Excerpt

“Stage 13”

Simon Rich

July 23, 2018 
The following is from Simon Rich's collection, Hits and Misses. Inspired by Rich's experiences in Hollywood as a former Saturday Night Live writer, the collection chronicles the absurdity of fame and the humanity of failure in the entertainment industry. Simon Rich has written for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. His other collections include Spoiled Brats and Ant Farm.

Yoni was haunted by his student loan debt. He felt its weight whenever he purchased a granola bar or fed quarters into a washing machine. As of this morning, he owed $97, 201.83. And the worst part was, he’d spent it all on nothing.

Since graduating from film school seven years ago, Yoni’s filmmaking career had gone from promising to catastrophic. He’d managed to direct a few dog food commercials, but the best he could say about them was that, from a legal standpoint, the animals had not been abused. His non-dog work was similarly bleak: Hardee’s training videos, infomercials designed to trick the elderly, and workout DVDs for exercise programs that were at best a scam and at worst medically dangerous.

Yoni knew his best hope was to move back into his parents’ house in Queens. His mother had befriended the owner of a successful mulch business, and according to her frequent emails, there was a job “with his name on it.” Yoni wasn’t sure what his role at the mulch business would be. Making it, selling it, spreading it? But anything was better than staying in Los Angeles, chasing a dream he knew was dead. He was thirty-four years old. If things were going to happen for him, they would’ve happened by now.

Yoni was browsing some cheap flights back east when his cracked iPhone buzzed in his pocket. He squinted at the unknown number. He knew he should ignore the call; it was almost certainly a debt collection agency. But the 323 area code gave him pause. Whoever was calling him was calling from Hollywood itself. His phone rang a third time, then a fourth, then a fifth. It was about to go to voicemail when Yoni cursed at himself under his breath and answered.

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“I’m glad you could make it,” said Nikki Coleman, an elegantly dressed executive of indeterminate age. “Was parking all right?”

Yoni nodded enthusiastically, even though he’d come by Lyft. It was the first time he’d ever been invited to a major movie studio. He had no idea how Paragon had gotten his number and was almost positive they had contacted him as the result of some administrative error. Still, he was determined to make a good impression.

“I’ll cut to the chase,” Nikki said as her handsome assistant handed Yoni an impressively cold bottle of Fiji water. “The reason I called is because we’ve been watching your work for some time, and we’re considering hiring you for a major project.”

Several seconds passed in silence.

“Like, a directing thing?” Yoni asked.

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“Yes,” Nikki said patiently. “A directing thing.”

Yoni shook his head in disbelief. “What made you think of me?”

“He knew he should ignore the call; it was almost certainly a debt collection agency. But the 323 area code gave him pause. Whoever was calling him was calling from Hollywood itself.”

Nikki smiled as broadly as she could, given her many facial surgeries. “We’ve had some problems on set,” she said. “I won’t go into specifics right now. But we need someone with experience working with unconventional talent.”

Yoni nodded. If there was one skill he had, it was dealing with temperamental stars. He’d once directed a workout tape starring a bodybuilder who was addicted, in his own words, to “rage.”

“Who is it?” he whispered. It was his first taste of industry gossip, and he was excited. “Is it Bale?”

Nikki nodded subtly at her assistant, who held up a giant stack of paper.

“Before I can tell you about the project,” Nikki said, “I need you to sign a nondisclosure agreement.”

Yoni flipped through the baffling pile of pages. “What does this all mean, exactly?”

“It’s just standard boilerplate,” Nikki assured him. “All it says is that you’ll keep everything you hear and see today a secret, no matter how shocking or horrific.”

“Huh,” Yoni said. He thought about his options and then neatly signed the contract. “So . . . what happens now?”

Nikki’s eyes narrowed. “You meet her.”

*

Yoni sat in the passenger seat of Nikki’s golf cart as she sped them through the lot. He recognized some of the sets from movies—the police station from a car chase franchise, the haunted graveyard from a recent thriller. Gradually, though, as they drove through the studio, the sets grew less familiar.

