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The Life and Death of Jesse James

I met Audrey back in the nascent days of the Internet, when we were both on AOL, regular contributors to a message board devoted to screenwriting. I was just starting out as a writer, and might have optioned one or two things for a few hundred bucks (if that), and Audrey was someone who enjoyed the witty banter of writers. Her posts were funny, acerbic, unsentimental and smart, and one of the many things we bonded over was our enormous admiration for author Harlan Ellison.

Eventually, Audrey (one of two people and a dog whose names I’m changing here) and I met in person, and found that the friendship we’d had on the Net translated well to the real world. She and her boyfriend Simon (the other name I’ve changed) became good and regular friends. Simon’s a nice guy — British, and a little distant and shy, but I always liked him. They were good friends to each other, but they made no pretense that it was about love. When they got married, it was more for convenience and legal gain. Simon always seemed like someone to whom love was a sticky joke, something to be avoided. And Audrey always claimed she liked it that way. She’d been through a lot of shit in her life, been married once a long time ago, and was happy with the arrangement. “He doesn’t bore me,” she’d say. “That’s better than love.”

As well as I knew them, I was dead certain about one thing all along — no matter what she said, or how much she stressed what a great arrangement she and Simon had, she was not happy. She loved him, or, at the very least, wanted love from him. She wanted what we all want — someone who doesn’t just understand us and laugh at our shitty jokes, but someone who’ll be there to hold us in the cold, dark nights and help us cope with the indescribable loneliness of finite existence.

Years go by, and my career takes off. Harlan Ellison becomes a fan of a film I wrote, A History of Violence, and invites me to write with him, adapting his short story “The Discarded” for the ABC series Masters of Science Fiction. In the process, we become spectacular friends.

Harlan is one of America’s great short-story writers. He’s won more awards in more categories than you can count, for stories like “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”; “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”; “A Boy and His Dog”; “Jefty Is Five”; and “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.” He edited the wildly successful and influential science-fiction anthology Dangerous Visions. He’s also famous for his seminal work in TV criticism, The Glass Teat, not to mention his work in television itself, having written some of the most memorable episodes of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and one episode of Star Trek that is acknowledged as the single greatest episode of that show, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” He has been a tireless crusader for civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and a host of other worthy causes. He also cooks a mean chili.

So now it’s about two years ago. AOL is ancient history. Audrey is getting her Internet fix on the HBO Deadwood message boards. And that’s where she makes a friend named Janna St. James, who lives in Chicago. Janna’s a former reporter who worked out of the Associated Press office in Aspen, Colorado. Her claim to fame was that she conducted a major interview with serial killer Ted Bundy. Audrey and Janna exchange e-mails, stories are told; I suspect some secrets are revealed, or at least hinted at.

Anyway, Janna knows this guy named Jesse, and she thinks he and Audrey would get along. She “introduces” them online, and they hit it off. Jesse is an amazing dude, a volunteer fireman, a cowboy, a tortured poet, a man with a past. He has an ex-wife he speaks of fondly, and a son. He lives on a ranch with llamas. He’s got posttraumatic stress disorder from having been in New York on 9/11. He knew some of the firemen who died, or something. An exceptional man. He and Audrey just click, in that special way we all hope can happen someday.

Photos are exchanged. Sweet nothings fly back and forth. At some point, they start talking on the telephone.

And they fall in love. They’ve never met. Just e-mails, pictures, and long, meaningful conversations on the phone. But it’s real. I mean, really fucking real. It’s so real that Audrey changes. No longer a dark cynic, she’s now the world’s last true romantic. You’ve never had love this special. Your life is gray and empty and you can’t possibly understand because even if it came your way, your soul is too small to comprehend the love that Audrey and Jesse were experiencing. Their love lights the skies. Us gutter dwellers, we’ll never understand.

 

Audrey and some friends take a trip to the actual town of Deadwood for a fan convention. Jesse plans on meeting them there, but in the end, he has to cancel so he can fight a forest fire. Audrey is okay with this, because her man is dedicated to the service of others, whose needs must come before his own personal desires. Guys like me, we break a date because we pull a muscle reaching for the DVD remote. Jesse breaks a date to save Bambi from a forest fire. You can see the appeal of the guy.

Audrey then decides to leave Simon. She realizes that life without love isn’t worth it. As ridiculous as her situation is, this realization is not a bad thing, for my money. When you have a real epiphany, who cares how you got there?

