Prelude to Drinks at Dawn

It was late when we started drinking.

And hours since our host had abandoned us in his kitchen with a blithe “Help yourselves” before trundling out to the still waters of the River Lumaville and the boathouse astride its banks. The carelessness of the nouveau riche, I thought. His guests comprised the press club after all ? he might as well have asked us to drain the wine cellar.

Marlowe, who had been inconsolable, had gone bitter as vinegar.

“You should be nicer to your old friends, Marlowe,” I soothed. She had gotten a little minxish since the hair dye, a fix that brought her back from the brink of albinoism, but revved up her bite. “We’re the only ones who will remember how beautiful you were, once you’re old.”

“I’m never going to get old,” she said, then rose to fetch another bottle. Marlowe was the only ad salesperson we permitted to jump the editorial wall into the press club and it was her presence, I presumed, that enticed Han to invite us back to his place after the service.

Marlowe plunked the bottle down on the fine wood of tabletop we surrounded, coaster be damned. Earlier, a candle puddled wax across the swanky grain, which raised nary an eyebrow from Han as its flame reflected of the various stainless steel implements of the kitchen.

Marlowe chortled: “Insert fountain of youth joke here” as she read the bottle’s label.
Sawyer Red. An in joke with vintners and embalmers alike. I said to Marlowe: “This will kill us.”

“By drowning,” she smiled back and tried to cork the bottle. Failing, she let out a bit of anguished scream, forgivable under the circumstances. Blake’s ham fists finished the job for her. She topped off our glasses dangerously close to their rims, then toasted: “To absent friends.” She meant Rigby.

Poor dead Rigs.

A gang of wordsmiths at his funeral and no one could muster a word to say. I had thought a round of applause would befit a departed theater critic, but decided the gesture was too glib. Even great Blake had been stricken with a sudden dumbness, his broad shoulders helplessly heaving in the rain. That’s what did me in: great Blake stooped and shuddering as his raincoat met the mud and old editor Hedgebrow, there, petting his neck like a dog’s. Hard as oak Blake, broken. The cuffs of his sleeves clenched in his hands as he brought them to his eyes. And Marlowe, as still as porcelain. An editorial assistant I had never spoken to held my hand. But I felt nothing, like a man swaddled in gauze, until I saw Blake. It was a dull pull at the stomach, like something trying to get out and in at the same time. A familiar shadow returned to Lumaville and I had refused to recognize it until then. How the mind wanders, to the last time, the first time, the next time.

Blake’s red-rimmed eyes were again upon his wingtips and when he drank it seemed as if he were trying to peer through his wine to focal point far beyond. Rigby in a hole, in the ground. I was only beginning to realize how miniscule his little plot was compared to the widening aperture engulfing the press club. We were gutted fish.

“I suppose I’ll be next,” Marlowe finally offered. She was only half-laughing as she wiped the mascara from her cheeks with the bottom of her fists.

“You’re too old to die young,” said Blake. He burrowed a hand in his slick hair and attempted a brotherly smile.

“Well, there’s still time,” Marlowe said, perking, “I hope.”

“Am I invited? What should I bring?”

“Rope,” I said.

“For this pretty neck? All the cocks in Lumaville didn’t choke her, what makes you think rope would?” Blake laughed, tremulous titters at first until Marlowe swiped at him, missed and knocked over a glass, which led him and everyone else to near convulsions.

I may have been the only to realize that the glass was a spare set for no one.

Dickley our intern, who was sent to study the Lumaville Daily Echo’s newsroom as part of his spy school’s disinformation studies, tugged Blake’s coat: “You never answered me. Is it Blake Drake or Drake Blake?”

“Say it backwards to a mirror, three times,” Blake said dismissively. “With the lights off.”

“Like him, it goes both ways,” I said.

“Fuck off, gaydalus,” Blake spat.

The old machine had sputtered back to life. Even if it was on empty.

Dickley persisted: “I’ve just seen your byline printed both ways and I’m curious. What does it mean?”

“Okay, kid, you can stop trying to distract me with your small talk, ” Blake retorted. “Kind of you, but save it for your copy.”

“Blake!” Marlowe admonished. “He was just asking.”

“Fine. The name signifies nothing. Like on a tombstone, merely a description of contents. If that.”

“But your byline ?” Dickley began again.

“It’s the same thing, kid,” Blake continued. “Tombstones.”

Marlowe folded her lower lip under her perfect orthodontics. Like Salome to John the Baptist, her mouth was “a pomegranate cut by an ivory knife.” Fair game, I thought, seeing as my date had wandered off somewhere in the sprawl of our host’s manse. Blake caught me eyeing her over and again turned toward the window, shaking his head. After a moment, he turned back around and poured Dickley another glass, a peace offering.

