From The Dead: Chapter 2

August 31, 2010

Chapter 2

The screech of an alarm clock pierced the 3:30 a.m. silence. Jada, groggy from the night before, groaned as she felt around the pre-dawn darkness for the button to make the ringing stop. Not one to snooze, she sat up in a heap as Jesse rolled over and mumbled.

“Is Barry scheduling sunrise meetings now?” Jesse asked.

Barry Richert. The Barry Richert, as Jada reminded everyone who would listen. Barry Richert, whose unexpected success arrived two years ago with a low-budget film that became a sleeper hit. These days, the man received hundreds of screenplays a week.

“A location shoot in Malibu. Call time is seven, but he needs me there an hour early.”

Her commute from their Sherman Oaks apartment would require less than an hour, but Jesse knew Jada would spend much longer perfecting her image in the bathroom. She pressed her fingers against her head, which must have continued to pulsate from the prior evening’s get-together.

“Go back to sleep, babe.” She stroked his chest once and climbed out of bed. Jesse leaned on an elbow and eyed the silhouette of his girlfriend, clad in a slinky black negligee, as she tiptoed across the crowded bedroom and turned on the bathroom light.

Through the cracked door, Jesse heard the sputter of a shower. Then he buried his head in the pillow and dozed off. He had come to dread the sunrise in recent months.

* * *

“A polarizing filter will help reduce glare,” Jesse explained. “Kind of like wearing a pair of shades at the beach.” From a display rack on the sales floor, he peered out the window while, for the sixth time, he rattled off the benefits of camera filters to a newbie.

“What about this one?” asked the customer, who grabbed a transparent red filter from the rack and held it toward the overhead light. “It looks like half a pair of 3-D glasses.”

“More or less. It can be used to cover up skin blemishes. Heavy acne, that sort of thing,” Jesse said.

The customer chuckled in a series of mother-hen clucks. She tucked a lock of silvering chestnut hair behind her ear and said, “That would come in handy for my daughter-in-law. The latest one, that is. Spent thousands on a boob job but can’t get rid of that acne along her neckline. Spends half her life in the tanning booth to cover it up. That reminds me: Can any of these filter things hide my son’s inheritance from her?”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

LensPerfection sat on Ventura Boulevard near the Van Nuys intersection. Crammed within a dense stretch of bricked retail, the photography shop shared its walls with a Java Cup coffee shop on one side and an incense store on the other. Jesse found humor in the string of palm trees that loomed outside, whose lazy branches lapped sunlight in strategic array but, in the end, sat unnoticed by passersby. With their perfect spacing, the trunks appeared victims of a transplant, carted to the side of a busy street to project an image of California perfection.

Jesse smirked. Even the trees were cosmetic.

Once he’d satisfied all his customer’s questions, Jesse led her to the checkout counter with a handful of filters he doubted she’d ever use.

By eleven thirty in the morning, LensPerfection attracted its usual surge of foot traffic from those who took an early lunch hour. Most were browsers. A portrait studio sat toward the back and lured the occasional actor-to-be, who arrived with a designer coffee or vitamin water in hand, ready to schedule a shoot for the head shot that would make him famous.

Jesse’s head shots were free. After several years of part-time employment, the owner allowed the extra perk and arranged Jesse’s schedule around his bottom-rung work on film and television shoots. But the shoots had become sparse and, for two years straight, Jesse had not met the minimal hours required to secure medical coverage through his union. At this point, however, benefits were the least of his concerns.

Jesse’s wavy, dark-blond hair, chiseled jaw line, and tall, fit form caught frequent second glances from both genders. But for Hollywood’s cameras, handsome didn’t seem to cut it, not when perfection stood next in line.

Jesse felt a vibration in his pocket. When he flipped his cell phone open and discovered a new text message from Maddy, his agent, his hopes surged. She had gotten word of a possible audition, a small supporting role in a feature film, and had pursued the prospect for weeks. Although it consisted of five lines, it represented an opportunity to expand his resume and connect with its director and principals. Jesse needed the gig.

And the audition was scheduled.

Emotional attachments are dangerous; better to take the news in stride, but this audition could mark the official end of his dry spell and justify years of waiting in L.A.

Jesse returned his attention to the store and the hum of its electric doorbell. A customer, a man around forty years old, entered and hung his sunglasses on his shirt opening. Dressed in starched khakis and a perfect haircut, the man looked more like a mid-level executive who had stopped by on his way to a round of golf. Jesse wondered what a corporate job with steady hours must be like.

“Can I help you?”

“I tossed a roll of film in the drop-off bin yesterday.”

Jesse reached for the basket of completed photo packets on the rear counter. “Name?”

“Glen Merseal,” he replied.

As Jesse flipped through packets, Glen fingered through some eight-by-tens stacked beside the cash register. When Jesse returned, Glen couldn’t seem to pull himself away from a photo of a homeless man. In the photo, the subject leaned against a railing and gazed at the ocean, his face afire beneath a midday sun. With his fishing rod extended in search of a victim, the homeless man’s face spoke of mystery. Jesse couldn’t determine whether the subject appeared content or forlorn; perhaps the man struggled between the two.

Jesse began to ring out the order.

Glen tapped the edge of the photo with his finger and said, “This guy’s expression intrigues me. The photographer captured his, what? His aura?”

“Oh, it’s not a professional photo.” Jesse chuckled. “It’s just a sample photo to illustrate the paper quality.”

“Do you know who took the picture?”

Jesse shoved a hand into his pocket. “I did.” When Glen’s eyebrows rose a bit, Jesse added, “I shot that photo at the Santa Monica Pier. I’ve seen that man from time to time. Guy’s name is Marshall. He must catch dinner there. Life on the beach, huh?”

“Did you take photography classes?”

“A high school class way back, but nothing else. I dabble in it here and there, flip through books to pick up tips. Trust me, I’m no professional.”

“That’s amazing.” Glen glanced at the photo again, but this time he held it up to the light. He extended his hand. “What’s your name?”

“Jesse. Nice to meet you.”

As they shook hands, Glen reached for his wallet and removed a business card.

“My kid’s got a birthday coming up. We’re giving her a little party in a couple of weeks at a park nearby. Would you be interested in taking some action shots?”

“You’re making a professional out of me, is that it?”

Glen nodded.

“Sure,” Jesse said. “Who couldn’t use the extra cash?”

If only film and television jobs were this easy to obtain.

“Great! We’ll figure out the details letter. Number’s on the card.”

As the customer walked away, Jesse peered down at the business card. Was it possible Glen might work in the legal department at a studio?

No such luck. Glen was a franchise owner in a fast-food chain.

Excerpt Copyright 2010 John Herrick