The next day Gil was pacing back and forth in his little room on Alvarado waiting for the arrival of Harry. It was nearly two in the afternoon and he had already arrayed himself in his usual costume of blue denim work shirt, slightly but not fashionably torn faded blue jeans and sneakers that had seen better days. Suddenly the buzzer sounded and Gil hastily locked his door and went up the few steps to the entrance where Harry was waiting for him. To his surprise even though it was the Thanksgiving weekend, Harry was nonetheless professionally attired in his usual chauffeur’s uniform.
By way of greeting Harry said with a grin, “All ready for the party, Mr. Hall?”
“You bet I am, Harry,” Gil responded enthusiastically.
Then as Harry opened the rear door of the Mercedes for him, he slid in and they began the long trek to Beverly Hills without further comment. Gil, despite his enthusiasm, was feeling a little nervous about this party which was after all the first real social event he’d been to since he came to Hollywood over three years ago. His social life heretofore had been limited to rather intimate wrap parties on the admittedly few and low-budget films he’d managed to be assigned to.
Since the holiday traffic was rather sparse at midday, Harry was able to reach their destination in less than forty-five minutes. As they turned onto the famous Beverly Drive, Gil couldn’t help gasping a bit at the palatial mansions and profusion of palm trees he was viewing through the car’s side windows. Finally they came to a quiet narrow but well-maintained street onto which Harry turned right and pointed to a structure that lay just ahead.
“This is it, Mr. Hall,” Harry remarked and pulled up to the curb. Leaving the motor running he went around and opened the curbside rear door saying, “Just go on up to the house, Mr. Hall, and ring the doorbell. They’ll take care of you from there. I have to go park the car.”
Gil did as he was told and started up the long curving paved footpath that led from the walled and gated exterior of the estate, past lush green lawns punctuated with stone fountains, flowerbeds and flamboyant lawn decorations. The house was set back from the street about fifty yards and it took Gil several minutes to finally reach the building’s large colonial-style wooden porch and ring the bell beside the massive oak door.
Within seconds of his pressing the bell the door was flung open and what looked to Gil like a British butler straight from Central Casting looked him up and down.
“Yes, sir?” was the butler’s soft purr.
“Uh, I’m Gil Hall, I’m here for, uh, Mr. DeVille’s party?”
“Very good, sir,” replied the butler. “If you will just enter and follow me I will lead you to the festivities.”
As Gil entered the hallway the butler shut the door behind him and led him with stately grace down the polished mahogany floor of a long hallway, passing several closed doors in the process. At the far end of the hall some twenty yards into the building’s interior was another massive oak door which the butler flung open, then motioned Gil to wait for a moment. Entering a few steps into the room the butler intoned, “Presenting Mr. Gil Hall.” Even though no one seemed to take notice of the butler’s announcement he waved Gil in and shut the door behind him.
Once inside Gil looked around in amazement. The room, which seemed to be just one of many on the ground floor of this three-story mansion, was fully as large as a grand hotel’s ballroom. At the far end of the room some sixty feet or more from where Gil was standing were massive sliding glass patio doors through which Gil could barely make out an area nearly as large as the room itself, a stone patio set with numerous tables and chairs and in its center a large swimming pool.
On the left-hand side of the room were several long tables set end to end much as the craft services tables had been in Lincoln Park. Behind these tables stood several white-coated servers whom Gil supposed were the caterers. They were handing out plates that were laden with a huge variety of meats: ham, turkey, roast beef and the like, as well as many vegetable side dishes: stuffing, candied yams, mashed potatoes etc.
The wall on Gil’s right was lined with a succession of long leather-covered sofas surrounded by a number of low tables and chairs. About two dozen or so guests were sprawled on the sofas, walking about the room, eating, drinking, talking and laughing. In the furthest corner of the room behind the array of sofas Gil beheld the strangest sight yet. There in a large rattan chair such as Morticia might have graced in the TV series The Addams Family sat the master of ceremonies himself, Oscar DeVille. But again what was most curious about him to Gil’s mind was his costume du jour. He was wearing what seemed to be a perfect representation of a Pilgrim’s outfit—that is to say, a large wide-brimmed high-crowned hat, a black frock coat left open to reveal a white muslin shirt with lace ruffles at the wrists and throat. Below this he wore tight-fitting black knee britches, white silk stockings and black patent leather shoes complete with large square silver buckles.