“Forgive me, Dickle ?”


“Dickley,” Blake corrected. “The byline, see, it’s not how I want to be remembered, but how I want to be forgotten. I want to be a mystery, a footnote. One or two appearances in the index of some obscure text. I want death to enfold me in its erasure. Then we could all just move on.”

“Why bother with a byline at all?” asked Dickley.

“That’s a fine question, Dickle. Howell?”

“It tells you who to blame,” I answered. Blake shrugged, a tacit endorsement. He was getting at
something wholly deeper and darker, surely, but was fine to let it fade. The room went quiet for a nervous moment. Blake again looked out the window. A flickering light was coming from the boathouse.

Dickley eyed the daunting globe of wine before him. Then said, mostly to himself, “Some legacy.”

“I’m not concerned with legacy. I’m not the type that dies,” I said, trying to leaven the room.

“We’re all the type that dies,” said Dickley. Blake nodded and clinked his glass against the kid’s.

“While you were embedded, you never thought about getting shot?”

“I was in a Bedouin tent somewhere on the outskirts of a filing error. Shot?” I said. Then conceded, “Okay, maybe in the arm.”

“Nobly winged,” Blake added.

“I’m not heroic,” I said.

“You’d’ve taken a bullet, Howell. Right in the Bible.”

Marlowe reached over Dickley to thump my chest, which resulted in a good clang of a note, knuckle to tin ? my flask.

“The dead aren’t heroic either, Howell. If any of them believed that, then they’re patsies,” trumpeted Blake, who turned to Dickley with his arms outstretched and said, “Patsy is Aramaic for martyr.”

Dickley took a healthy swig, playing catch up. Marlowe immediately refilled his glass.

A dark gleam came to Blake’s eye. With a child’s resolve, he asked “Do you want to see the dead?”

“No,” Marlowe said, jagged and quick. She squeezed herself between Dickley’s lap and the table, a strangely pliant woman.

“How?” Dickley challenged.

“To see the dead, you must drink at dawn. I read it in a book.” Blake explained.

“I can drink ’til dawn,” said Dickley.

“That won?t do. You have to wake up at dawn and start drinking. The dead want nothing to do with the weary,? Blake explained.

“And it’s absolutely necessary to drink?”

“Spirits are particularly interested in wine. Fine wine. That’s why they’re always paired together.”

“I’m game,” I said.

“Anyone else?”

Dickley nearly raised his hand, but Marlowe put his finger in her mouth. After a beat, Blake announced, “It’s you and me Howell. Drinks at dawn.”

His words ricocheted off the exposed beams of the kitchen ceiling, rang off the copper pots and brushed steel skillets strung along the walls, and finally diffused their tiny echo like the whisper of smoke from a match extinguished.

Blake and I reached for the bottle at the same time. His hand trembled.

When Blake Speaks of Love

For Rigby, our paper’s theater critic, every evening was Opening Night, every meal jug wine and cubed cheddar, and every aspiring actress a Sarah Bernhardt — so long as there was a dressing room door to lock. That the dressing rooms were locked to keep Rigby out of them only caused him mild consternation like the time he chided an understudy with “There are no small parts” and she replied with a withering glance to his crotch, “Yes, there are.”

Rigby only ever wore a second-hand tuxedo and this with its bowtie intentionally undone, to affect, as he proclaimed, “the jaunty air of an after-hours club.”

Likewise, junior assistant editor Blake, whose great globe-head met a neck like a tree trunk, couldn’t even close his top button. The upshot being that when he deigned to wear a tie to the newsroom it would only reach the ledge of his gut, so much of it expended yoking his vast collar.

As the Lumaville Daily Echo’s self-dubbed “arts czar,” I wore a thin, striped number that my kid brother left behind one Thanksgiving back when he rather endearingly thought that travel by commercial airliner mandated a certain sartorial formality.

We were all younger men then, concerned only with bolstering our bylines (which no one read) and bedding the young ladies of Lumaville. The latter was more daunting seeing as we had a yen for downtown dames that were all stalled up in post-collegiate desk jobs (no late nights) and purported always to be on the verge of marriage, grad school or Europe. They wanted nothing to do with our ilk of ink-stained townie and thus many a eulogy to love gone asunder was orated over pints of river-water ale, or as Rigby called it, “piss-gloam.”

“Yes, tell us Blake, about the one that got away. How she gnawed through the ropes and scaled the walls as you chased her, waving your rubber truncheon.”