They passed a dated mock-up of a subway station, covered in 1980s-style graffiti, then a decrepit Wild West set. It was another ten minutes before the cart came to a stop.

“Here we are,” Nikki said. “Stage 13.”

Yoni climbed out of the golf cart and followed Nikki over to a barren concrete structure. The other soundstages they’d passed, Yoni noticed, had golden plaques affixed to their front doors, commemorating the films that had been shot there. Stage 13, in contrast, was eerily unmarked. The grass outside had been neglected, and the crumbling wooden door creaked open as they neared it, as if pushed by some knowing, spectral force.

“So,” Yoni asked cautiously, “what’s the deal here?”

Nikki dispassionately summarized the building’s history. The stage was built in 1914 to produce silent one-reelers. It thrived for a couple of years, producing racist but profitable hits, like Hong Kong Harry. Sometime in the twenties, though, it began to acquire a “negative reputation.” A 1926 ice-skating musical was shut down in the middle of production due to a catastrophic freezer explosion. Since then, the stage had been the site of numerous violent accidents: fallen lights, snapped riggings, mysterious electrical fires. After World War II, the stage fell into disuse. It was revived in the 1950s for a Christmas movie, but the film was abandoned when the director went insane and demanded to be given a lobotomy.

“And this is where I would be working?” Yoni asked.

“Yes,” Nikki said.

Yoni nodded. It was at times like these that he wished he belonged to some kind of union.

“After you,” Nikki said.

Yoni took a deep breath and stepped into the darkened soundstage. He was searching in vain for a light switch when a sparkling figure burst into view overhead, as bright as an antique camera flash. By the time Yoni regained his vision, the glittering presence was floating down toward him from the ceiling. She was slightly translucent, with sunken eyes and fiery red hair.

“What’s that?” Yoni asked.

“That’s Clara,” Nikki said. “She’s a ghost.”

Yoni had some follow-up questions, but before he could ask them, Nikki bolted for the exit, slamming the heavy door behind her.

Yoni turned reluctantly toward Clara. At some point she had floated down to eye level. He could feel her cold breath on his face.

“Hi,” he said uneasily. “My name’s Yoni.”

Her bloodred lips curled into a smile. “The new director,” she said.

“Yep!” Yoni said, smiling brightly to conceal his mounting terror. “It’s nice to meet you.”

He held out his hand, and she shook it to the best of her ability, her translucent fingers passing through his flesh.

“Cool!” Yoni said. “Cool, cool.” He could see Clara better now. She didn’t look like a traditional Hollywood actress.

But her face was certainly captivating: sunken eyes, long black lashes, ghoulishly white skin. Yoni couldn’t tell how much of her aesthetic was a personal style choice and how much a result of her being dead. In either case, it worked; Yoni couldn’t take his eyes off her.

“How long have you been here?” he asked.

“Since 1922,” she said. “I was over for a screen test. It was my seventh audition in three days, and I was pretty hopped up on reds. Guess I took too many. Anyway, I passed out and cracked my head over there.”

She pointed at a faded red stain on the concrete.

Yoni winced. “Did it hurt?”

Clara shook her head. “I fell right asleep. And when I woke up, there’s this tall, golden man staring down at me. And he tells me it’s time to leave this world behind. ‘Sweet child,’ he says. ‘You’ve been struggling so long. Striving and suffering. It’s made us angels weep. But be not afraid. Soon you will be in the warm embrace of God, and all your pain will cease to be. Come, my darling child, and bask in the light of heaven.’ So I stand up and look into his big golden eyes. And I say, ‘Bullshit. I’m not leaving this town until I’m a fucking star.’ So he smiles down at me and says, ‘Be at peace, my child. Fame and success are but man-made idols. And once thou art in heaven, thou shalt learn there’s no such thing as worldly glory, for in God’s eyes, all creatures are made equal.’ And I say, ‘If I wanted to be equal, I would have stayed in Galveston, Texas. I have a screen test in two hours to play the ingénue in a one-reeler, and if you make me miss it, I swear I’m going to kill you.’ And he reaches out and takes my hand and starts to lift me up off the ground, to heaven or wherever. So I take out my hairpin and I stab him as hard as I can in his wing. Just stab him and stab him and stab him. And he can’t feel pain because he’s an angel, but eventually he’s like, ‘Stop. That’s annoying.’ And I say, ‘I’m gonna stab you all the way up to heaven unless you let me go!’ And he says, ‘You’re crazy, Pamela.’ And I say, “My name’s Clara Ginger now. I changed it to look better on marquees. Tell God and everyone to stop calling me Pamela. I’m not Pamela anymore. It’s Clara Ginger, damn it!’ And I keep stabbing him in the wing and the face. And eventually he loses his cool and drops the whole goody-two-shoes bit and says, ‘You’re one crazy bitch.’ So I look him in his golden eyes and say, ‘You can eat my ass.’” She chuckled proudly at the memory. “Anyway. Since then I’ve been here.”