Finally noticing Gil at the far end of the room standing there with his mouth open DeVille stood up and called out, “Gil! Glad you could make it! Come over here and meet some people! Oh, go get yourself some food first if you want.” All this was said in DeVille’s customary rapid-fire delivery, but it sounded to Gil friendlier and softer than he had heard the man speak before. Gil acknowledged DeVille’s greeting and went over to the buffet table for as per instructions he had eaten nothing since his turkey dinner the night before. He grabbed a plate of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams and string beans from one of the caterers, at the last minute deciding, What the hell, and picked up a glass of white wine as well. Then he walked over toward DeVille, found a place on one of the couches, and began to eat ravenously.
Since he knew no one except DeVille (even his movie crew had not arrived yet), no one bothered him for the fifteen minutes it took him to finish his meal.
Just as he was finishing and was about to get up and return his empty plate to the buffet table, he noticed out of the corner of his eye the entrance door opening. Curiously it was not George the butler entering with another guest announcement, but three young men who looked to be Gil’s age or perhaps even two or three years younger. The three were dressed, if you could call it that, in nothing more than soft buckskin-fringed loincloths, which barely covered their smooth midriffs and upper thighs. Their only other apparel seemed to be soft leather moccasins, necklaces of various Indian-style beadwork and animal teeth, and beaded headbands which easily confined their close-cropped hair. In each headband was an eagle feather. The bodies of the three young men were completely hairless and glistening as if they’d recently been oiled.
As Gil watched in amazement, the three stood side by side in the doorway (the door having been closed, presumably by George) and let out a series of war whoops that somehow managed to be in three-part harmony.
“I’m Tom,” said the one on the far end.
“I’m Dick,” said the one in the middle.
“And I’m Harry,” said the man who Gil immediately recognized.
Again in unison they proclaimed, “We’ll be your Indian slaves for the rest of the evening.” They all gave the assembled throng lascivious winks then added, “You use as you please.”
This performance drew many admiring stares from the women and not a few from the men. Gil for his part was having what could only be called an acid flashback without benefit of acid as he conjured up a picture of a naked Harry in a tight embrace with a hairy DeVille. He immediately shook his head to try to banish this vision but he found it hard to do. Apparently, he thought with some relief, I’m not gay.
As the Hollywood Indians made their way through the crowd, Gil managed to get a hold of himself enough to stride over to the buffet table to return his plate and procure what had become a much-needed second glass of white wine. As he did so, his eye was struck by a plate containing what appeared to be about three-quarters of a perfect pumpkin pie, so he decided to take a piece of that as well.
He was just cutting himself a fat slice and was looking about for the whipped cream when a voice at his elbow said, “Try the pecan pie. It’s even better.”
Turning he saw at his elbow a small thin woman who, even with her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair, barely reached the level of his nipples. “Thanks for the tip,” he managed to mumble as she offered him the aforementioned pie.
As he concentrated on getting both pieces balanced on his rather small dessert plate, the small woman pressed her advantage. Looking him up and down she said, “You’re new around here, aren’t you?” Finishing her scrutiny she added, “What do you do, anyway? You don’t look any older than those Indian braves over there.” She jerked a thumb at Tom, Dick and Harry, who were continuing to entertain the crowd in rather obvious and provocative ways.
“I turned twenty-five last month,” he informed her rather haughtily. “And I’m the director of Mr. DeVille’s latest picture.”
Somehow she managed to balance her plate in her left hand while poking him in the ribs with her right. “Yeah,” she said with a laugh that was not altogether unkind, “I know all about that project.” She became confiding and dropped her voice. “Come on,” she encouraged, “you can tell me. It’s another of DeVille’s efforts to make what he calls a ‘prestige film’, isn’t it?”
Gil admitted that that was the about the size of it.
“Documentary?” she pursued. “Liberal guilt, shame of the barrio, all that crap?”