Jeers all ’round, as our amber glasses levitated like fireflies in the dark rear hall of the pub we called the Press Club.

“Marvelous, Rigs ? rubber truncheon,” I said with approval, then out with the notebook. “I’m stealing that.”

“But Blake really has one,” Rigby said.

I turned to Blake.

“It’s true. I do have a rubber truncheon,” Blake confirmed in a disquieted tone. He took a hasty pull from his river-water ale.

“And the girl?”

Blake’s cheeks became redder and his immense bug eyes dimmed slightly, the result of a large swallow he’d managed despite Rigby’s elbow in his ribs. He paused for effect then offered in his lusty baritone: “There was a girl, once, when I was on deadline for the ‘local daily metro.’ She was a regular at my field office, Cafe Shrag.”

“When it still was the Shrag,” Rigby needlessly interjected.

“Yes, Rigs, that’s why I said Shrag and not ? whatever the hell it is now.”

“Sushi bar.”

Boorish Blake lit one of Rigby’s frenchie smokes and exhaled a plume into his airspace. He continued: “We kept similar hours, she and I. Up by eleven, out by two. Lord knows what she did for work, looked like nothing.”

“Perhaps she was a nanny for ghost children,” I suggested, but was rightly ignored.

“Anyway, she had long lunches ?” said Blake.

“Looker?” Rigby asked, wiping the lager from his lips.

“In that pale, stricken kind of way. Made you want to buy her a steak,” Blake recalled, then added wistfully “Sometimes I’d look at her and ‘sculpture garden’ would spring to mind.”

“Anemic women do have a certain rigidity. They don’t have enough blood,” Rigby agreed.

“I meant she had poise, Rigs. How she held herself ? grace,” Blake snorted, then, almost rueful, added, “And such thin wrists.”

“Sure, sure,” said Rigby. “And a voice so sonorous it would lull the moon.”

“Wouldn’t know. That’s the tragedy. We never spoke,” Blake admitted. He rolled his fingers on the table like a drum, then said “Except once.”

Once: The steam queens toil behind the espresso machines had misted the Shrag’s broad windows such that the condensation beaded and streaked down the pane, like a painting of rain come alive. The young woman entered, focused her eyes on Blake and made her way straight to his table.

She said plainly, “You don’t know me, I mean, we’ve never met, but we’ve both been coming here for over a year now. I always sit there and you always sit here. We’ve never spoken, which is regrettable since ? if I can be frank ? I’ve had a bit of an affair with you. In my mind.”

Blake folded his hands atop his table and peered at the woman, quizzically, which was enough encouragement for her to carry on.

“That’s not too strange to say, is it? I wouldn’t think so. You see, I’ve studied you from afar, I’ve observed you, I’ve watched. And after a few sleepless nights, I have come to the conclusion that I’m in love with you.”

Miraculously, Blake refrained from exhibiting the flaming bravado for which such a confession would likely be kindling. He was, in fact, rapt, uncharacteristically speechless. He remembered an admonition from grade school and mulled it inwardly, (“never touch the wings of a butterfly”) as she continued:

“It’s the way you carry your paper over your arm in the morning; that you always try to open the locked door of the entrance first; because you order Americanos instead of the house coffee (I overheard you explaining to the proprietor that the house coffee didn’t have enough ‘show business’). I liked that. I also like that you watch every woman enter the cafe and seem to find all of them, no matter who or what, somehow to your liking. Your lips. After you shaved your beard. There they were. I adore your lips. How they move when you talk. And your voice. You speak to everyone in the same even tone, which some find patronizing but I always thought was sweet — in an indulgent kind of way. It’s also the way you look at me. But never bothered me. Never fussed nor fawned. But were clearly drinking me in. And though sometimes I was lonely and wished you would come talk to me, I felt friendship in your eyes. And that was nearly enough.”

The woman set her jaw and looked Blake in his pale eyes. The moment seemed to go on a bit for suddenly shy Blake, who inexplicably moved a spoon from one side of his table to the other.

“I feel I can tell you these things now, because I’m moving tomorrow and will probably never see you again.”

The woman took a deep breath and sighed as she gathered a strand of her hair, which she brought absently to her lips.

She said, “I’ll miss you.”

Dumbfounded, like a cartoon man thrown from a revolving door, Blake was barely able to reply, “I’ll miss you too.”

Then the woman smiled and left. After that day, Blake’s beard never grew back.