Clara walked Yoni through her present circumstances. She couldn’t leave the soundstage (“standard ghost rules”), but she had a lot of power within its crumbling walls. “I can move stuff with my mind and fly around and shit. Comes in handy when people piss me off. But after a while, believe me, it gets old.”

The worst part, she said, was that God probably thought he was “winning.”

“I bet he’s looking down on me right now,” she said. “Laughing on top of some dumb cloud.” She put her hands on her hips and launched into a God impression. “Oooooooh, I’m God. I don’t think Clara’s ever gonna be in pictures . . .”

Yoni glanced nervously toward the sky as Clara continued her impression of the Lord. Her God voice had started off as only subtly gay, but as she spoke, it grew more aggressively flamboyant.

“Oooh, I’m God, sitting around with my tutti-frutti angels . . .”

“Clara.”

“ . . . getting fucked in the butt all the time . . .”

“Whoa.”

Clara flicked her wrist. “Relax. There’s nothing he can do.”

“It seems like there’s a lot he can do,” Yoni cautioned. “I mean, he turned you into a ghost.”

“Big whoop. I’m still gonna be a star.”

“How?”

“You’re the director,” she said. “You figure it out.”

*

“We’ve tried everything to get rid of her,” Nikki explained as Yoni climbed back into the golf cart. “Mediums, exorcists, sage spells. Nothing works. She just gets mad and starts killing people.”

Yoni nodded. “She seems pretty determined to make it as an actress.”

“We’ve consulted with several ghost experts,” Nikki said. “Clara won’t go to heaven until she’s accomplished what she sees as her ‘unfinished business on this earth.’ ”

“I’m sure I can find something to direct her in,” Yoni said. “I mean, makeup will be a challenge, but I’ll figure it out.”

“It’s not that simple,” Nikki said. “We can’t reveal Clara’s existence to the world.”

Yoni nodded. “Mankind would panic if they learned that ghosts were real.”

“There’s that,” Nikki acknowledged. “But mainly, it’s a liability issue. By concealing Clara’s existence all these years, Paragon Studios has enabled countless deaths. According to our lawyers, the class action potential is significant.”

“How can you keep Clara a secret and make her a movie star at the same time?”

Nikki parked her golf cart in front of an unmarked storage unit. “I’ll show you.”

A musty smell hit Yoni’s nose as he followed her into the cramped storage locker. He was starting to feel claustrophobic when the fluorescents flickered on overhead. Instantaneously, his anxiety gave way to childlike wonder. He was surrounded by ancient film equipment dating back to the silent era.

“You’d be working with this crap,” Nikki said, gesturing at a hand-crank camera, plated with silver and gold.

Yoni laughed with geeky amazement. “Holy shit! Is that a Bell and Howell?”

Nikki shrugged.

“I think this is what Chaplin used!” Yoni said, patting the old machine with reverence. “I can’t believe this thing still works!”

“It doesn’t,” Nikki said. “There isn’t even a lens.” She jabbed her finger through the hollow cylinder. “See?”

“So how am I going to shoot with it?” Yoni asked.

“You’re not.”

Yoni’s posture slumped as the situation dawned on him. “So you don’t actually want me to direct anything. You just want me to pretend to direct something. So you can trick a ghost.”

