role is something else entirely. Michelle Beck has about as much in common with my aunt as David Hasselhoff has with Gandhi. After today, I'd rather give the part to a golden retriever than to her."

"I could arrange that," I said.

Roland jumped in before Avika could respond. "Thank you for coming, Ms. Spiegelman," he said, showing her to the door. "And don't worry. We'll find someone for the role."

"No offense, Roland," Avika said. "But if this is where we are in the casting process, I seriously doubt it." She nodded to me and walked out.

Roland turned to me and slumped slightly. "Scotch?" he said.

"No, thanks," I said. "I have to be driving back soon."

Michelle moaned slightly as she worked her way back into consciousness.

"Well, then," Roland said. "I'll have a double for the both of us."


"Bad day?" Miranda asked, when Michelle and I arrived at the office.

"You have no idea," I said, and walked Michelle into my office to lie down on my couch. Michelle's reaction to her incredible imploding reading had passed beyond mere depression and moved into the region of pharmaceutically untreatable mental states. I urged her to take a nap before she went to have latex splotzed all over her face.

"That's terrible," Miranda said, after I recounted our little adventure. "I mean, I didn't think she was going to be good for the role, but what a way to flame out."

"If I were her hypnotherapist, I'd lie low for a couple of weeks," I said. "I don't think their next session is going to be very pleasant. Listen, did you find out anything more about what Carl wants?"

"I did," Miranda said, reaching for her notebook. "I went over to Marcella's desk and got the message. Here -- apparently a stunt dog they have on this Bruce Willis film contracted a nasty case of mange, and they need a replacement for some shots they're doing this afternoon." She tore the page out of her notebook and handed it to me. "You're going to have to spend a lot of time in makeup, Tom."

"Hardy har," I said, taking the note. The film was shooting in Pasadena, which was helpful -- it wasn't far from where I lived, and not all that far from Pomona, where Michelle was to have her face done. "It's not me. It's Joshua, the Wonder Pup."

"Isn't that the name of your friend that's always calling?" Miranda said.

"It is. Oddly enough, they look a lot alike, too. When am I supposed to be at the set?" I asked.

"You're supposed to go as soon as you can," Miranda said. "Which, I'd guess, means right now."

"Fine," I said. "Miranda, I'm going to need you to do something for me. You need to take Michelle to have her face done."

"I'm kind of busy here," Miranda said.

"Really," I said. "Doing what?"

"Answering phones?" Miranda ventured.

"Who's going to call? Carl isn't going to call, because I'm transporting his dog to the set. Michelle isn't going to call because she's going to be wrapped in latex. The only person who might call is Van Doren, and I don't want to talk to him, anyway."

"Hmrph," Miranda said.

"Is there a problem here, Miranda?" I asked.

Miranda scrunched up her face. "No. It's just that now that she's all depressed, I feel guilty for not wanting her to get the part. I forgot that she's a real person sometimes, and not just this thing that makes 12 million dollars for being perky. It annoys me to have pity for someone who makes more in a day than I'm going to make in a year."

"Try," I said. "I'm supposed to go with her, but I can't. You saw her, Miranda. She's definitely not in any condition to be by herself at the moment. She's certainly not in any condition to drive. I'm afraid in her state she'll zonk out on the 60, drive into opposing traffic and mangle herself on a semi. Look, as soon as I'm done with this other thing, I'll be there. And anyway, Michelle likes you. Thinks you like her too, for some strange reason. Could be a big bonding moment for you two."

"Hmrph," Miranda said again.

"Come on, Miranda," I said. "You're my assistant. Assist."

"Can I expense lunch?" Miranda asked.

"By all means. Expense dinner, too."

"Whoo-hoo," Miranda said. "Taco Bell, here I come."


"So," Joshua said. "Can I have my own trailer yet?"

"Not yet," I said. "but, look, you have your own water bowl."

"Man, that's the problem with being a dog," Joshua said. "The perks are just not there."

Joshua and I were waiting as the second unit crew of Bruce Willis' latest action spectacular set up their next shot. The first unit crew was in Miami, shooting on location with Willis and his costars. The second unit crew, meanwhile, was roaming around Los Angeles, shooting all the scenes the first unit didn't want to deal with: cut scenes, establishing shots, and, of course, scenes with dogs. Joshua was, in fact, the biggest star on the set that day.

In the space of less than one week, Joshua has become the most requested dog in Los Angeles film. It was the Mighty Dog commercial that did it: Joshua nailed it on the first take, no small feat in an industry where 30 seconds of animal action is often stitched out of twelve to fifteen hours of raw footage. This so stunned the director that he filmed the commercial twice just to cover his ass. Even with the extra take, the commercial was wrapped in two hours flat, saving the ad company about $200,000 in fees. The ad company tried to lock Joshua down to an exclusive contract before the commercial was done. I politely declined. Joshua peed on the company rep's shoes.

