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Behind the Green Screen

“THE REASON THAT THE TEST audiences don’t like it,” Hollywood motion-picture director Peter-Anne Cornwallow unknowingly told Flanders Blake, “is because the critics haven’t told them how good it is.” Cornwallow spoke more deliberately into the phone at the time, with his feet up in his home office, defending himself against the wrath of Barry Panache, the project’s producer, following a weekend of unsuccessful test screenings. Flanders Blake, for his part, was innocently passing Cornwallow’s home office, stepping quietly toward what he hoped would be an anonymous departure.

Flanders Blake held the same job as I did: restrained servant. We were each paid $5 an hour to see to whatever Peter-Anne wanted at home, and 24 cents a mile to secure it, sometimes driving more than 200 miles a day, simultaneously, without either of us once leaving Los Angeles. Hauling, shopping, transporting, supervising where no supervision was necessary. It was by performing these tasks, sometimes seven days a week, often late into the night, that we hoped to learn the craft of getting a real fucking job.

On the night that Peter-Anne argued in favor of his audiences being empty vessels that required the services of blurb whores to function properly, Blake and I had both, without the other knowing, received messages from the dread Mrs. Maples, Peter-Anne’s longtime executive assistant, instructing us to arrive at Peter-Anne’s residence at 6:55 a.m. We were to park inside the gate but away from the front door, so that each of us, separately, would be able to supervise the arrival and departure of a limousine that was taking V.D. Cornwallow — the current Mrs. Cornwallow, V.D. being short for Vivian, Dear — to the airport.

AT 6:50 A.M., MY TRUSTY gray Honda sedan pulled up to the Cornwallow gate and I pressed the button. Peter-Anne’s longtime maid, Gloria, answered and let me in. I found an inconspicuous place to park, with a view of the front door through some tropical foliage, turned off the engine, released a small lever and reclined, venturing that on such an occasion as this, Peter-Anne would be satisfied to see my familiar Honda, and not concern himself with whether or not its occupant was conscious.

I awakened at 6:53 a.m. to Flanders Blake entering via the passenger door, reclining in the passenger seat and staring up through the sunroof. His breath was audible, fast, nasal.

“I’m going to kill him,” Blake said at last, without affect. “This time I’m really going to do it.”

“How late?” I asked.

Blake turned to face me. His eyes were piercing and red, and he didn’t smell so good. “I got home at 4. Fell asleep around 5. Woke up at 6. I’m gonna kill him.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I’m thinking about killing Him too.”

We heard the limo at the gate, and returned our seats to driving position. Blake’s mid-’50s Chevy sedan was parked immediately behind me.

“I must’ve been out cold,” I said, nodding at the Chevy, which was known to run loudly.

“I knocked on the window,” said Blake. “You were dead.”

The gate opened, and the limousine pulled forward. And idled.

“Where do you think V.D.’s going?” I asked Blake.

“Fuckin’ don’t know, fuckin’ don’t care.”

“Abortion, you think? More plastic surgery?”

“Fuckin’ don’t know. Fuckin’ don’t care.”

Gloria opened the front door, waved to the limo driver to indicate that his passenger’s arrival was imminent, and disappeared. Gloria and her young son had escaped the death camps of El Salvador in the early ’80s for the privilege of showing up at Peter-Anne’s at 6:30 every morning and cleaning all indoor surfaces of the entire estate, which took Gloria about 10 hours, even though it was already clean from the day before. Then, after a 10-minute walk down to the bus stop on Sunset, a 20-minute wait for the bus and a two-hour ride across town, she was free to prepare dinner with a hot plate for her now 12-year-old son, sleep four hours and repeat. Peter-Anne spoke highly of Gloria, but still paid her just $300 a week.

Twenty minutes passed before the Cornwallows at last appeared at the door, Peter-Anne in a full-length purple terry robe with gold piping and a gold “PAC” monogram, V.D. in a full-length fuchsia-leather overcoat and carrying one of those brown Louis Vuitton purses so incomprehensibly favored by wealthy white women. The Cornwallows watched as Gloria dragged four heavy suitcases onto the porch, where the limo driver collected them and arranged them in the trunk.

The happy couple shared a quick, dispassionate kiss, and waved as the limousine pulled away, at which time Peter-Anne was supposed to go back inside.

Instead, he turned to face Blake and me, and motioned us over.

“Seriously,” said Blake, opening the door. “This is it.”

LONG AGO, FOLLOWING THE RELEASE of Cornwallow’s first major box-office failure, Everyone Had a Lovely Time, Peter-Anne spent a fortnight of mourning locked in his screening room, watching the dailies over and over, wondering where to turn, for the box office was his only muse. The servants were sent home. Cornwallow saw no one but his best friend, legendary director Woolcott Belle, and a trusted private pizza-delivery source. According to Belle’s memoirs, during the course of his isolation, Peter-Anne combusted two full ounces of high-potency marijuana — more than an eighth of an ounce per day. When at last he emerged, the servants returned to find that the screening room’s every exposed surface was coated with a palpable layer of resin. The furniture was replaced, the walls and windows scrubbed clean. But, per Peter-Anne’s orders, the screen itself was to remain untouched. Sticky. And no one had touched it since.

AT 7:30 A.M., PETER-ANNE sat impassively in his purple robe on the screening room’s most expensive leather couch, sipping organic decaffeinated coffee, supervising his loyal, red-eyed servants, Flanders Blake and me, as we stood halfway up matching aluminum stepladders on either side of the screen, armed with buckets and sponges, scrubbing furiously toward what we hoped would be a two-week vacation.