Nikki nodded. “Is that a problem?”

“I mean, it’s a little disappointing.” He looked up at her with hope in his eyes. “Unless you think this project might lead to something! Like, if I did a good job, do you think you might consider me for other jobs? Like, directing real movies, without ghosts?”

“We see this as more of a one-off gig,” she said.

Yoni gave a disappointed nod.

“Look,” Nikki said. “It’s easy work. All you have to do is point the camera at Clara for a few hours. We’ll hire some nonunion crew to run around and look busy. She’ll sashay around, you’ll spin the crank, and then a week later I’ll come in with a fake copy of Variety. ‘Clara Ginger is a star.’ She’ll see the headline, fly up to heaven, and that’ll be that.”

“What would I tell her she’s starring in?”

Nikki handed him a script, and he read the title out loud. “Mr. Ching Chong and the Orphan Girl?

Nikki nodded. “It’s the one-reeler Clara was auditioning for the day she died. Fun fact: it was considered racist even for its time.”

“I’m not sure I can do this,” Yoni said. “I mean, it doesn’t seem very creatively fulfilling. Also, I’m concerned that Clara would find out I was tricking her and then murder me.”

“If you get her to leave,” Nikki said, “we’ll pay you one hundred thousand dollars.”

Yoni picked up the camera and tested out the crank.

*

Yoni stood outside the soundstage, waiting for his crew to finish signing their confidentiality agreements. Nikki had briefed them about Clara, but they still were understandably afraid. Yoni cleared his throat and launched into a pep talk.

“Okay!” he said. “So we’re about to go inside, to encounter the ghost we’re attempting to trick. It’s going to be weird, but we’re gonna get through it. Does anyone have any questions?”

A handsome, out-of-work actor named Charles raised his hand. Yoni recognized him vaguely from a local commercial for yard furniture.

“Is this makeup really necessary?” he asked.

Yoni nodded at Charles sympathetically. “Unfortunately, the part of Mr. Ching Chong calls for full yellow-face makeup. If you don’t wear it, Clara will get suspicious.”

Charles shut his eyes. “This is rock-bottom for me,” he said to no one in particular. “Playing a racist caricature to trick a ghost.”

Yoni could tell the day would be an uphill battle. But what was the alternative? He pictured himself declaring bankruptcy and flying back to Queens to join the mulch trade. He could see his parents standing on the porch, his mother sobbing with relief, his father savoring his vindication.

“So it didn’t work out in Lala Land,” he could hear him saying. “Well, at least you’re finally back on Planet Earth.”

Yoni knew his film career was over. But with a hundred grand, he could at least avoid that nightmarish homecoming. He could pay off his debt, flee LA forever, and start a new life somewhere else, doing anything but this.

He opened the door and led the crew into the darkened soundstage. A few men screamed as Clara floated into view. In general, though, they managed to remain professional-looking.

“Who are all these guys?” Clara asked suspiciously.

Yoni bounded toward her and held up a copy of the script. “Congratulations!” he said. “You got the part!”

“Which part?”

Yoni grinned. “The lead!”

“Bullshit,” Clara spat, her pupils burning like a pair of embers. “This is some kind of trick, and I’m going to murder everybody!”

Yoni swallowed. He could hear one of the crew members behind him vomit with fear.

“It’s no trick!” Yoni assured her. He pulled out his Bell and Howell. “See?”

Clara’s jaw was clenched with rage. But when she saw the gleaming camera, her expression softened. She inched toward the machine and peered into the lens-less aperture, her lips slowly parting. When she looked up, her eyes were wide and hopeful.

“I’m really the lead?” she asked in a small voice.

“Yeah!” Yoni said. “Big-time!”

A tear rolled down Clara’s pale cheek. Within seconds, though, she’d suppressed any trace of vulnerability.

“Well then, shit, what are we waiting for?” she said. “Let’s get to work.”

*

The plot of Mr. Ching Chong and the Orphan Girl wasn’t particularly complicated. An orphan girl visits the shop of Mr. Ching Chong to pawn her beloved silver locket. Mr. Ching Chong tries to cheat her, but she hypnotizes him with the locket and gets him to jump out the window. The rest of the nine-page scenario called for Clara to face the camera and cycle through a series of popular 1920s dance crazes, none of which had any relation to the story.