Gil could stand no more. Turning a little red, he said with as dignified an air as he could manage, “We think it’s going to be a great film. And besides,” he continued, dropping the pose, “it’s the best job I’ve had since I got here.” He began to move away from her, bent on ignoring her barbs, but she countered with, “Hey, wait a minute! I didn’t mean to insult you. I was insulting DeVille.”
As Gil turned back to her he realized that there was a strange quality to this woman, a quality he had never encountered before in his admittedly limited experience with the opposite sex. “Okay,” he said more warmly, “point taken. But a guy’s gotta work, you know.”
Again she looked at him in that appraising manner that both disturbed and excited him. Finally she queried, “How long are you gonna stick around now that you’ve stuffed your face?”
Gil looked at his watch. It was barely three in the afternoon and the crowd seemed to be thickening and getting louder. Someone was putting on a record or a tape, he couldn’t tell which, of lively contemporary rock music. “Well,” he said, “Mr. DeVille promised to introduce me to some people so I dunno, maybe five or six?”
“Sounds good to me,” she said, glancing around the room. “Let’s go and circulate for awhile. I’ll start the ball rolling by introducing you to my boss. Ever hear of the king of the low-budget flicks, Rod Gorman?”
“Wow,” he breathed. “You mean, Flower Shop on Skid Row? Gallons of Gore? The Horror? You mean, that Rod Gorman?”
“Yeah,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m his, well, receptionist except, well, he never sees anyone in his office. I just kind of sit around and, between telling various people on the phone he’s not available, I read his scripts and write my own.”
“Wow,” said Gil again, realizing how much he sounded like a small-town hick from Pennsylvania but unable to stop himself. He looked at her with new interest. “You’re a real Hollywood screenwriter?” he breathed.
“Well, yes and no,” she admitted. “Yes, I write scripts for Hollywood movies, got maybe half a dozen of them in the drawer, but I haven’t as yet managed to sell one or even get one filmed.”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” said Gil timidly, “I’d love to read them sometime. I’m always on the lookout for worthy projects,” he finished, hoping he wasn’t sounding too self-important.
She seemed to take no notice and simply mumbled, “Great,” as by now both their mouths were filled with various pies. After they had finished she took him over towards the rest of the crowd who was mostly gathered on and around the long row of sofas.
“By the way,” she said, taking Gil by the arm as they crossed the room, “I’m Natalie Fine. What do they call you?”
“Gil Hall,” he said.
Then a funny thing happened. They both looked at each other and said almost in unison, “But that’s not my real name.”
“You first,” said Gil, giggling a little as the wine was starting to get to him.
“Natalia Feinbergen,” she intoned grandly.
“Gilbert Hallenbeck,” he said, trying for the same tone.
This time they both giggled.
And so for the next few hours Gil and Natalie circulated freely among the crowd. DeVille seemed to be totally occupied in talking and/or arguing with a large heavy-set bearded man Gil later found out was famed director Ford Copley. Not wishing to interrupt and not even sure that he could, as furious as their conversation had become, Gil wandered about the room randomly introducing himself to several actors, a few other directors, and exchanging business cards whenever possible.
At one point he found himself gazing out through the sliding glass patio doors that led to the swimming pool area, where he could just make out at the far end of the pool a gathering of three scruffy-looking guys. They were sitting in lawn chairs moved close to each other and seemed to be passing back and forth a large joint almost as big as one of DeVille’s cigars. He found out later from Natalie that it was a reunion of sorts between Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson.
And as the last rays of the setting sun glanced off the glassed-in pool area, Gil felt his shirt being tugged from behind. Turning around he saw that it was Natalie.
“Want a ride, sailor?” she quipped. “I’ve had just about enough food, wine and stuffed shirts. What say we get the hell out of Dodge?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Gil. “But I really ought to say goodbye to Mr. DeVille and thank him for a great party.”
“Don’t bother,” was Natalie’s response, pointing to the corner where DeVille was engaged in a shouting match with a younger, slimmer man who was that up-and-coming auteur, Ryan Palmero. “So let’s just slip out quietly,” she said, grasping his hand firmly and pulling him towards the door.
As they left DeVille’s mansion it was just twilight and Natalie looked around, finally spotting the valet. “Hey you,” she called out unceremoniously. “Blue ’69 VW bug. Can’t miss it amongst all these Caddies and BMWs.”
