PART III: AFTER // Chapter Twelve: That’s a Wrap

He never made another movie.

Almost from the moment of Natalie’s death and after leaving Max with the Do Not Disturb instructions, he settled himself beside the swimming pool and with a pitcher of margaritas (Natalie’s favorite) he embarked on a lengthy and purgative drinking session which saw him finish the margaritas by sunset and more than a bottle of scotch by midnight. In the early hours of the morning he called Max downstairs and together they settled into comfortable chairs surrounded by a forest of commemorative candles which were the spacious living room’s only light, and clouds of Natalie’s favorite incense. Then they embarked on a further drinking session, Max matching Gil drink for drink with his favorite tipple, a good Russian vodka.

The two fell to talking and reminiscing about their previous experiences. There was much to tell since Max had in the past more than a year spent almost all of his time with Natalie. He proved to be an interesting storyteller after he let his hair down, for there was no longer any need for his nursing and caretaking obligations. He regaled Gil with stories of his parents’ experiences as more or less closet dissidents in the Ukraine of the old Soviet Union in the eighties and their subsequent ability to take advantage of the chaos surrounding the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Assessing the political situation in Kiev, they found that what remained of the local Soviet bureaucracy and law enforcement were more interested in who entered the country than who left it and so were able to bribe the proper officials into issuing them exit visas, upon which they quickly hopped a plane, landing at JFK in New York and quickly gaining the proper immigrant status from a gleeful Bush administration. They soon found a home among the Ukrainian immigrant colony in Sheepshead Bay near Coney Island. Max had been born shortly thereafter and upon reaching maturity had migrated across the country, finally ending up in Los Angeles and in Gil and Natalie’s employ.

Gil on the other hand, always a sloppy and sentimental drunk, gave Max a frank and unabashed account of his social and sexual naiveté in the mid-seventies, when he had met Natalie and she had been instrumental in, as he put it, “forcing him to grow up”. They continued for hours in this vein, eulogizing Natalie both singly and together.

The wake ended shortly after dawn, when both of them noticed that they had finished their second bottle of liquor and were too drunk to forage for another. So after many hugs and other embraces, Max staggered his way up the stairs to his room while Gil passed out on a plush, roomy and convenient sofa where he slept a drunken and dreamless sleep for the next ten hours.

He awoke around four and staggered up the stairs to his room where, entering his private adjacent bathroom, he gulped down four Excederin, stripped, showered, shaved, put on clean clothes and, feeling both hungry and able to drive, left the house, jumped into the Corvette and sped down the hill, ending up at Musso & Frank. There he had a Natalie Fine memorial dinner consisting of two martinis and a huge steak accompanied by half a bottle of good California cabernet. After this he felt mellow but not particularly drunk, so he drove back up the hill to FineHall mansion where he had several more drinks, and this time was able to make it up the stairs to his own room and bed, where he once again slept drunkenly and dreamlessly for the next twelve hours.

He woke the next morning around eight, feeling much better and now much more able to deal with the aftermath, which he knew was imminent. By nine o’clock he was calling the major radio and television stations of Greater Los Angeles plus the news outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety. The purpose of his calls was to schedule a press conference which he said would be held in the cavernous living room of the mansion at one o’clock that afternoon.

The result of this was that by eleven all manner of vehicles were streaming up the hill by the dozens toward FineHall mansion, including many mobile TV trucks. As the multitudes gathered outside the locked gates of the mansion, Gil and Max kept the doors and windows tightly shut so that no one coming to this press conference knew what it was all about. It was a tribute to Max’s integrity and loyalty, as well as the well-paid-for silence of the other members of Gil and Natalie’s household staff. The security had been so tight that not a word of Natalie’s death had been leaked to the press for the past two days.

Finally at about twelve-thirty the gates were open and the multitudes rushed towards the front entrance of the mansion, where Max and another large member of the staff were providing security, checking credentials and admitting or refusing the hopefuls on a one-at-a-time basis. Within half an hour about a hundred people, including television cameras and crews, were tightly packed into Gil’s living room while what appeared to be several hundred more milled about outside, eagerly waiting for any crumbs of gossip or information that might come their way.

Gil stood at one end of the room near the fireplace, surrounded by Max and three other burly retainers to make sure that he had sufficient distance to compose himself. Gil read from a prepared statement which, for the reporters gathered, was too short and not particularly sweet. He said that he was retiring from the movie business. He explained that he did not feel emotionally able to carry on without Natalie, the announcement of whose death caused a ripple of shocked exclamations to fill the room. FineHall Productions, he said, would pass into the hands of the people who had for so long made it a success. He concluded by thanking the media for their attention and sympathetic and unsensationalized reportage of his and Natalie’s movie career over the past twenty-five years, and hoped as he was now retired that they would not intrude upon his personal life and privacy.

