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December 08, 2004

Chapter Twenty

"Tom," Roland Lanois said, stepping out of his office. "What an unexpected pleasure." His intonation stressed unexpected slightly more than it emphasized pleasure.

"Roland," I said. "Sorry about the sudden visit. But I have a proposition that I think you'll be interested in, and I thought you'd want to hear about it immediately."

"I'm afraid that you've picked a rather hectic time to drop by," Roland said. "I have a five o' clock, and it's already a quarter of five."

"I only need five minutes," I said. "I'll be long gone before your five o'clock."

Roland grinned. "Tom, you are so unlike other agents. I actually believe that you only need five minutes. Very well, then," he motioned into his office with his hand. "The clock is ticking."

"Here's what I came here for," I said, after Roland had closed his office door behind us. "I've got a deal for you on the Kordus material."

"That's excellent," Roland said, taking a seat at his desk. "I hope your price is not too steep. We'll be doing this story on a shoestring."

"Oh, I think you'll be able to afford it," I said. "You can have the rights to excerpt any of Krysztof's writing at no cost."

Roland sat, silent. "That's impossibly generous," he said, finally. His intonation stressed impossibly more than generous.

"I spoke to the Kordus family," I said. "I showed them the script. They love it. Moreover, they are well-acquainted with your work and trust that you will do a brilliant job. They feel that if giving you the rights at no cost will help this script make it to the screen, it's worth it. They expect that the additional book royalities that will be generated through the exposure of the work in the film will offset any loss they take giving you permission to use the work. They're taking the long view. Of course, they will want your permission to use artwork from the film to help promote the book reissues."

"Yes, of course," Roland said. "Of course. Tom, we'd be happy to do that. And you must thank the Kordus family for me, profusely. This is a true gift."

"Well, yes and no," I said. "There is one thing you have to do for me first."

"What is that?" Roland said.

"Give Michelle Beck another reading for Hard Memories."

"Um-hmmmm," Roland said. "That might be difficult."

"Why is that?" I said.

"Well, to begin with, I understand that she is currently in a coma."

"She was," I said. "She got better."

"Better?" Roland blinked. "How does one get better out of a coma?"

"We took her to an exclusive clinic where we tried some experimental therapies," I said. "She's fine, really."

"Experimental therapies."

"Very experimental. You wouldn't believe how experimental."

Roland continued to look dubious. "If you say so," he said. "However, there is the more pressing issue that Avika Spiegelman is dead set against Michelle for the role. I don't think that there's anything that could be done to change her mind. And without her consent, nothing happens."

"Let Michelle worry about that," I said. "All you have to do is get Avika to come here for another reading."

"She won't come if she knows it's Michelle who is having the reading."

"Surprise her," I suggested.

"I'd rather not," Roland said. "Tom, you don't understand how close I am to losing this project to begin with. If Ms. Spiegelman shows up with Michelle here, I will be well and truly screwed."

"Roland, you're well and truly screwed anyway," I said. "You don't have an actress. None of the actresses who could carry this film are available. You have slightly under two weeks to cast this thing, if I'm correct. If you blow it now, you're only losing something that's already lost. This is in fact your last chance to save the project. All Michelle wants is a second reading, Roland. That's it. You really have nothing to lose."

"Except possibly my professional reputation," Roland said. "It might be cheaper just to pay cash for the Kordus rights."

"All right, Roland," I said. "You force me to bring out my big gun."

"I can't wait, Tom," Roland said. "Are you going to suggest Pamela Anderson Lee in a supporting role?"

"How much would it take for you to produce the Kordus film?"

"The Kordus film?" Roland said. " I did a preliminary budget not long ago. My first estimate is about eight million. Possibly less if I film entirely in Poland."

"How would you finance it?" I asked

"I'm still thinking about that," Roland said, "I have a nice arrangement with BBC, which will finance a couple million in the front end in exchange for broadcast rights in the UK. The CBC will kick in just under a million for Canadian rights. I might be able to extort financing out of the French if I hire enough French nationals to work on the film. Miramax or Fine Line might be worth a few million, although with these sorts of properties, they tend to purchase distribution rights on the back end rather than up front."

