Monday, October 3, 2016

#221: "Development Girl" by Pamela Balluck




            ~This story first appeared in Western Humanities Review (1999)



(1982)



Rose is worried about how to answer Mr. Fly-By-Knight Productions’ question (why did she leave her last job?) in a way that won’t make Ray look bad. She cannot say the why of the truth—Oh, we pitched a T.V. movie about a hoax to our bosses, the former quiz-show scandalers—so, she’s going to say the general truth (Fly-By-Knight may already know)—Ray lost his development deal there—euphemistically, it “expired”—but, before she can get it out, Fly-By’s next question is, “Are you wearing a bra?”
            Rose is thinking, this is some kind of a joke, right? A test to see if she has a sense of humor, or if she’s too young, too immature, flusterable, impressionable, malleable, too serious for the position, anything to comprehend this bald guy older than her dad asking her what lies between her nips and the shirt she just ironed so damn carefully for this interview. It makes her think of wasted dates she worked so hard dressing for, only to find whomever is most impressed when her clothes are crumpled on the floor.
            So, she wants to be sophisticated. She answers, yeah, she’s wearing a bra. She doesn’t want to make a big deal. And he says—“Why don’t you go in the john and change out of it? Then we’ll continue more comfortably.”
            “What?”
            He laughs. He shakes his head like Rose has got him wrong. “With your blouse on. Unless you think it’s appropriate without.”
            He is putting “appropriate” on her? She just sits there.
            He says, “Say I’ve got Beatty coming in, I’ve got Hamilton, I’ve got Scott—guys I want to be comfortable, you know, relaxed, when they walk through our doors, relaxed when they walk out. Doesn’t make sense to have some smart, beautiful, uptight girl, you know, first-thing-to-last in here. We need them coming back, wanting to work with us. A beautiful girl just inside our doors, outside my door, relaxed about who she is, makes a man feel all right in his skin, keeps his, you know, creative juices flowing—makes for an all-around more comfortable office experience.”
            “I just want to make sure,” Rose says. “Jess says you’re looking for a development-slash-production assistant?”
            “Am. Can see, though, Erik and me, we’ve got room for only one more in these offices— receptionist, D-Girl, secretary, P.A., dependin’ on what’s doin’. Let’s talk more about specs when you’re more yourself. That’s who I want to be talkin’ to.”
            Rose is too smart for why-don’t-you-slip-into-something-more-comfortable. But, there’s no one else to play this thing off of—the associate producer, Erik, and the woman who’s leaving (why exactly?)—they are both out to lunch. Is he kidding?
            She finds herself in this guy’s bungalow john, thinking, Jess, Ray’s wife (and agent), who set this thing up, goes way back with Fly-By, before Jess knew Ray, back to her Paramount days, and she is like an aunt to Rose, so Fly-By, Rose figures, is kind of like an uncle, or should be. Rose realizes how stupid it is to pretend she can think like that, when at twenty-three she knows better. Especially after Jess asked her to fill in as Ray’s “date” to the Western-themed S.H.A.R.E. benefit and when Jess got back into town, so-called friends told her they hated to report it but Ray was out with some young filly. He seemed pretty tight with her. Rose figures Uncle Fly-By knows he shouldn’t pull anything he doesn’t want Jess, or anyone else, to know about. Unless Rose passing this test would mean that what goes on in his office is what goes on in his office and Who-knows-who ain’t supposed to count for Who-knows-what. And that’s not okay with her, not about doing business. She knows that.
            So, why does she watch herself in the man’s bathroom mirror, tucking her blouse back into her skirt and stuffing her bra—of all things on this interview—into her purse, wondering, if this is what she has to do to qualify for this job, what would she have to do to hold on to it? She knows something about setting precedents.
            So, why—instead of heading back out to her car on the strip, or to his office with her bra still on (how would he know?)—does she return to his office, complicit with him now in her bralessness?
            Her blouse does not show her bralessness—it is not see-through or clingy—a sturdy rayon-cotton blend, short-sleeved, covered with an earth-tone jungle—but still, Fly-By says: “That’s better. I feel more comfortable with you already.”
            Now she’s as creepy as he is.