The Press Club went quiet like the timorous moment after a prayer. Our eyes searched the sad little seas within our pint glasses, but found no other fish tales forthcoming. Until, Rigby mercifully jibed, “Yeah, that happened to me once too. Except that is was Death and she said I only have a quarter-hour to live.”

“When was that?” I asked.

“About fifteen min –“

Johan Non and the Magic Box

Received the missive below from my Portland-based pal and publisher Jonathan Legare (some may recall him by his Lumaville appellation “Johan Non”). Perhaps the natty ol’ viking will someday give fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant a run for his money:

After all these years, “it” has finally become so clear to me now. All the poetry, all the off-the-cuff stories at cafes, the hoarding of esoteric knowledge, the mastery of spontaneous development of facades, the performances, all have constructed me for this.

Such dawned on me after reading the 6th obituary for Marlon (Brando). My whole life has always been my own “Method School.?” I can’t let anything hold me back now Daed, and I wanted you to be the first to know of my decision, I am changing the trajectory of my life to its true course and destiny to be the STAR that I am. Daedalus, I……..I…… an Actor!

I offer you proof of what I state, please see the attached image, it is a payment check to ME as TALENT for the Comcast commercial.

Your Dear Friend,
Jonathan Legare

Bravo, Johan! I’ll presume it’s “No more galleys and proofs” now that you’ve been seduced by the infernal glow of the little screen. At last, your agent can get that coffee and bagel he always wanted.

Mill Valley Film Fest Gives Tamalpais Student an Encore

The 27th annual Mill Valley Film Festival opened Thursday, bringing with it more than 150 films and videos created by luminaries of the film world and locals alike.

One local with luminary leanings is Tamalpais High School senior Joe Shapiro, whose short documentary “It Takes a Village” is featured alongside films by David O. Russell (“I H Huckabees”) and Antoine Fuqua (“Lightning In a Bottle”).

At 17, Shapiro is one of the festival’s initiated. Last year, his short about a young man’s existential quandaries, “Chasing Myself,” was screened. This year’s entry is an affectionate portrait of Mill Valley record store Village Music and its proprietor, John Goddard.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” says Shapiro, an outgoing, inquisitive young man. “I mean just to think that I was in my room at 3 o’clock in the morning editing this film. I never thought that it would get the recognition of being in the Mill Valley Film Festival. It’s just a crazy idea because that’s an international festival, and I’m just a kid in Mill Valley. I never thought that would happen, but it’s happened twice now and it’s pretty surreal.”

Shapiro directed and edited “It Takes a Village” with help from his classmate collaborators Chi Ho, who managed the project, and writer Zoe Cooper- Caroselli. Narration was supplied by Kyle Carlson. An avid music fan, Shapiro had no trouble choosing his subject.

“I’m in a band myself and really into music,” says the filmmaker (he plays guitar and occasionally sings for his act, the Citrus Circus). “Village Music is definitely my favorite business in Mill Valley because it keeps the old vibe that I know once was Mill Valley but really isn’t there any more.”

Shapiro’s documentary was created under the aegis of Tamalpais High School’s Academy of Integrated Humanities and New Media (AIM), a two-year program that teaches 11th- and 12th-grade students academic, professional and technological skills through multimedia projects.

“We were assigned to do a documentary on a business in Mill Valley and to look at how the business shaped Mill Valley and how Mill Valley sort of shaped the business,” recalls Shapiro, who shot the film on digital video and edited it on home editing software.

“The goal was to see how local businesses reflected the values of the community,” says Tamalpais High School media instructor Michael Goldstein, who oversees the program with his colleagues David Tarpinian, an English teacher, and Sharilyn Scharf, a social studies teacher. “What we ended up with were 14 or 15 different student films. We showed them all, selected the best, then submitted them to the Mill Valley Film Festival.”

Goddard, a veteran subject of many documentary projects, was impressed by the young film crew’s professionalism.

“They were a lot more professional than a lot of the adults I’ve worked with. I’m very happy with how they handled it all,” says Goddard, who adds wryly, “I’ve done about 20 or 30 of these things throughout the years and the filmmakers invariably promise to send me a copy when they’re done, but these guys were the first to do it without me having to follow up on it. They scored a lot of points with me on that. I’m very happy with it.”

Meanwhile, Shapiro is mulling some important life choices — one of which is whether to pursue filmmaking professionally.

“I’m a senior so I have to decide where I’m going to college — I have to decide ‘film school, or not film school,’ ” muses Shapiro. “I’ve been thinking that film school might be too limiting. I still want to get a normal education, but a friend of mine sort of woke me up the other day and said, ‘Dude, you should go to a film school.’ I realized, maybe he’s right.”