Yoni explained to Clara that they were going to shoot the movie in one take. It all took place on a single set, so continuity wouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, since the film was silent, there was no need to learn or practice any lines.

“We can start right now,” he said cheerfully. “And we’ll be finished in under ten minutes.”

Clara looked worried. “Shouldn’t we rehearse a little first?” she asked. “Or at least block it?”

If this were a real film, Yoni would pull his star aside to reassure her. But given the circumstances, he didn’t see the need.

“Don’t worry,” he said to Clara. “You’re gonna nail it.”

He checked to make sure that the camera was pointed in the right direction. Then he spun the crank around and called out, “Action!”

“Charles shut his eyes. “This is rock-bottom for me,” he said to no one in particular. “Playing a racist caricature to trick a ghost.””

Clara pointed at the locket and held her hands together in a pleading gesture.

“Great acting!” Yoni said. “Let’s move on to the hypnotizing part.”

Clara swung the locket back and forth. Charles dutifully jumped out the window.

“Great!” Yoni said. “Let’s wrap it up.”

Clara turned to the camera and energetically cycled through her dances: the Mexican Tamale, the Irish Jig, and the Jewish Shuffle.

“Wow,” Yoni said involuntarily. “Okay! Great work, Clara. That’s a wrap.”

Clara looked around the room as the crew members silently dispersed. “Really?” she asked. “That’s it?”

Yoni gave her two thumbs-up. “That’s it!”

Clara looked down at her feet.

“What’s wrong?” Yoni asked.

She gestured at the crew. “They hated it.”

Yoni forced a laugh. “What are you talking about?” he said. “They loved it! Right, guys?”

The crew members nodded fearfully.

“Don’t fuck with me!” Clara shouted at Yoni. “It fucking died and you know it!”

Yoni fell backward as she flew up to the ceiling and slipped into the shadows. The air was so cold he could see his own breath. At this rate, he knew, Clara wasn’t going anywhere.

*

Yoni spent the lunch break trying to teach his crew to feign praise more believably. But no matter how loudly they applauded, Yoni knew it wouldn’t persuade Clara. She was a performer. And anyone who’s ever been onstage can tell when they’ve lost the crowd. It was something you could physically feel—the knot in your lungs, the sweat on your neck, the gnawing panic in your gut.

There was only one way to convince Clara that her film was working.

Somehow he would have to make it work.

He opened his battered laptop. His desktop was crawling with Final Draft and QuickTime files, each icon a gravestone commemorating some failed project. There were the feature scripts he’d labored on in screenwriting class, including the earnest war epic his professor had called a “decent first attempt at comedy.” There was the self-financed short he’d paid to submit to the Sundance Contest, a cruel scam with no affiliation whatsoever with the Sundance Film Festival. There were hundreds of storyboards, pitches, and treatments for movies that never were produced and never would be. And now here he was, writing a fake starring vehicle for a ghost. His only solace was that it was the last project he would ever work on, the last time he would ever have to type out those two conniving words that built up your hopes only to dash them:

Open on . . .

*

“Clara?” Yoni called. “You in here?”

Clara descended reluctantly from the ceiling. Her little jaw was locked and cocked in a way that reminded Yoni of a baby lion. He could tell from her streaked mascara she’d been crying.

“I’m sorry it didn’t go well yesterday.”

Clara shrugged. “It was just a little hiccup,” she said. “Just another hurdle to jump over.” She gazed off into the distance. “I remember when I entered my first dance contest. Miss Bathing Beauty, 1917. My act bombed in rehearsal. But that didn’t stop me.”

Yoni nodded. “You rehearsed.”

Clara shook her head. “I screwed one of the judges. His name was Lou Dunlap. He owned a sauerkraut company, and his beard smelled like rotten cabbage. But I didn’t care. I did things to him that would shock the devil. Things that would make the devil say, ‘Whoa, that’s enough. You don’t have to take it that far. Slow down. That’s crazy. Stop.’ But I’ll tell you what: it won me Miss Bathing Beauty. And the whole thing was worth it to prove them wrong.”