            After Rose rants in Jess’s office, and after Jess gets off the phone with Fly-By, Jess tells Rose, “Go into Westwood and see a movie.” They’re both embarrassed. But, Rose had to tell Jess where she’s sending girls off to, so she’ll stop. Jess will not broadcast it. She did threaten, though, to expose him. Looking down onto Sunset from Jess’s Luckman Building window, Rose wants to cry. Jess predicts, “Calm you down.”
            Rose wonders: What is wrong with me? The minute he said “bra,” Rose should have been out his door, but she hadn’t been prepared for such a thing, humiliating—even though her clothes stayed on, even though he never touched her. But, Rose told Jess, he touched her. “You know?”
            Rose goes to a matinee—Shoot the Moon. It makes her feel worse; not like, Oh, a treat-day off, but like, she’s out of work, and in the Village on a weekday with no particular place to get back to. But, it’s also like she’s doing research, she tells herself. She has to keep up on what’s doin’, doesn’t she, in her capacity as a hireable D-Girl? She has to know what’s out there, right?
            This is Rose’s first movie in Westwood or anywhere else on her own. She is busy wishing she was one of those U.C.L.A.ers in between classes. Or, one of those people like she used to be, late on lunch break, sipping tea at Good Earth, having a shake at Old World, Bloody Mary at the Hamlet, like Ray probably is, she thinks, red-faced on Bloody Bulls or third martinis at Carl Andersen’s, sauntering to and from meter-, garage-, or valet-parked cars—while she walks two blocks from unmetered residential curbside, to pass under a day-lit marquee at the price of a matinee. She thinks, she should be happy. She thinks, she should feel free.
            Thank-god she recognizes no one, she thinks, and she hopes no one recognizes her. Maybe three people in the balcony, maybe five scattered in the middle section, a few on the left, Rose on the right, a landing strip of seats behind her, ending and beginning with exit signs. This grand-premiere palace—the whole place, she thinks—operational just for us few here in the day.
            Movie theatres make her hair twitch. She used to think theatres had bugs—and with lights full-on, she would be disgusted where she’s sitting. Her scalp itches. Killer air-conditioning. Under a vent to the right of the screen, a loose piece of velvety wallpaper flaps, like a bird, the left side of some weird goose or stork or heron banking out of the wall like from of a cloud, outstretched neck, heading for curtains. She thinks she can hear it, flapping loose, like film at the end of a reel.
            She wonders what Ray is doing these days but won’t ask Jess, because Jess won’t say. Going to matinees, calling it research? Rose wonders if Ray is thinking up new ways of apologizing to her without saying he’s old enough to be her father and should have known. Shouldn’t he have known? They were backing all the way Ray’s and Rose’s paychecks with game-show proceeds, still in the business of big bells and whistles. Connect the dots, Ray. Get a memory. She wasn’t even born yet in 1958!
            Shoot the Moon has got her. She wants to live in this setting—this house—know this family. She thinks, she does know this family. The movie draws her in, seduces her, then slaps her in the face with an open ending that is absolutely without a doubt unacceptable, unbelievable, after what Rose just went though with these people. George Dunlap—Albert Finney is ruined for Rose—is a selfish, son-of-a-bitching coward, who could have killed people, his own daughters, and he deserves to be lying there, beaten and bloody, a pathetic pulp. His kids are sobbing around him. Then he reaches out and calls to their mother, “Faith,” like there’s a chance in hell, Rose thinks, he shouldn’t be walked away from, and some other cowards, in the cutting room, made the so-called decision to freeze everything right there—thank you not, Rose thinks—in that particular moment. They must not have been able to decide on a real ending so reached a compromise. Before Faith—Diane Keaton—can begin to turn away—call the police, or an ambulance, Rose doesn’t care, as long as Faith is turning away—they freeze her looking down at him and his arm reaching out to her, over their girls. If they had shown her turning an eyelash in another direction, Rose would have been satisfied. She went through that movie for that ending?
            She is afraid she’ll find herself in the lobby demanding her money back. She is already near the wrong kind of tears, feeling betrayed. To walk into daylight with the look she must have on her face? Thank-god for sunglasses.
            She doesn’t have any business doing anything other than going home and staying there with her cat and a bong hit or two, and maybe shooting off a letter to Alan Parker, or Alan Marshall, or Bo Goldman, or maybe the editor, Hambling, she thinks, to complain about what must have been left on the cutting-room floor. But instead, she goes out with Dori.
            Rose warns her.
            But Dori says, “It’s just a movie.”
            “Not just! Unjust!”