The insight of his contemporaries notwithstanding, Shapiro also has received encouragement from his instructors and others in the community.

“Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better with each film and I’ve been hearing from teachers that I’m good at this and one of the best film students they’ve had. It sort of makes me think I should be pursuing it,” Shapiro says.

The Mill Valley Film Festival likewise has a long tradition of supporting young filmmakers. Tomorrow it hosts “Script to Screen: Young Filmmakers’ Workshop,” a program for kids who have a yen to direct. Shapiro’s film is presented as part of a program titled “Barbie, Frankenstein and Friends,” a showcase of works by young filmmakers that screens Oct. 16.

“I’m really glad they have that whole section for shorts and younger filmmakers. It motivates us and lets us know that what we do can be seen and appreciated by the rest of the world,” says the director, who is working on a DVD “yearbook” with his AIM program classmates.

“I’d encourage other younger kids to take advantage of what’s out there nowadays, because you can make a movie so easily,” Shapiro says. “Even less than 10 years back, buying, exposing and editing film was expensive. But now that we can work with digital video and use digital editing programs, it’s not that expensive. It should open it up for so many people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do it.”

The Bird

I’d heard it before ? clink, clunk, clink, clunk ? like some nervous junior exec sifting pocket change in his chinos. Everyone on the Backlot claimed to have heard it at least once and reported, variously, that it was “like an alarm clock being wound,” or “thimbles on a washboard,” and perhaps most lyrically, from a ladle-wielding commissary frau, “a gliss upon a clarinet played without wind.” For lot-rat scribes like Cary Carpe and myself (“we put the ha! in hack”), it was a resounding ca-ching! Just setting there, blithely, near a flower pot on the brownstone street set.

Instinctively, I tore off the coat I’d pilfered from wardrobe, lunged to the ground and bagged the bounty! It was a bird, rather, the Bird ? a bundle of animatronic whiz-bang made for the movies by kraut engineer Karl Durhing and slated for a cameo in an ode to ornithological horror not dissimilar to Hitch’s own. Rumor was that on set its auto-pilot button jammed and the Bird flapped off into the wild blue yonder of a scrim, out the other side and through an open stage door — effectively sending the flick’s budget soaring ? as it flew headlong into studio lore.

“Got it! Carpe! Pack your rucksack, we’re strolling out that gate today!” I hollered gleefully to my cohort, who came trundling over with a biscuit palmed from craft service lodged in his faux-fashion beard. “We’re rich!”

Rich indeed. The mechanical bird had eluded capture for years and the studio head had long ago posted an ungodly cash reward for its capture.

“The Dingus,” I harrumphed like Bogart as I showed Carpe the squirming prop clutched within my coat. The stale biscuit dropped from his matted gob and shattered on the street.

The winged machine glistened in the noonday sun, its feathers long worn away by weather and its own peculiar migratory pattern ? a flight path that frustrated studio personnel who, atop many a ladder, grasped desperately into the same mocking skies that hired marksmen shook their fists at when they dodged the downpour of their own wasted pelletal

The Bird nipped me with its metal beak. I recoiled and it tried to take flight, but Carpe grappled it back to the ground.

“So, Bird lives,” cackled Carpe as he examined the clacking contraption. Its steely talons twitched and fussed. Its wings strained against Carpe’s covetous mits.

After a moment, my partner’s greedy smile disappeared behind the tangled rug strapped to his timid face. It was if he were counting to himself, perhaps tallying his split of the reward, nearly a dollar for every anecdote the Bird had spawned, tales that all but told themselves over three martini lunches and those eternal drives home on the 405:

Did you hear how the Bird rained lug nuts on the director who had made that actress cry? How it saved the child star from an OD when it absconded with the needle? How it can predict box office numbers? Spot trends? How it tore the last page from a shooting script resulting in the best cliff-hanger in cinema history?

None of it was true.

The bird’s beak snapped at the air as Carpe studied it. He took a breath and let his weary eyes drift toward the sham sidewalk of the Lot, to the Los Angeles skies, empty and vast, and finally to me, his haggard echo.

He let the Bird go.

It’s wings clamored like cymbals until it caught the current and soared high above the Lot. The Bird briefly eclipsed our view of the sun as Carpe and I squinted at its fading silhouette.

“Why? For the love of god, man, why? That was our freedom!” I screeched and wrenched my fingers into Carpe’s collar. “You just threw it all to the wind!”

My partner pried himself from my grip, brushed off his tattered coat and asked gamely, “Have you no sense of story, Mr. Howell?”

Clink, clunk, clink, clunk, clink, clunk.