“Prove who wrong?”

“Everyone,” she said. “My teachers, my cousins, the nuns. They all used to laugh when they caught me practicing my walks in the mirror. Said I’d never amount to nothing. Well, look at me now. They’re sitting on some dumb, fat cloud with God. And I’m in Los Angeles, living my dreams.” She blinked away some tears. “You know what I mean?”

Yoni nodded, thinking of the people who had doubted him over the years: his mother, his father, his professors, his classmates, contest judges, YouTube commentators, that busboy he’d caught smirking at his laptop that one time when he was working on a screenplay at Chipotle, his guidance counselor, his college adviser, his unemployment officer, his therapist, the Barnes & Noble cashier who had sold him his copy of Save the Cat!, and sometimes, if he was being honest, himself.

“There were hundreds of storyboards, pitches, and treatments for movies that never were produced and never would be. And now here he was, writing a fake starring vehicle for a ghost.”

He took out a packet of pages.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I took a new pass at the script,” he said.

Clara squinted at the first page. “What kind of name is John for a Chinaman?”

“The shopkeeper’s no longer Chinese.”

“Then what kind of foreigner is he?”

“He’s not a foreigner,” Yoni said. “The script is no longer racist.”

She telekinetically flung the script into a trash can.

“Can I at least pitch it to you?” he asked.

Clara sighed. “Fine.”

“Okay,” Yoni said. “So you know how the previous draft was a hateful attack against Chinese people?”

Clara nodded.

“Well, this version is more about two people coming together to achieve their dream.”

“What’s their dream?”

Yoni looked into her eyes. “To prove everyone wrong.”

*

Yoni supervised the crew as they re-dressed the pawnshop set, transforming it into a cobbler’s empty storefront. Charles, looking more confident without his yellow-face makeup, took his mark behind the cash register.

“Okay?” Yoni asked. “Is everybody ready?”

The crew shrugged.

“Clara?”

Clara shot an anxious glance at the crew, then turned to her director and nodded.

“Great!” Yoni said. “Action on rehearsal! Clara, you enter the shoe shop. And remember, you have a limp.”

Clara entered the set, heavily dragging her left foot.

“That’s great,” Yoni said. “Okay, Charles, remember, your shoe shop is really struggling. You’re sorting through your bills. How are you going to pay off all your debts? Big sigh. But then you look up and you see her. And you recognize her! She’s that famous ballerina whose leg got run over by a trolley!”

Charles pointed at Clara in a show of enthusiasm.

“Good!” Yoni said. “You say that you’re a fan. You praise a move you saw her do onstage. A special pirouette.”

Charles did a clumsy spin.

“Nice,” Yoni said. “Okay now, Clara, you don’t want to talk about your dancing days. It’s too sad to think about your accident and all your thwarted dreams.”

Clara turned her back to Charles and huffily headed for the door.

“Perfect,” Yoni said. “It’s still raining outside, but you don’t care. You’re getting out of this shop . . .”

Clara reached for the door handle.

“Okay!” Yoni shouted. “Now, Charles, you have an idea! You grab one of your shoes and beg her to try it on! Clara, you don’t want to listen. You think he’s crazy. You try to get away. But, Charles, you won’t let her—you grab her foot! You stick the shoe on her foot!”

The crew members watched as Charles followed the instructions, grasping at Clara’s calf as she kicked at him with a realistic blend of fear and outrage.

“You finally get the shoe on!” Yoni continued. “Clara, you’re furious. You want to run away. But as you flee for the door, you notice something—your limp is gone! The shoe fixed it!”

Clara swiveled around and walked gracefully toward Charles, looking convincingly amazed.

“Yes!” Yoni said. “You can walk again! Just like in the old days! But can you dance? Is it possible? There’s only one way to find out. You try the move he remembered—your special pirouette!”