He answered very few questions and then the squad of de facto security guards set about shooing everyone off the property as quickly as possible. Then Gil, trembling with exertion, weakly sat down on a nearby chair and listened to the roar of the various vehicles starting up and heading back down the hill.

The next day at about nine in the morning he called individually and personally each department head of the FineHall Productions team and scheduled a meeting that afternoon at one o’clock at the FineHall Productions building on Sunset. When they were all assembled around the big table in Conference Room A, he announced his intention to retire immediately and asked for a vote on whether they wished to continue the company more or less as it had been, or to dissolve it and go on to their various individual pursuits. He told them that he had no interest in which way they voted, so as not to put pressure on anyone.

Surprisingly, unanimously, they voted to continue with the organization which had given them so much fame and prosperity. Gil then insisted that this was fine by him, but they must choose another name for the company and restructure it on their own. As a pro tem measure, he chose the CFO who had replaced Money upon his retirement about fifteen years ago to lead the transition process. This young man, a capable, steely-eyed, square-jawed, no-nonsense individual, agreed at once. Gil then lightened the mood by inviting everyone to a FineHall farewell dinner he was throwing for himself which would take place that evening at Spago’s. To this they heartily agreed and the meeting broke up.

The third piece of business that Gil wanted to take care of immediately, or at least as soon as possible, was to rid himself of FineHall mansion and the now-heartbreaking memories it contained of the past thirty-five years of his and Natalie’s shared fame and fortune. Not wanting to drag out the procedure, and not really needing the money (he was and had been for years one of the wealthiest men in the country), he decided to circumvent the usual real estate agency process and, within a surprisingly short amount of time, found a buyer in the person of a rock drummer whose group was relocating to the Los Angeles area from the east coast. They settled on the mere pittance of 800,000 dollars cash. The drummer, whose name was Weinstein, agreed to come up with the cash within thirty days and Gil said that was fine by him.

He spent that period by arranging for the dismissal of his larger personal staff, to whom he gave generous severance pay and to each of them an equally generous trust fund for their retirement years. All of this was easily accomplished by a few phone calls to his staff of lawyers and accountants.

Then, needing a place to live, he soon found and purchased an apartment building on the eastern edge of West Hollywood near Fairfax and Santa Monica, just down the street from Barney’s Beanery, where he subsequently would spend many a happy afternoon. The building itself was (for West Hollywood) a relatively modest twelve-unit building with spacious grounds, a large parking area, and an even larger patio and swimming pool. For himself he reserved a small two-bedroom apartment on the third and top floor and set about gradually filling the now-vacant building with young and relatively impecunious actors and other movie people that he had met, charging them only nominal rent.

As he was now living small he really only needed one person to cook and clean for him, and he soon found who he was looking for—a thirtyish widow from Nigeria named Mrs. Kamala who had recently lost her husband in the lengthy, tragic and destructive African wars and had managed to emigrate to California. At the interview they hit it off splendidly and Gil employed her at a sizeable salary to cook and clean for him half days only Monday through Friday, more or less at her convenience.

That taken care of, he was now faced with what the hell to do with the rest of his life. He had given up moviemaking and FineHall Productions, and Celluloid Heroes was never much more than a glorified fan club anyway so it did not need his active participation. The now hundreds of FineHall Theaters scattered from coast to coast were humming along nicely, ably overseen by his staff of accountants, any profits they amassed being funneled into his fourth enterprise, the HallWay Foundation. This organization, dedicated to discovering and funding new talent through the submission and subsequent evaluation of their screenplays became his major concern.

So as the years slowly passed, he spent as much time as he pleased in the offices of the HallWay Foundation in the FineHall Building on Sunset, reading scripts and conferring with the staff as to their relative merits.

And so things continued year after year…

 

Until finally he realized with some dismay that he was approaching his fifteenth year of retirement. Many times during the past decade he had thought twice about his decision to leave the film industry cold turkey and his request that he not be bothered by the press was, largely, honored. And as the holiday season of 2035 approached he began to feel a restlessness, a sort of general but vague feeling of anticipation that he couldn’t put his finger on. It was as if he were waiting for the other to shoe to drop.

Whatever the cause and whatever the reason, he became more active and more alert than he had been in years. He even invited the tenants of his building, their friends, and some of his own close friends to a lavish Christmas party that he held in the large suite of rooms in his office building on Sunset. It was a roaring success, and he began to feel much more like his old self.