"But no matter what, you end up a couple of million dollars short," I said.

"That's the drama of making small, serious films," Roland said.

"Here's the big gun," I said. "Get as much financing as you can from your usual sources, and whatever your shortfall from eight million, Michelle will cover it. Whatever it is."

"What if I get less financing than I expect for the Kordus project? Or none at all?"

"Then Michelle will bankroll the entire eight million," I said. "Though I think we should reasonably expect you to make the effort to line up other financing as well. But no matter what, you get the eight from Michelle if you need it. It's solid."

"And all I have to do is give Michelle another reading," Roland said.

"That's right. If Michelle dazzles, then you get to make Hard Memories and then go with the Kordus story. If not, you can get to work on the Kordus picture right away. No lost time. You win either way."

"Christ, Tom," Roland said. "You sure know how to pack your five minutes."

"You know me," I said. "Always go for the dramatic gesture."

"When do you want your reading?" Roland asked.

"Give me three days," I said. "I need that much time to prepare Michelle."

"Tom," Roland said. "I appreciate your offer, and Michelle's as well. But I have to tell you I suspect that three days is not going to be enough time for Michelle to get herself up the level she needs to be to convince Avika Spiegelman."

"I think you'll be surprised," I said. "Michelle's accident changed a lot of things. In some ways she's a whole other person."


"I still don't know why I'm going to Arizona," Michelle said.

"You're going there because I asked you to," I said.

"Remind me not to listen to you when you ask me to jump off a cliff." Michelle said.

"Arizona is not so bad," I said. "It has some lovely scenery."

"Are we going to visit any?" Michelle asked.

"No," I said. "But you can look out the window."

Our chartered jet was descending into Sky Harbor International Airport.

"Let me take a different tack," Michelle said. "Why did you want me to go to Arizona?"

"Because there's someone here I want you to meet. Someone I think will make a difference in your reading tomorrow."

"Oh, yes, that," Michelle said. "The one you gave me so much time to prepare for. Thanks."

"You said you still retained Michelle's memories of the script and her reading ," I said.

"I did," Michelle said. "But Tom, just because she read it doesn't mean she understood it. It was not as much reading as staring at the page and waiting for the sentences to come into focus. Michelle was a nice person, but she really was in over her head."

Our jet was now sliding over the runway. We landed with a small bump and much squealing of tires.

"Thank God," Michelle said. "I'm afraid of flying."

"You were never afraid of flying before," I said. "And you weren't scared when we dropping into the atmosphere in a cube at Mach 20."

"Welcome to the new me," Michelle said. "And I trust Yherajk technology a lot more than I trust yours. Now get me the hell off of this plane. I have to go kiss the ground."

A limo driver was waiting for us as we exited the plane. We went through the crowd rapidly, before anyone could recognize Michelle, and were in the limo and on our way in a matter of minutes.

I rolled up the barrier between us and the driver almost immediately. "How flexible are you?" I asked.

"Why?" Michelle asked. "You looking for excitement in the back of a limo?"

"No," I said. "What I mean to say is, can you generate any tendrils or tentacles?"

"Sure," Michelle said. "It's not like when I was in Ralph and I was stuck in his digestive system. I've got Michelle's whole head undergoing transformation. See, look." Michelle's eyes suddenly bulged, dropped out of her eye sockets, and began swinging around.

"That's the most disgusting thing I think I've ever seen," I said.

"Now you know what I'm going to be doing for Halloween," Michelle said.

"Can you make the tendrils any smaller?" I asked.

"Of course," Michelle answered. "I can make them invisible, if you like."

"I would like," I said. "I think you may need them where we're going."

"Where are we going?" Michelle asked again.

"We'll be there soon enough," I said.

Less than half hour later, we were there.

"The Beth Israel Retirement Home," Michelle said, reading the stone sign out front of the facility. "Tom, I realize that Hollywood stops hiring actress after a certain age, but this is ridiculous."

"Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck," I said. "Come with me." We went inside.

The nurse at the reception desk wasted no time looking at me, preferring to look at Michelle instead.

"Aren't you Michelle Beck?" She asked.

"I'm not Michelle Beck," Michelle said. "But I play her on TV."

"Excuse me," I said, drawing the nurse's attention to me. "I made an appointment to see Sarah Rosenthal. I'm Tom Stein, her grandson."

"I'm sorry," The nurse said, snapping out of her celebrity stupor. "Of course. She's just woken up from a nap, so she should be quite alert. It's good of you to visit. We've heard a lot about you. Your mother comes in quite frequently, you know."

"I knew that," I said. "Since I was in town, I thought I might come for a visit as well."

"That's very sweet of you," the nurse said. She glanced over at Michelle. "Are you two together?"

"For the first 10%, yes," Michelle said. The nurse looked slightly confused. Below the nurse's view, I stepped onto Michelle's toes. Hard.

"Yes, we're together," I said.

"Follow me," The nurse got up and motioned towards the corridor.

Sarah Rosenthal, my grandmother, was in her wheelchair, staring out her window. The nurse knocked on the open doorway to get her attention. My grandmother turned, recognized me, and broke into a wide grin. Her teeth were in. I went over to give her a hug; the nurse excused herself. Michelle stood in the door, attentive but uncertain.

"I didn't know your grandmother was still alive," Michelle said.

"She is," I said, crouching down and holding my grandmother's hand. "But I don't see her very much. She retired down here while I was still in elementary school. We'd see each other at high holidays and during the summer, but not very much beyond that. Grandmama was a very independent soul. She had a stroke not long after my father died, which took away her power of speech; my mother came down to be closer to her."

My grandmother peered over at Michelle and motioned her over. Michelle came over; Grandmama held out her other hand, and Michelle gave her hand. Grandmama shook it in welcome, and then turned it over. Then she looked at me.

"What is she doing?" Michelle asked.

"She's looking for an engagement ring," I said. "Grandmama's been pushing me to get married since I was about thirteen." I turned back to my grandmother. "Michelle's just a client, grandmama," I said. "But you'll be happy to know I have a nice girlfriend now. Very nice."

"She's a little like me," Michelle said, to my grandmother.

"I'll bring her down next time," I said. "Okay?"

Grandmama nodded in agreement, and then patted Michelle's hand, as if to say, I'm sure you're a very nice girl, anyway.

"Michelle, would you close the door?" I said.

Michelle went to close the door; then she came back over.

"Now will you tell me what we're doing here?" she asked.

"My grandmother wasn't born here in the U.S.," I said. "She was born and lived the first part of her life in Germany. She was a child when Germany lost the first world war and in her teens when Hitler came to power. She was in her twenties when she and most of her family were sent to the camps."

"My God," Michelle said. "I'm terribly sorry."

"Grandmama came to the US after the war, married again, and had another child," I said. "My mother. And now we've come to the end of what I know of the story," I looked over to Michelle. "Grandmama would never talk much about her life before the US to my mother, and of course my mother never did talk about it much with me. I'm hoping I can get her to share her experiences with you."

"Now I see," Michelle said.

My grandmother looked over to me, confused.

"Grandmama," I said. "I haven't gone over the bend. I know you can't talk. This is hard to explain, but Michelle has a way of talking without talking. I know your memories are painful, and that you don't share about them for a reason. But Michelle wants to know what your memories are, if you'll share them. It will help her understand many things about our lives, and our history. It would mean a lot to me if you would share your memories with her."

Michelle got down on her knee and took Grandmama's other hand again. "See what I'm doing now?" Michelle said, holding grandmama's hand lightly. "This is all I'd have to do. Just sit with you for a little while. You wouldn't even have to think about those things, if you didn't want to, Sarah. All we'd have to do is sit together."

My grandmother looked at Michelle, and then at me. She smiled, gently slid her hand out of mind, put it to her temple, and made a corkscrew motion.