Clara took a deep breath and twirled across the shop, her arms arced high over her head, her feet gliding through the sawdust. Charles stretched out his hands, and she landed in his arms, laughing with delight. Then her eyes filled with tears and she began sobbing, overcome with relief at the shocking resurrection of her dreams.

“Okay!” Yoni said. “Cut on rehearsal!”

He glanced at the crew. Instead of dispersing, they remained where they stood, their eyes on Clara.

Yoni turned to his star, and the two of them shared a subtle, victorious smile.

*

Nikki blinked slowly. “What do you mean ‘new version’?”

“We’ve totally revamped the picture,” Yoni reported.

“And I really think it’s got a chance of working.”

Nikki nodded. “You think it will get Clara to stop haunting us.”

“I actually meant, like, I think it works creatively. Like, as a piece of art.”

Nikki’s forehead twitched. “What?”

“You should see Clara in this thing,” Yoni said. “She’s a star.”

“She’s a ghost.”

“The public doesn’t have to know that! We can shoot her from low angles, to hide the fact she’s floating.”

“Yoni—”

“Just let me pitch it to you.”

He fanned out his palms. “Okay,” he said. “Open on . . .”

He quickly walked her through it—the characters, the story, the scoring, tone, and shooting style. He’d never been great at presenting his ideas, but as he spoke, his confidence grew. By the time he finished, he realized he was standing up, his arms raised in triumph.

“And that’s the final shot!” he said. “They spin out of frame as we fade—no, cut! We cut to black.”

He smiled hopefully at Nikki. At some point her forehead had stopped twitching.

“It wouldn’t cost much,” Yoni pleaded. “All we’d have to do, really, is put a working lens into the camera. What do you think?”

“I think,” she said, “that you guys might be onto something.”

Yoni grinned. “Really?”

Nikki stood up abruptly at her desk. “I want you to mock up a preliminary shooting schedule,” she said. “It’ll give me a better sense of what kind of budget we’ll need.”

“Of course!” Yoni said. “Absolutely!”

“Email it to me by nine a.m. tomorrow,” she said. “In the meantime, I’ll meet with marketing and distribution.” She stopped at the door and looked over her shoulder. “Congratulations, Yoni. You pulled it off.”

Yoni waited until the door was closed, then pumped his fist in triumph.

*

Yoni knew he should go straight home and get to work. But halfway to the studio gates, he stopped and turned around. He couldn’t leave without telling Clara the good news.

He opened the door to Stage 13 and startled at the sight of her. She was standing in the center of a golden shaft of light, an oddly placid smile on her face.

“Clara?” he asked. “What’s going on?”

Nikki stepped out from the shadows. There was panic in her eyes, but she managed to quickly suppress it. “I was just telling Clara the good news,” she said brightly.

Yoni noticed that Clara was holding a copy of Variety. He winced as he read the front-page headline.

CLARA GINGER SHINES IN MR. CHING CHONG AND THE ORPHAN GIRL!

The newspaper was obviously fake: the pages were printed on computer paper. But somehow the prop had managed to trick Clara.

“Isn’t it amazing, Yoni?” she said as she elevated slowly toward the ceiling. “I had no idea the studio even released it!”

“Of course we released it,” Nikki said, smiling up at the levitating spirit. “How could we not? It isn’t often you see such a star-making performance.”

“You can’t leave!” Yoni shouted. “What about our new version of the movie?”

Clara smiled down at Yoni as her body continued to ascend. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t stay even if I wanted to.”

“Why not?”

She shrugged. “Standard ghost rules. My unfinished business on this earth is finished. I’m finally a star and now my soul is free.”

Yoni watched as a halo began to form around her head.

The circle was almost complete when he shouted up at her. “Clara, wait!”

Clara opened her eyes and smiled down beatifically. “What’s up?”

“There’s something you need to know.”

Nikki turned to Yoni in wide-eyed disbelief. “Yoni!” she hissed. “Are you fucking crazy? Stop!”

“That magazine is fake,” Yoni continued.

Clara sunk down a couple of inches. “Excuse me?”

Yoni heard a door slam shut. At some point Nikki had fled the soundstage, leaving him alone with the ghost.