By the next spring his feelings of somehow unfinished business began to haunt him more and more, and therefore he was not wholly surprised that one morning in late May, as he was sitting at his dining table trying to read The Los Angeles Times online and squinting at the fine print and disconnected headlines, that he thought he heard high-pitched chuckles and rude comments coming from, of all places, his living room. Mrs. Kamala was busy vacuuming the front room with the silent cordless vacuum cleaner, but even in the quiet she seemed oblivious to the rude remarks and noises that Gil perceived were coming from the same room.

Looking over towards her, he was not surprised to see that sitting on his couch in a neat row were the three Norns dressed as he had first seen them, in their cute little workmen’s overalls. They were laughing and giggling, pointing at the oblivious Mrs. Kamala, making rude remarks and obscene hand gestures.

Gil decided that the best way to put a stop to that was to remove Mrs. Kamala from the scene, so he got up and went over to where she was working. He told her apologetically that he had invited some friends in for a business meeting and it had slipped his mind, so how would she like to take the rest of the day off?

She was all for that and within a few minutes she had packed up the vacuum cleaner, and with a few remarks to the effect of she hoped he would be all right and what about lunch, he told her that he would simply have a sandwich and heat up a can of soup. This satisfied her, so she left the apartment merrily humming at an unexpected day off.

“Okay you guys,” growled Gil, “let’s get down to business. I guess I’ve sort of been expecting you.”

They had stopped their giggling now and looked as serious as they ever could with their comical Cabbage Patch Doll faces and figures. Warren spoke up.

“Last act, kiddo,” he said breezily. “Here’s what you’re gonna do.”

As the three of them in turn told Gil about the latest plans they had for him, he began to frown. “So,” he said petulantly, “my work hasn’t been good enough for you, huh? I mean, what about my movie career? What about the FineHall cinemas? What about the HallWay Foundation, huh?”

“No reflection on you, kid,” Warren said sympathetically, “but you gotta understand, let me put it this way. What if you as a director had an unlimited budget and an unlimited time to make your film? Therefore, you would be able to do an unlimited number of takes for each scene. Then you’d be able to judge the best one, right?”

“Okay,” said Gil somewhat grudgingly, “I get your point. But I still don’t like it.”

“Okay by us,” said Loren. “Just do it, okay?”

Gil agreed.

“Tomorrow,” said Soren, “you will get a phone call from the UCLA film school. They will invite you to a retrospective of your films and ask that you give an introductory speech on the first night. You will agree to this. Further, you will provide a complimentary ticket for one Bertie Hallenbeck. You will instruct the usher to seat him in seat 3-A on the aisle—”

Here Warren broke in. “Right next to me, Noreen, got it?”

“Yeah,” said Gil, “I got it.”

“Then,” continued Warren, “that night after bar closing when good old Bertie rolls in about half drunk, you’re going to have to educate him so that he will go back to 1994 and get with the program. Got it?”

“Yeah, I got it,” said Gil. But he still didn’t like it.

June, 2036

A disconsolate and thoroughly exhausted Gil Hall sat at the dining table of his West Hollywood apartment. It was after mid morning and the sun was streaming in the window, but he took no notice. He stared moodily at his barely touched oatmeal, every now and then absently sipping from his rapidly cooling decaf.

The weekend had starting out well enough; he had arrived at the Pantages Theater in plenty of time to give the opening speech to his film retrospective series and he thought he had done a pretty good job, considering how rusty he was (fifteen years’ worth). That he had been so enthusiastically received had put a smile on his face but it didn’t last long. After his speech, as he was being led off the stage, he realized he had nothing more to do for hours. He could sit and watch his movies—the movies he had made so long ago, and knew so well—but doing so would remind him once again of his dear departed Natalie so he decided against it.

He slipped out the back door of the theater alone and unnoticed and made his way around to the front of the theater where his driver was parked (traffic laws meant nothing to him at this point). As he climbed into the car he looked at this watch. Damn, not even nine o’clock. He knew that young Gil wouldn’t be rolling in until well after two when they closed the bars so he was staring at better than five hours of nothingness. He knew he dared not try to go to sleep even if he could, for it would only make him more disconnected and less coherent, and he needed all his wits about him for the coming confrontation.

On sudden inspiration he instructed his driver to take him to Barney’s Beanery, which was located close to his apartment, but upon arriving he found the loud music and exuberant noisy young people not to his taste at the moment, so he quickly finished his beer and went back home.

He passed the remainder of the time watching a series of old movies that he had downloaded on his computer but they only attracted half of his interest. Finally at nearly 2:30 the door buzzer sounded and he ushered in young Gil.