At this point, I’m getting most of this secondhand, from our mutual friend Tania, because I’ve distanced myself from Audrey. Frankly, I can’t deal with her during this period. She’s a little insufferable with all this true-love shit.

So I hear it through Tania that Audrey has decided to move to Colorado to be with Jesse. She’s quitting her job. Packing her stuff. Leaving her home. To be with a guy . . . that she’s never actually met.

I point out to Tania that pheromones have a lot to do with mutual attraction — what if the smell’s off?

“Oh, they thought of that,” Tania tells me. They exchanged “special pieces of clothing,” she says.

To smell.

I imagine two people, one in L.A., one in Colorado, sniffing each other’s underpants to see if they can handle living together, and I say, “Jesus, that’s fucking insane.”

“You shouldn’t judge,” says Tania.

I beg to differ. This is why we have judgment.

Ever since we crawled out of the mud and started hitting each other over the head with rocks, attraction has worked this way: I see you across the room. You see me. Something clicks. We approach. We talk. If there’s some kind of connection between our inner selves — even if it’s just a mutual desire to rub chocolate pudding over each other’s naughty bits — we get on with the business at hand. But the Internet has turned things upside down. Now, things work the other way around. Our inner selves meet and connect, and then we get to the raw, physical-attraction thing. And while it’s painful to learn that someone you find physically attractive doesn’t go for you, how much more painful to find that someone whose soul speaks to you across the series of tubes that make up the World Wide Web doesn’t go for your fat ass and spotty face.

Around this time, Audrey starts a blog. Every day, new entries document her love for Jesse and all the amazing revelations they’ve had. Friends leave comments about how lovely and fascinating these revelations are. Many of these friends adore Jesse almost as much as Audrey does (for he is truly adorable). Some of them are from the Deadwood boards, and are wildly jealous of Audrey. Well, who wouldn’t be?

For the next few months, whenever I see her, she says, “Did you read my blog?” And I tell her, “No,” even though I check it regularly because it’s such a train wreck. You can’t tear your eyes from it. But I don’t want to admit it, and I don’t want to get roped into a discussion with her, because I’m afraid the temptation to tell her what I really think will get the best of me, and she can’t take that right now. Anyone who tries to speak sense to her now will be written off as jealous of the Greatest Luv the World Has Ever Known. And hell, as inane as it is, she seems happy, so who am I to rain on the parade, right? Happiness is a rare commodity in this world. When someone finds it, I think it’s usually a good idea to let him or her wallow in it. If I told you some of the things that make me happy, you’d want to stage an intervention. To each his own, brother.

Anyway, Audrey’s getting ready to move to Colorado to be with the Amazing Jesse, and Simon’s off in New York on some new job, and just as an aside, I’m in the process of falling madly in love with a young woman who — I’ll spare you the suspense of waiting to see how two stories end — turns out to be not so good for me and who shatters my heart a little less than a year later. This is life. We muddle through. But, for the record, I want it clear that the love I felt for this young woman in no way compared to the magical love shared by Audrey and Jesse.

 

Jesse, this amazing man, this object of wonder, this poet, this genius, this one true lover . . . You know what he does?

Jesse shoots himself in the stomach.

Who shoots himself in the stomach? If you’re trying to off yourself, it’s one of the worst ways to do it, because you’re going to take about a week to die, and what are the odds of someone not noticing you’re missing that whole time? Especially if you’re so lovable. So it comes as little surprise when we next learn that Jesse has a history of mental imbalance, and that he’s spent time in rooms made of rubber. Hey, he’s had a tough life. In September of 2005, for instance, he was in New Orleans helping Katrina victims, when he had a flashback to the horror he had experienced on 9/11. Apparently, he had gone semicatatonic. Bush’s America will do that to you.

So off he goes to the funny farm again. He loses Internet privileges, but Alice, Jesse’s sister, is in touch with him, and keeps Audrey and Janna up to date. Happily, Audrey is not so far gone that this doesn’t snap her ass back to reality. Or at least, some semblance of it. She decides she’s not moving to Colorado. Sanity returns. Life starts the process of returning to normal. She even takes up romantically with a younger man. You go, girl.

But Audrey keeps in touch with Janna, and then, when he gets out, with Jesse. And of course, they start up again. The young man she can actually touch doesn’t stand a chance. And once again, she’s prepping to leave it all behind and go to Colorado.