By the time we got back to the house, Al Bowen had gotten ten phone calls asking to get Joshua for a commercial. We let Bowen pick and choose the assignments; I got the distinct feeling that Bowen was using the opportunity to rack up some long-term favors. He wasn't such a genial hippie after all. Not that it bothered either Joshua or me. Joshua was having fun and I didn't mind hanging around a set, grazing off the craft service table and catching up on my reading.

Joshua especially liked hanging around with dogs now that he was one -- when we weren't at a commercial set, we'd go to the beach or a park where he could go off, tail wagging, to meet and greet other members of the species. I suspected that his enthusiasm for other dogs probably came from poor Ralph, who had spent most of his life not in the company of other dogs, and was now making up for lost time. But then, since Joshua had been on Earth, most of his time had been spent alone as well. So maybe they were both making up for lost time.

The tendency for vicious gossip, however, was pure Joshua. "See that dog over there?" Joshua pointed out a German Shepherd with his muzzle. "It's my understanding that he was almost fired off the last set he was on because he just would not stop licking his genitals on camera."

"Stop it," I said. "What a horrible thing to say about your costar."

"Hey, I didn't start the rumor," Joshua said. "And anyway, it's true. I heard his trainer talking about it to another trainer while I was on set. From what I hear, off-camera, he runs through his paces perfectly. You couldn't ask for a better-trained dog. As soon as he hears the cameras running, though -- bam, nosedive into the crotch. It's the sound of the cameras, I think. Such a good-looking dog too, you know. It's a real shame."

"You know, your gossip would be much more interesting if it were actually about human beings," I said.

"Maybe for you," Joshua said. "But I'm in the canine universe, Tom. It's a whole different ballgame down here. See that poodle? She's a tick carrier. Saw one on her when we were doing that scene near the trees. It was the size of a Jeep Cherokee, Tom. I was scared for myself."

"I don't think any of the other dogs would like you if they knew how you talked about them behind their backs."

"Well, that's just the point," Joshua said. "I can't very well tell any of them, now, can I? Language capability is a bitch, Tom."

"Pun intended, I'm sure."

"But of course."

Al Bowen picked that moment to walk up. "You sure spend a lot of time talking with that dog," he said.

"Well, I see you talking with your dogs, too," I said. "And with your other animals."

"I'm talking to my dogs," Bowen said. "You, on the other hand, talk like you're having a conversation. I can see you jabbering at Joshua from the other side of the set. I don't know how to break this to you, Tom. You may have the smartest dog in the world, but he still doesn't speak."

"Doesn't speak?" I said, feigning incredulousness. "Doesn't speak? Joshua, what's on top of a house?"

Joshua barked a bark that could have sounded like "roof," if one had enough to drink.

"And what's the bottom of a tree?"

This time, it could have been "root".

"And who's the greatest baseball player of all time?

The bark, with a little help, could have been a "Ruth."

"There you are," I said. "A talking dog."

"Very cute," Bowen said. "Could you please bring your talking dog to the set? It's the last shot of the day. We need him as the strong, silent type, if you don't mind." He walked away.

"Hmmmm," Joshua said. "Guess I should have said 'DiMaggio.'"

"I can't believe you actually knew the joke," I said.

"Between my brain, Ralph's brain, and Carl's memories, you'd be amazed at the stuff I've got up here," Joshua said. "Now, let's go. I do so love those tasty liver snacks I get whenever I do a scene right." He bounded off to the set, towards the German Shepherd he had been backstabbing mere moments before. The German Shepherd, oblivious to Joshua's treachery, greeted him with a sloppy canine grin.

It was a happy moment. As much as anything else, I remember that fact.

I answered the cel phone on the second ring. "Michelle can't possibly be done with her latex job," I said. "It's barely five o' clock."

"Tom, you have to get out here," Miranda said. Her voiced odd, strained. "We have a problem. A big problem."

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"It's not something I think you'd want me to talk about on a cellular phone," Miranda said.

"It's a digital phone, Miranda," I said. "Virtually snoop-proof. Now what is it?"

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

"Miranda?" I said.

Suddenly Miranda was back. "Michelle's in the hospital, Tom. It's bad. It's very bad. They think she has brain damage. They think she might die. They have her on a respirator right now, and they're trying to figure out what to do next. You have to get out here now, Tom. She's at Pomona Valley Hospital. It's right off the 10. Hurry up."

"All right," I said. "I'm on my way, Miranda."

"Hurry up, Tom." Miranda said.

"I will," I said.

"Hurry," she said again, and then hung up.

After she hung up I realized her voiced sounded odd because she'd been crying.

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:43 PM