I laughed. "I know. We both sound nuts. They're going to be hauling us both off sometime soon. But in the meantime, will you help us?"

My grandmother looked me and at Michelle. Michelle she patted on hand. Then she lightly tapped my shoulder, and pointed at the door. I looked at her quizzically.

"I think she's saying she's willing to do it, but she doesn't want you around," Michelle said. "Maybe she had a reason for not telling the story to your mother or you, Tom. She doesn't want to run the risk of you hearing it."

Grandmama nodded her head vigorously and patted Michelle's hand again.

"Out you go," Michelle said.

I stood up. "How long will you need?" I asked Michelle.

"An hour, maybe two," she said. "If you can manage it, I'd prefer that we weren't disturbed. I want to get this all at one time."

"I'll do what I can."

"Thanks, Tom," Michelle looked up at me briefly, and then back to grandmama. "Now, shoo. Sarah and I are going to have a conversation."


Twice a nurse came by to check on things. Twice I sent her away, the second time bribing her with the promise of an autograph by Michelle. The nurse left behind her clipboard and her pen as insurance. I hoped it didn't contain serious information about any of the other folks in the retirement home.

Three hours after she began, Michelle opened the door to my grandmother's room and came out. She touched my arm distractedly, and then propped herself against the corridor wall. She looked exhausted.

"Here," I said, handing her the clipboard. "I promised the nurse an autograph if she would go away."

Michelle took the clipboard and stared at it like it was some sort of strange animal.

"Michelle," I said. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, taking the pen from the top of the clipboard and scratching her name on the piece of paper it contained. "I'm just very tired."

"How is grandmama?" I asked.

"She's nodded off in her chair," Michelle said, handing the clipboard back to me. "You should have the nurse put her to bed."

"I will," I said. "Did you get what you need?"

For the first time, Michelle looked directly at me. Her eyes were startling; they were the eyes of someone who had walked through the coals of Hell and came through them, but not unscathed, not without wounds.

"Your grandmother is a remarkable woman, Tom," she said. "Remember that. Don't ever forget it."

Then she lapsed into silence. We didn't talk again that day.


"What the hell is she doing here?" Avika Spiegelman said, referring to Michelle.

Roland had taken my advice and surprised Avika, saying only that he found an "interesting" actress that he thought might pull off the role. The withering glare she was now carpetbombing Roland with made me understand why he had been reluctant to go along with my scheme to begin with.

"We never got a full reading the first time," Roland said, holding his ground with aplomb. "I felt Miss Beck deserved that much before we rejected her out of hand."

"Roland, she fainted at the last reading," Avika seethed. "And a good thing too, since she was clearly incapable of the reading to begin with. I can't believe you would be wasting your time with her now, considering how little time you have left with this property."

Michelle, who sat in front of the video camera, just as she had at the last reading, had a smirk on her face that did not indicate she was taking Avika's insults seriously. Positioned as I was on the couch, I was getting the full panoramic view: Michelle's smirk, Roland's aplomb, Avika's seething. This was going to be a fun reading.

"Boy, it's swell to see you again too, Ms. Spiegelman," Michelle said.

Avika regarded Michelle coolly. "Aren't you supposed to be in a coma?" she said.

"I got over it," Michelle said. "Which, apparently, is more than you can say."

"You planning to faint again?" Avika said.

"I won't if you won't," Michelle said. "Do we have a deal?"

"Fat chance," Avika said, and turned to Roland. "I'm leaving now, Roland." She turned to leave.

"Bitch," Michelle said.

Avika froze. Very slowly, she turned around.

"What did you just say?" She spat at Michelle.

"You heard me perfectly well," Michelle said, leaning back in her chair with an air of supreme relaxation. "I called you a bitch. I was going to call you a raging bitch, but then I thought, why give you the courtesy of a modifier? You're just a bitch, plain and simple."

Avika looked like the top of her head was going to pop off. She turned to me. "Tom, do you always let your clients insult the people who can give them the roles they want?"

"Hey," I said. "I'm just here for the show."