            “Just a movie,” Dori says.
            Dori hangs out at Carlos and Charlie’s. And now Rose is back on the strip.
            Usually, Rose turns Dori down, who is a little too much for Rose—wants to be the big talent agent, always out to make the connection. Usually, Rose is embarrassed to be out with Dori and Dori does not have the patience for Rose. But what’s really wrong with this picture is that Rose is pissed. Nothing’s as it should be, anyway, so why shouldn’t she fly backwards with the flock? Because she doesn’t take her bra off in job-interview bathrooms, doesn’t accept Faith reaching out her hand as an option, and doesn’t normally toss back Flamingo Cocktails ordered by a guy named Guido.
            Dori introduces Guido as a producer, and he calls himself a director, and neither acknowledges the discrepancy, so he’s Chinatown, Rose thinks but doesn’t say (She’s my sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter, my sister and my daughter). He can be both, Rose thinks, but she has never heard of him before in either light and has never seen nor heard of any titles he spouts, which Rose is thinking is probably best. He’s like the stock-Italian character, except around his neck on a gold chain is a Star of David with a cross in the middle. Rose doesn’t ask. (He’s a Jew, a Christian, a Jew, a Christian, a Jew and a Christian.
            So, here Rose is, on a meat-market barstool, drinking from a one-legged vortex bought by a friend of Dori, who still has her fingernails manicured in different shades of geometrical and chevrony designs, as she did in high school. Rose used to run to answer the pay phone there— “Highland Episcopal Academy for Jewish Girls!” In high school, Dori got her hair done in Beverly Hills with her mom and little sisters at Jon Peters’ salon, by Mr. Shampoo himself, weekly.           
            How does Rose end up at Guido’s? She drives herself—follows him. Why? He said he has coke. Maybe that’s, she thinks, how he affords the Ferrari.
            Guido’s apartment is on the second floor of one of those motel-ly-looking buildings in North Hollywood—front doors all facing out in rows. Depressing. Rose does not know what she expects inside—something unexpected, like the Bat Cave, or James Bond’s pad?
            It’s like she’s there, but she thinks she’s only watching, like her life is on screen and she’s in the audience.
            A giant magnifying glass is clipped to this guy’s T.V. like some old grampa’s lens, Rose thinks, Guido’s version of affordable big-screen. Not charmingly-retro, but this place is sad. Away from home, Guido looks like he lives in Technicolor. But here it’s Ralph Kramden retro, except Ralph’s without an Alice. He may not even have a Norton. Instead, he has this bird.
            Rose smells and hears the bird first, before she can see it in his bedroom from the living room. Half the bedroom is this bird’s room. A long pole, like from a closet, or maybe it’s a shower rod—no, Rose sees gnawed wood—runs from wall to wall—and, on it, a three-foot great blue macaw. Talk about living color. The wood floor is spattered and clumped with shit that missed the tarp.
            Guido is cooing, “Hello, Loverboy.”
            And Rose says, “I gotta get outa here. Forget the blow.”
             Let him think she’s afraid of the bird. She is. No way she’s drunk enough to go into that room. Even if she wanted this guy, without the coke—that shit, that beak, those eyes all night? Flapping? Birds in the house freak Rose out—not Tippi Hedren freaked but Deer Hunter freaked, like having to watch Walken and DeNiro and Savage in an under-water cage. It’s unnatural.
            Guido says, “I come with you?”
            Rose says, “I’m okay.”
            “See you get home?”
            She says, “I’m fine to drive.”
            “Follow you to make sure?”
            “I’m all right.”
            He says, “You’ll see me in your rearview.”
            So, Guido, she wonders, is he scary, or is he kind?
            She is afraid of insulting him, ruffling his feathers, so to speak. Because, he could follow her whether she wants him to or not.
            He sees her to her front door and asks to use her john, and she in a whisper tells him she is living in her sister and brother-in-law’s guest house, whose cars, he can see, are in the drive, so he knows she’s not alone here.
            Rose hopes Aggie and Teige will not see Guido. Rose is not in the mood to hear promiscuous from Teige; to see tacky in her sister’s eyes, even with a Ferrari parked out front.
            Like they always make the best decisions, Rose thinks. It was not that long ago Teige embedded neon satin chevrons in his jeans’ back pockets, not that long ago Rose’s sister was modeling those pockets in public. Not that long ago, Teige was married to someone else.
            Rose lives in their guest house rent-free, caretakes for them when they leave town, repping the line or looking for clothes to knock off in Europe. Rose’s sister gets to keep the originals that aren’t ruined making patterns and sometimes gives Rose samples. Rose does stuff around their house, makes sure the water level in the pool is okay even when Aggie and Teige are home, sees that the sprinkler-timer is back on-track after power outages, that kind of thing. They don’t know from timers, Rose will say.