The valet merely nodded and trotted off, returning in a few minutes with Natalie’s car.
“It’s not elegant,” she told Gil, “but it gets me there and back.”
So as she and Gil settled themselves in the front bucket seats Natalie threw the car into gear with a lurch, and soon they were turning east on Wilshire toward Gil’s humble abode. He had already confessed to her (out of necessity of course considering she had to know where he lived) that he was not at this time living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Surprisingly Natalie sympathized with him and confessed to pretty much the same thing.
Since it was a long way east on Wilshire and they had already begun to encounter heavy traffic before they crossed LaBrea, they decided to while away the time by exchanging life stories.
Gil went first, but soon discovered that he didn’t really have much to say, so well before they got as far as Fairfax he was concluding with “…and that’s pretty much how I got here.”
Natalie had been listening to this with interest. Now she seemed satisfied but strangely impatient. “Okay,” she said, “that’ll do nicely for a thumbnail sketch. My turn?”
“Well,” she began, seemingly eager for a sympathetic ear. Gil, who had spent the last two weeks honing his listening skills, had no trouble providing one. “Well,” she repeated, “first of all, if you haven’t noticed, I’m one of the Jewish persuasion. You know, the guys who built the Pyramids? My father, Abraham Feinbergen, for most of his life was cardiac surgeon, then chief of cardiac surgery of Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. Until I came out here, I lived all my life in the townhouse my father and mother Sarah owned on West 96th Street near West End Avenue. My father was already advancing into middle age when he met and married my mother, who was a clerical worker on Dad’s cardiac ward.” She grinned at him. “Unlike you and that gaggle of people you call brothers and sisters, I was, and am, an only child. As I said, my father was already in his forties when wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, they got together to produce lil ol’ me. I was born just before the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.”
“Wow,” Gil broke in. He was doing the math quickly in his head. After a few seconds he remarked, “You sure don’t look that old.”
“Don’t be rude,” she snapped.
Flustered, Gil began to stammer, “No, I—I—what I meant was, you look a lot younger.”
She softened. “Thank you, I think. In fact, I just celebrated my birthday last week.”
“So, what did you do?” asked Gil, intrigued.
She turned her head briefly to look at him before concentrating on the traffic again. “Even though we just met at a party, you have to understand that I’m not really the social type. What I like best is a quiet evening with a good book or a good movie on TV. So, my birthday celebration”—she said this as if it were in quotation marks—”consisted of a fast trip to Langer’s in Westlake where I spent my life savings on a large corned beef on rye complete with potato salad, cole slaw and pickle. That, and a couple of bottles of Dr. Brown’s, and I was ready for the Late Show double feature on channel eight. That night they were showing two of my favorites, Dark Victory and Casablanca.” She hazarded another serious look in his direction. “I’m a real nut for those old Hollywood movies of the Thirties and Forties. I know there’s some good stuff out now, but that was the Golden Age. Anyway,” she said more briskly, resuming her tale, “I grew up like I said on New York’s Upper West Side, a little rich kid who wanted for nothing. I went to Columbia, got my MSW—that’s Master of Social Work to you—and proceeded to troll the mean streets of Manhattan for abused children, neglected children, abused wives, et cetera, et cetera. After several years of this I became increasingly frustrated with the way the system worked or didn’t work, if you ask me. So I quit my job and talked my father into financing my trip to Los Angeles. Oh, I should tell you that before that I actually wrote a novel. I finished it in ’68. It was about my experiences in the New York City social system. I called it Women and Children First, but I couldn’t interest a New York publisher. So that’s really why I decided to move out here. I got here the next year in ’69. I said to myself, Why bother to write a novel that few people are ever going to hear about let alone read, when I could be writing screenplays, which are quicker, easier, and if they get filmed, millions will see them. So anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years. I was lucky enough to get this job with Gorman, which pays my rent and puts food on the table. But so far I haven’t been able to interest anyone in my screenplays either.”
“You know,” said Gil, who seemed to be seriously considering all that she had said, “you might just have something there. Maybe movies about social injustice could be the thing of the future.”