God! He had forgotten how irritatingly smug yet clueless his younger self had been before he had gotten religion via the Norns. Nevertheless he had a job to do, and it was well after four when he was finally satisfied that his lecture had penetrated young Gil’s scotch-soaked brain and promptly ushered him off to sleep it off in the spare bedroom.

However, immediate sleep was not to be had since he was kept awake and even more irritated by young Gil’s drunken snoring, and it was not until well after dawn that he managed to finally get some sleep.

Consequently it was afternoon when ten minutes of pounding on the bedroom door finally roused young Gil from his stupor. As quickly as he could, Gil gave young Gil lunch on the patio (deli sandwiches, salads and beer) then summarily sent him downstairs, down the walkway, and out the gate to wait for Warren/Noreen. It was in his/her hands now, and Gil thought he could finally wash his hands of the whole affair.

But the interruption to his sleep cycle had made him both fatigued and at the same time nervous and jittery. He paced the apartment all that Saturday afternoon and into the evening, fretting about how things were going. By nine o’clock he decided to try to catch up on lost sleep by turning in early but he tossed and turned, beset by strange and troubling dreams until the early hours of the morning, when he finally dropped off.

Sunday was no better, and he knew he would get no real rest until young Gil had been safely transported though the black hole at the Hotel Remington in Las Claritas. This was not scheduled to take place until four in the morning, and as the hour approached Gil waited with baited breath to see if he could discern what was happening. God and the Norns only knew what would occur if young Gil failed to make it on time. Would he disappear? Would the world come to an end? Would he find himself a relatively poor retired construction worker? He didn’t know, but as the hour of 4AM came and went and there was no change in his situation, not even a mild earth tremor or clap of thunder, he finally began to relax.

Now he sat at the dining table and looked at his watch. He’d been siting there for nearly half an hour; his coffee was stone cold and his oatmeal a rapidly congealing mass which looked unappealing and downright inedible.

Giving up the idea of breakfast he called out to Mrs. Kamala, who was going about her regular Monday morning chores of putting everything back in place that Gil had strewn about the apartment over the weekend and placidly and imperturbably bundling up his dirty laundry. “Mrs. Kamala,” he called, “I find I’m not that hungry this morning. I think maybe I’ll get some fresh air out by the pool.”

Looking up from her chores she said, “That’s a good idea, Mr. Hall.” She glanced out the window. “The sunshine will do you good, I’m sure. Call me if you need anything.”

“I will,” he said, and got up and went into the bedroom where he threw off his robe and dressed in shorts, flip-flops and his favorite Hawaiian shirt. To this ensemble he added an old wide-brimmed straw hat and dark sunglasses. Then he went through to the kitchen and grabbed a couple of strong beers from the fridge and went downstairs and out the back entrance to the pool area.

The sun was beating down nicely and the thermometer was already climbing toward eighty, but there was a refreshingly cool ocean breeze that rippled the surface waters of the swimming pool. Carefully and silently he made his way around to deck chairs that contained young movie actresses already well-oiled in their bikinis, dark glasses covering their eyes so that Gil did not know if they were oblivious to his approach or just ignoring him. He didn’t care for he wanted desperately at this moment to be alone with his thoughts. So he silently made his way around to the other side of the pool, picking a spot where the sun already, nearly to its zenith, was angled full upon him. He placed the beer and his phone on a nearby table, then settled into another deck chair and closed his eyes.

As he lay there, his eyes sometimes open, sometimes closed, he felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders and he finally began to relax. It was an odd feeling like he was one of those ancient animal balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that had suddenly developed a slow leak. Of course nowadays, he mused, those giant balloons were obsolete, having been replaced by holographic projectors stationed at various points along the parade route. This effectively protected them from wind, weather and curious dogs and small children, but he missed the old days just the same.

As he lay there musing half awake, half asleep, the sunlight reflected from the swimming pool’s ripples played a little dance of images on his face, and he felt the warmth seeping into his tired old body. But after a while he noticed a curious thing: The angle of the sun’s rays that were dancing on his face now, instead of coming up from the pool, seemed to be coming from almost directly overhead. He opened his eyes and saw to his surprise that the sun’s rays were dancing not off the ripples in the pool, but through gently swaying tree branches from above.

He seemed to be in some kind of woods or forest area, and as he stared in astonishment at his surroundings, he saw a small figure coming toward him up a narrow dirt path which wound in and out of the closely spaced trees. And that was another thing—the trees were all giant maple, oak, spruce and what-have-you, definitely not trees native to the Los Angeles area but more to the east coast. And he realized to his astonishment that he was back in the woods that bordered Maple Mansion, his childhood home, and that furthermore that figure coming up the path was none other than young Gilbert Hallenbeck, aged maybe ten or eleven.