            She feels like she has to go through with whatever Guido is, so something freaky doesn’t happen that anyone else has to see or know about. Guido could turn out to be any kind of guy, right? Getting him angry, and him knowing where she lives, being in her house already, she figures, is worse than finding out how nice he knows how to be.
            When her eyes adjust to the dark and she’s sure Guido is asleep, she moves to the living room at the back of the house and stays there. Her bedroom is at the front of the house, just inside the front door, off the driveway. The guest house used to be a caretaker’s cottage, before there were streets, when the neighborhood was orange groves. Rose is naked under her robe. She wants to take a shower, but the bathroom is off her bedroom, and she’s afraid to wake him. She wants to be washed and dressed, with shoes on, when his eyes open.
            She can see through diaphanous livingroom curtains, through wrought-iron bars, onto the little back patio and, through the gate, what she knows is a corner of the diving board looks like something else at first—she doesn’t know what, but it makes her look twice. She hears that creaky shot of sound—regular as kitchen-sink water-torture—this mockingbird that starts around three in the morning and does not always stop in the day. The cats are out there lurking, the high-wire rats, squirrels, possums. Mockingbirds dive-bomb humans. They have gone for Rose’s head crossing the yard. This one sits atop the tallest pole at the juncture of Teige and Aggie’s back yards with their neighbors’. The humans are trapped in mockingbird nesting territory, and the mockingbirds are stuck in theirs. This particular bird is like a car alarm no one comes to shut off.
            Rose wishes for Guido to wake up and not try to find her but to skulk out the front door and off into the night. Would she have such luck?
            The yard motion light goes on by Teige and Aggie’s laundry-room door. Through the window, Rose sees Teige’s tousled head bouncing along the top of the fence. A baseball bat, or maybe the long-handle of a pool skimmer, points past his head—it’s the barrel of a long gun. Teige shoots at the mockingbird. Once, twice, boom, boom.
            The bird goes silent.
            Rose watches Teige’s head bob back toward the house.
            After a moment, the yard light goes out.
            No sirens. No waking Guido. Rose’s phone does not ring.
            The mockingbird sounds far away now.
            “Poor Teige,” Aggie says when Rose calls her hours later. “Such a nature lover, too.”
            “I can relate,” Rose says. “It’s no fun hating that bird. But, still.”
            “It’s just an airgun,” Aggie says. “There weren’t even B.B.s in it.”
            Rose thinks Aggie has got that wrong. “He looked like he was aiming to me. You heard it.”
            It’s about eight o’clock—early for Rose to be calling on a Saturday. Rose asks Aggie to keep it to herself—as far as Teige is concerned, Rose is calling about last night’s shotgun blasts, and to see if Aggie will go out to breakfast—but Rose can hear Guido moving on the bed, water sloshes, and she needs to pee. She tells her sister the basics, talks into curtains. Rose is afraid Guido will wake up sexy and reach for her.
            Her sister says to get in the shower in ten minutes.
            Aggie won’t tell Teige. She doesn’t want to hear promiscuous from him, either.
            Rose is quiet when she passes through the bedroom.
            She has the shower running, warming, while she pees, flushes, and after she hears a knock at the guest house door, she gets in, supposedly oblivious.
            The bathroom door does not have a lock. Rose does not open the shower curtain when Guido comes in, and neither does he. He says, “Your sister’s here. A breakfast date?”
            “I know,” Rose tells him. “I forgot. I’m late.”
            “Should I hang?”
            “Sorry. People are waiting.”
            He takes a pee. Rose can hear over the shower. He flushes, drops the seat, and says, “I’ll be calling you, then.”
            The shower scalds. She waits to be scalded again, but he leaves without washing his hands.
            Rose dresses and hauls everything smelling like last night next door to the laundry room.
            Her sister and she are outside, sitting on Rose’s front-stoop steps having coffee, trying to figure whether to really go out for breakfast or not. The front door is open behind Rose. The back door is open, too. An airing out, which is also what Rose calls it when she wants to get away, back to Montana where she was born, or “Up North” to Berkeley or Mendocino, where she and Aggie have friends. Rose asks Aggie if she wants to go with her. “Let’s drive up the coast to San Francisco and get out of this fucking town.”
            A deafening jet out of Burbank goes over, but Rose can hear what Aggie says—“It’s not the town.”