"I'm not calling anyone who will give me a role a bitch," Michelle said. "Clearly, you have no intention of giving me the role. As far as I can see, the only reason I'm calling you a bitch is because that is what you so obviously are."

"I don't need to be insulted by you," Avika said.

"Well, you need to be insulted by someone," Michelle said. "And it looks like I'm the only one here with enough interest in you to do it. Sort of sad, really."

"Listen, you little shit," Avika said. "You don't even deserve to read for this part, much less play it."

"Well then, we're equal," Michelle said, "Since you don't deserve to make that decision."

"I'm her niece," Avika said.

"You're her third cousin, twice removed," Michelle said. "I checked. And your only qualification is that you're tangentially related. All you're interested in is appearances. I don't fit your notion of who your sainted aunt was, so I'm out."

"You're nothing like my aunt," Avika said.

"I'd say I'm a lot like your aunt. Your aunt spent a lot of her time flying in the face of ignorant morons who decided the world was one way and there was no other way the world could be. As far as I can tell, I'm doing the same right now. I'm more like your aunt than you are."

"How dare you say that," Avika hissed. "You can't even act."

Michelle smiled. "Neither could your aunt, bitch."

Roland, who had been observing the exchange between Michelle and Avika with an increasing expression of horror, glanced over at me with an expression that loosely translated to Get me out of here. I shrugged. There was nothing to do now but to ride this one out.

Michelle got up, grabbed a script, and walked over to Avika. "I'll tell you what, Avika," Michelle said. "I'll admit I could be wrong about you being a bitch. I'm entirely convinced you are, but it is within the realm of possibility that I'm wrong. But the only way you can prove it is to admit you might be wrong about me not being able to do the part."

Michelle slapped the script on Avika's chest. "The only way you're going to do that is to let me read. Come on, Avika. It can't hurt."

"I don't have to prove anything to you," Avika said, grabbing the script.

"Sure you do," Michelle said, turning around and heading back to her seat. "Because there's one difference between you and me, Avika. You see, I couldn't give a shit that you think I can't act. But it's clear that it bothers you that I think you're a bitch."

"Hardly," Avika said.

"Really?" Michelle said, sitting down. "Then why are you still here?"

Avika's mouth dropped open. Roland, a strapping man, looked like he wanted to curl up into a fetal ball.

"Come on, people," Michelle said. "Let's shit or get off the pot. Read me or don't, but let's make a decision."

Roland snapped out of it before Avika could utter another word. "What scene would you like, Miss Beck?"

"Your choice," Michelle said. "I really did memorize the script this time."

"The whole script?" Roland said.

"Sure, why not?" Michelle said, and glanced over to me mischievously. "Elvis did it."

Avika flipped the script open and read. "'How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do,'" Avika said. "'You are my wife, not my master.'"

"'I am your master's instrument, Josef,'" Michelle said, the words ripping out of her with an intensity that took us all by surprise. "'Go on the Judenrat and you turn your back on your people and your God. And you turn your back on me. For I am your wife, Josef. But cooperate with the Germans and we are not married. You will be as dead to me now as you will be soon enough by the hands of the Germans.'"

There was dead silence. We all stared in disbelief. Even me.

Michelle smiled sweetly. "Got your attention, didn't I?" she said.

Avika opened the script at random and quoted line after line. Line after line was responded to with the sort of stunning display of acting that you get to see one or twice in a lifetime. It was flabbergasting. It was impossible. It was the most incredible acting experience I'd ever seen. And it was just a line reading. We were all beginning to wonder what was going to happen once Michelle actually started acting for the record.

After an hour and a half, Avika dropped the script at her feet. "I wouldn't have believed it," she said, simply.

"I know you wouldn't," Michelle said, as simply. "And I thank you, Avika, my friend, for finally letting me show you."

Avika burst into tears and headed towards Michelle. Michelle burst into her own tears and met Avika halfway. They stood in the middle of the room, crying hysterically. Roland and I looked over at each other. Both of us had these incredibly smug smiles on our face.

We were in business.

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:51 PM