Now Gil felt a curious sensation. He seemed to be both the observer of this scene (what a movie this would make!) but also inside young Gilbert’s mind as well. As he walked merrily along Gilbert, dressed in T-shirt, faded jeans with hole in the knees, and black hiking boots, was humming quietly to himself. On his head was an official Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Over his right shoulder was slung military style his trusty Daisy BB gun. His left side pocket contained his five-blade Boy Scout knife, while his right hand pocket contained 17 cents in nickels and pennies and a couple of his favorite good-luck shooting marbles. In his left rear pocket protruded a Wham-O slingshot. Hooked to his belt was a metal canteen nearly full of water. His left hand carried his Lone Ranger lunchbox which contained one sandwich of a thick slab of Gwaltney’s garlic bologna and Plochman’s yellow mustard. Another sandwich was Welch’s grape jelly and Skippy smooth peanut butter. Both sandwiches were on Kilpatrick’s white sandwich bread. He also had a single-serving size bag of Utz potato chips, a shiny red apple, and a small package of four Drake’s oatmeal cookies. In the thermos was his favorite—strawberry Kool-Aid (one 5-cent Kool-Aid makes 2 quarts).

All this Gil knew as he now seemed to be mostly inhabiting the mind of young Gilbert. He checked his Mickey Mouse wristwatch. Mickey’s gloved right hand was raised at a 45-degree angle, while his left pointed straight down—obviously 10:30 in the morning. And, noting that the gentle swaying tree branches overhead were filled with fresh-looking green leaves, he estimated that it must be either late spring or early summer. He discovered/remembered that young Gilbert came here often; he would walk along the path to a large meadow clearing, it taking him about four hours to get there, then he would sit on a convenient log or tree stump, eat his lunch, and start back the way he had come, returning home in plenty of time for dinner so his mother wouldn’t get mad (that is, if she was awake and relatively sober).

As Gil followed young Gilbert through the forest path, he found himself having to discover less and less about what was happening and remembering more and more. Now it seemed he was almost completely young Gilbert and he continued merrily on his way, occasionally stopping to pick up some small stone which he either threw at a nearby tree or shot up toward the canopy of tree branches with his slingshot. Occasionally these actions would cause small furry animals such as a squirrel or rabbit to scurry out of his way but he took little notice, wishing to bother or harm not even the smallest and most defenseless forest resident.

Finally he arrived at the big clearing. The sun was almost directly overhead and Mickey, with arms outstretched toward the heavens, said it was just after noon. Locating a convenient wide flat tree stump, he began to unpack and eat his lunch. But as he was just beginning to unwrap the wax paper from his bologna sandwich, he looked up and noticed a curious thing: a number of small animals were coming towards him—rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, woodchucks, and many other denizens of the forest as well. Within a few minutes more than a dozen had gathered and had surrounded him in a semi-circle, sitting back on their haunches and looking up at him expectantly. Sensing that they were hungry, he began to tear off bits of the bologna in his sandwich and toss the fragments toward the gathered crowd, many of whom caught them deftly with their paws and began to nibble on them. Then he noticed another strange thing: no matter how many chunks of sandwich he tossed, it seemed not to grow any smaller. He experimented with his peanut butter and jelly; the same thing happened. Then he began tossing potato chips, bits of cookie, bits of sandwich, with wild abandon as the crowd of animals grew and grew.

He looked toward the far edge of the clearing, just beyond the throng of small animals, and saw the three Norns. They were dressed for the occasion in tiny little ancient Boy Scout uniforms of mid-twentieth century vintage, complete with khaki shirt and shorts, tiny little hiking boots and clasped bandanas around their necks. Little Boy Scout caps covered their heads and they seemed to be doing some sort of line dance to music young Gilbert could not hear. As they did so, the animals paused in their eating and began to imitate the Norns. Soon everyone was dancing and now Gilbert could finally hear the music. If was “The Teddy Bears Picnic”.

Finally Gilbert finished feeding the animals and eating the sandwiches, chips and cookies, until they all had their fill. The lunchbox had obligingly shown that the meal was over by finally emptying itself. And finally the animals stopped dancing, turned toward Gilbert, and bowed solemnly.

Now the scene was beginning to somehow darken and fade. Gil felt a disorienting shift in perspective and he realized that once again the dancing sun rays were coming from the water in the swimming pool. As Gil closed his eyes now, completely relaxed, a large contented smile spread over his face, and he closed his eyes for the last time and watched as his movie, his world, his life, began to slowly fade to black.

The End