[END]





*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“Development Girl”—based on my experiences as a Hollywood assistant to agents and producers as the 1970s became the ‘80s—won the Competition for Utah Writers, judged that year by Chuck Wachtel, and became my first published fiction; it was also the first present-tense I had tried and the first “voice” piece, meaning the narrative was in the first person. “Development Girl” is paragraph after paragraph without section breaks, no white spaces, because originally its narrator talks straight through—to whom and in what context I had not decided. While later exploring narrative voice for a novel-in-progress bringing characters in “Development Girl” together with those from other stories, initially for Development Girls, a collection of linked fictions, I revised the “I” and “my” of D-Girl Rose Singer’s narrative into one about “she” and “her.” This story’s narrative is such a close third person that “Development Girl” in 2016 is, from opening to last line, essentially the same story as it was in the first person published Fall of 1999—if you can find the WHR, pull it off the shelf, and you’ll see—with the difference being that this Rose can still be known on the inside plus we are given the freedom to observe her from outside as well, by a close but reliable narrator replacing an “unreliable” one.

*****
ABOUT PAMELA BALLUCK

Pieces from Pamela Balluck’s Development Girls: Linked Fictions have been anthologized and have appeared in such journals as PANK, Litragger, Jabberwock Review, Western Humanities Review, Barrow Street, Drunken Boat, Night Train, Freight Stories, Southeast Review, and Green Mountains Review. Balluck’s creative nonfiction, “Parts of a Chair,” won a Southeast Review prize and is listed as “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2015. Balluck teaches writing at the University of Utah. She can be found at twitter.com/PamBalluck.

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