By this time they had reached Western and Natalie swung the car north towards Beverly. They were both silent for awhile and as they approached Vermont, Gil was occupied with giving her the directions that would take him to his little room on Alvarado.
A few minutes later they had arrived at Gil’s block. Even though it was the holiday weekend, Natalie had no trouble finding a parking space nearly across the street from Gil’s apartment building. They both sat there in silence for a few moments, neither one wanting to break the mood. Finally Gil said awkwardly, “Well, uh, thanks for the ride, Natalie, uh, I guess I’ll be, uh, going in now.”
By way of answer Natalie turned her head and regarded him for a few seconds. “You know,” she said casually, “I had a little more wine at the party than I’m used to. You wouldn’t happen to have some coffee or something, would you?”
Gil took his hand off the door handle. “Why sure!” he said. “If you want to come in, I think I can rustle up something. Instant okay?”
Natalie took the keys out the ignition and put them in her purse then, opening her car door, said, “Sure thing Gil, that’s what I’m used to.”
They both got out of the car and Natalie locked it. Then side by side they crossed the street.
“I was lucky to find a parking space,” Natalie remarked as they approached the entrance to Gil’s building.
“It’s not too surprising,” replied Gil, taking his house key out of his pocket. “Not too many people in this neighborhood have cars.”
Natalie looked around surveying the surroundings. “Yeah,” she said finally, “I see what you mean.”
“In fact,” Gil said, stopping for a moment at the building’s entrance, “Harry never has any trouble finding a space when he picks me up in the morning, and he’s got a big Mercedes limo.”
“Wow,” said Natalie, visibly impressed. “You mean, you get driven to work in a chauffeured limousine every morning?”
Gil blushed and tried to make light of it as he unlocked the door and motioned Natalie into the building. “It’s not really all that much. I think DeVille just wants to make sure I get to the set on time. Time is money,” he said with a kind of silly grin.
He ushered her down the few steps to the hall off of which his tiny garden-level apartment was located. Using his other key to open his apartment door he said with a wave of his hand, “It’s not much, but it’s sort of home I guess.” Then he hurried in and scurried around the small room picking up various items of used clothing that were strewn about the few pieces of furniture and partially covered the thinly carpeted floor. Depositing the offending items in a heap at the foot of his fold-out couch, he pointed towards the only really comfortable chair in the room and said, “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable while I get the coffee? How do you like yours?”
“Black is fine,” she said, settling into the cushions, carefully avoiding but not mentioning a loose spring here and there.
As Gil turned his back and hurried into the little kitchenette to make the coffee Natalie stood up quickly, her head turning and her eyes darting around the apartment for clues to such things as Gil’s lifestyle and literary taste. There was a small unfinished wooden bookshelf just under the only window, which was less than two feet high and contained two shelves. Even as small as it was, she noted, there was plenty of room for Gil’s few books, most of which she quickly ascertained were either books on filmmaking techniques or biographies of famous film directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks. But before she could investigate any further she heard Gil’s returning footsteps and quickly and stealthily sprang back into the chair, quickly folded her hands demurely while giving him an innocent look as he entered carrying two thick but badly chipped diner-style mugs of steaming coffee.
He gave one to Natalie, then crossed over the few feet to the couch and sat down, brushing aside some cookie crumbs and a crumpled newspaper. Sipping her coffee slowly, Natalie again looked at Gil appraisingly. He was big, that was for sure, she thought, not exactly what you’d call handsome, but not hard to look at either. He had big hands and she could tell as he sat there, nervously clenching and unclenching them around his coffee mug, that there was strength in them too. She briefly wondered how they would feel on her body, but quickly brushed away the beginnings of embarrassment by saying, “Thanks Gil, what a lifesaver.” She looked at her coffee gratefully. “My head is beginning to clear already. I think I can even make it home in one piece,” she finished with a chuckle.
Gil responded with a dutiful chuckle then said, “Glad to help out.”
There was an awkward silence for a few moments while they both paid way too much attention to their coffee mugs. Finally Natalie seemed to have come to a decision. “You know,” she began, trying to sound as casual as possible, “I like you, Gil.” She tried to say this in a way that would indicate an employer evaluating a worker. “You’re the first Hollywood director I’ve met that doesn’t have a big head.”