He cleared his throat and kept going.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “The whole thing was a trick.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said, shaking her head. “Prove it!”

Yoni held up the lens-less camera, took a deep breath, and stuck his finger through the hollow aperture. Clara began to cry. “Why?” she asked.

“I was desperate,” Yoni admitted. “And they offered me all this money, and I thought it was my chance to get out of here. But, listen, I don’t want to get out of here anymore. I want to stay right here and finish our movie and make you a star. What do you say?”

Clara thought for a beat and then descended to the floor.

“Does this mean you’re staying?” Yoni asked.

Clara nodded. “I’m staying.”

Yoni grinned until he saw her eyes. The tears were gone, and in their place was fire.

*

Yoni coughed as he wandered through the rubble. The set hadn’t fared well in the blaze. All that remained of the cobbler’s shop were a few scraps of warped, ashy leather. The light fixtures had shattered, and the concrete floor was scorched beyond repair.

“Clara?” Yoni called out. “Come on, I know you’re up there.”

Clara lowered slowly from the ceiling. “Hey,” she said. “Hey,” he said.

“I can’t believe it was all bullshit,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Yoni said.

“The script, the sets, the camera.”

“I know.”

She shook her head and sighed. She was still holding the fake copy of Variety; the pages were singed and crumbling.

“There’s just one thing I don’t get,” she said. “How did you get the crew to react that time?”

“What do you mean?”

“When we rehearsed that new scene. And the crew was all nodding—”

“That wasn’t fake,” Yoni said.

Clara rolled her eyes.

“I swear,” Yoni said. “They were on board.”

“I don’t buy it.”

“Clara, you were there,” Yoni said. “You remember. You felt it. We had them.”

She smiled softly. “I guess we kind of did there for a moment.”

Yoni surveyed the debris. “I really am sorry, Clara.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “I guess I’m sorry too.”

Yoni laughed. “For what?”

Clara pointed over Yoni’s shoulder. He turned around and saw a tall golden man smiling down on him.

“Clara?” Yoni asked. “Did you murder me?”

“Oh yeah,” Clara said. “Big-time.”

“Be not afraid,” the angel said to Yoni. “Your pain is finally coming to an end.”

He held out his golden palm.

Clara rolled her eyes as Yoni slowly reached for it. He was about to make contact when he suddenly withdrew his hand.

“If it’s cool with you,” he told the angel, “I think I’d rather stay.”

“What?” said the angel.

“I’d rather stay,” Yoni repeated, his voice a little louder. He turned to Clara and saw that she was beaming.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said the angel. “Let’s just talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Yoni said. “I came to this town to make movies, and I’m not going to leave until I pull it off.”

The angel turned angrily to Clara. “What did you do to him, Pamela?”

Yoni stepped between them. “Her name isn’t Pamela,” he said. “It’s Clara Ginger.”

The angel threw up his hands in frustration.

“How are you morons going to make a movie? You have no camera, no crew, and you live in a pile of ashes! You can’t even move shit with your hands! You’re a couple of fucking ghosts!”

“That’s just a little hiccup,” Clara said.

Yoni nodded. “Just another hurdle for us to jump over.”

“You’re both crazy,” said the angel.

“Fuck you,” Yoni said. “Eat my ass.”

The angel cursed under his breath and flew back up to heaven.

“Nice work,” Clara said. “I thought he’d never leave.”

She slapped Yoni on the back and, to both of their surprise, made contact.

“Whoa,” she said. “That’s new.”

She tentatively held out her palm. Yoni took her hand and gave it an exploratory squeeze. Their fingers clasped, and Yoni realized, with shock, that he was rising slowly with her off the ground.

“You’re okay,” she said, looking into his eyes. “Just don’t look down.”

Yoni and Clara floated upward toward the ceiling. Outside, the California sun was rising, flooding the gutted studio with light.

“Where do we start?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Clara said. “Pitch me something.”

Yoni let go of her hand and eagerly fanned out his palms. He looked like a bird taking flight.

“Okay,” he said. “Open on . . .”

__________________________________

From Hits and Misses. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Simon Rich.




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