Gil looked a bit startled but managed to stammer out, “That’s nice of you to say Natalie, but I don’t really consider myself a Hollywood director yet. All I’ve really done since I’ve been here is animal films. And this documentary,” he waved it away with his hand as if it meant nothing, “in which I don’t really do any directing at all. I’m basically just an interviewer. The only reason I’m doing this picture is it’s the most money I’ve been offered yet.”
Now it was Natalie’s turn to wave away his statement. “That doesn’t matter,” she said. A note of seriousness entered her voice. She stood up and, seeing no place to set down her coffee mug, went over to the couch, put her mug down on a small end table and sat down beside him. Once again she regarded him with that appraising look which once again made Gil blush and turn his eyes from her penetrating gaze.
“I’m betting,” she continued almost vehemently, “that you have a vision, Gil. That there is a movie in your head already that you want to direct. The kind of thing you want to become known for.” She continued more quickly, on a roll now. “It’s like you said in the car, social commentary as Hollywood movie. I know just what you’re talking about. It’s what I’ve been trying to do. It’s what my screenplays are all about.”
Seeing that she was making him nervous, she moved over a little bit on the couch and retrieved her coffee mug from the end table.
There was a sort of stunned silence in the room, the way people react to a particularly loud thunderclap when all is silent again. Finally Gil turned and looked at her, seemingly with new interest. This time it was his turn to try to sound casual. “That reminds me,” he said lightly, “I think we’re going to wrap this film in about another week, and I would sure like to take a look at some of your screenplays.” Then hesitantly, “Maybe we could get together sometime after then?”
“Sure thing,” replied Natalie. “In fact, why don’t I give you my phone number?” She took a small notebook from her purse, opened it, turned to a blank page and scribbled something on it with the stub of a pencil. Tearing it off, she handed it to Gil saying, “That’s my home phone number.” Then thinking quickly she withdrew the piece of paper again and scribbled something else on it. Then she handed it to him saying, “The second one is the office where I work. I told you I was Rod Gorman’s secretary. You can call me there anytime, normal office hours. Usually I’m the only one there and I get a little bored. So feel free,” she concluded. Then noticing him sitting here much like a ventriloquist’s dummy she said, “Well?”
“Well what?” he responded, slowly and carefully.
Patiently she said, “Take the damn paper, Gil, and put it in your pocket or wherever you keep these important things. Then give me your number.”
She sat poised, pencil above open notebook.
Gil’s voice finally returned to him but it came out in an almost adolescent squeak. “Uh, well, uh,” he stammered, “I, uh, don’t actually have a telephone, but there’s one out in the hall.” He recited the number for her. “You can call me there.”
“Okay,” she said, writing it down. Then she closed the notebook and dropped it and the pencil back in her purse and closed the snap briskly. She took the last sip of her now cold coffee, set the mug on the end table again and stood up quickly, affecting a schoolgirl insouciance. “Well Gil,” she said brightly, “it’s been fun. Let’s do this again sometime.”
Picking up his cue Gil stood up, set down his still nearly full coffee mug on the floor beside the heap of clothing. Obviously looking for something neutral to say, he came up with, “Well, thanks again for the ride, Natalie. Maybe we can get together soon. I sure would like to see those screenplays.”
She laughed a little and said, “Call me when you wrap and we’ll set something up.”
They walked together towards the door, their bodies very close to each other, but being instinctively careful not to touch. Gallantly he opened the door for her and accompanied her up the few steps to the building’s entrance, where he again opened the door for her. Impulsively she turned and grabbed him around the waist, putting her head sideways on his breastbone. Then just as impulsively she released him saying, “That’s so you don’t forget me, Gilbert Hallenbeck.” Then she gave a mischievous chuckle and ran across the street to her car before Gil could say a word.
He stood in the doorway numb, speechless, unable even to move until she had driven away. Then shaking his head in perplexity, he turned and went back into his apartment, locking the door behind him. Deciding that he’d had a little too much rich food and drink, he decided to read for a few hours and then go to bed early. By nine o’clock he had turned off the lights and pulled the covers over his head, hoping for a long unbroken sleep.