And then the next shoe drops. (I’ll warn you now — this beast does not walk like a man. It’s got more than two feet.)

Jesse dies.

Liver cancer. Which, I guess, is why he shot himself in the gut. Or maybe it was the 9/11 trauma. Or the aftereffects of the sexual abuse heaped on him by the drug dealers his father had loaned him out to when he was a kid. There’s so much pain in Jesse’s past, it’s mind-boggling. It’s amazing that he carried the load as long as he did. It would have broken me. Or you.

So Audrey, of course, is devastated. For one shining moment, life was possessed of the kind of magic most people only read about, and now, shockingly, terribly, the magic is gone, and she is alone. She sinks into a terrible funk. Her friends circle the wagons to help her heal.

Round about the time Jesse kacks it, the lovely girl to whom I’ve given my heart unceremoniously dumps me. No warning. Two months after we move in together. There’s a story there too, but that one requires massive embellishment to make interesting, because unlike Audrey’s tale, mine is one you’ve heard before, and it’s always dreary. Mine is normal. Mine is mundane and human and crappy. You know the drill. Suffice to say, I’m hurting too. But Audrey’s pain is much more real because, of course, hers involves La Muerte. I don’t mean to sound cynical. I feel her pain, even though part of me thinks it’s fucking ridiculous.

So, to do my part, I come up with the brilliant idea of taking Audrey to meet Harlan. Aside from being one of her heroes, he’s a charming, funny guy, and a hellaciously entertaining motherfucker. I don’t think I can bring her out of her funk — I’m in one of my own — but Harlan sure can. So I pick her up, and we drive to Harlan’s place. And he does right by her. We have lunch at the home he shares with his lovely wife, Susan, and he’s fully on. Audrey feels a bit lighter. She smiles. And I’m the good friend. I hold hands, I hug, I listen. I do all the things a friend does in these situations, but I have to be honest here — in the back of my mind, I perceive her situation to be analogous to that of the Dungeons & Dragons player who has spent five years developing a Level 12 Elven thief that gets massacred by a Level 14 Orc warrior. Yeah, I feel your pain, but Jesus H. Christ, my heart was broken by a woman I’d actually fucking met, lady!

Whatever. You do what you can with what you’ve got, and this is hardly the time and place to point out that her experience, as real as it feels, is all based on what is, essentially, fantasy. So I go with the flow, and I stand by my friend.

 

Then, just to add insult to injury, Audrey’s beloved dog Stan dies. He’s very old. It was coming. But only a week after her Elven thief . . . I mean, her one true love croaks. That’s a tough week. (And I do feel genuine sympathy for this one. He was a cool dog. We’d hung. I’d even put him in a short I made. He was a natural performer, and had no star ego, although he did bite me the first time we met. I forgave him ages ago. He is missed.)

But time goes by. We all heal eventually, right? The blog continues. Now it’s chock-full of stuff like, “Today I saw a cloud that looked like a giraffe. Jesse would have loved it. Here’s a picture.” And then there’s a picture of a cloud. Ay yi yi. Somewhere in there, Audrey takes a trip to Colorado to meet Janna for the first time. Janna takes her on a tour of all the places that Jesse knew. They bond intensely, and while Audrey may have lost the one true love of her life, she has, at least, made one true friend.

And that’s where the story should end, right? Audrey finally gets over it, moves on, maybe even meets someone she can actually touch. But no. There’s another shoe to drop. (I told you this beast had many feet.)

This past February, I got a phone call from Tania. She told me two things, one I didn’t know, one I realized I’d known for a very long time. The first was that Janna was in Los Angeles. She had arrived the previous Saturday and was in town for a week.

Then Tania tells me that she and her boyfriend Will had been doing some digging. And man, they were intensive. They spent two whole days on the Internet, doing stuff with Google that I didn’t know was possible. They got piles of backup, but the instant she said it, I knew down to my toes that it was true.

There is no Jesse.

There never was a Jesse.

Jesse never existed.

Ever.

Jesse was supposed to be a volunteer fireman in Colorado. It’s not hard to get a list of every voluntary fireman working in the state of Colorado. His name never appears.

He’d supposedly had surgery at a teaching hospital in Colorado. A quick check confirmed that this hospital had never performed any kind of operation on anyone. Ever.

They checked the death records in Colorado for the day he died. Nothing. So, they checked that week. Nothing. That month. Nothing. That year. Guess what?

Nothing. And they had more. Piles of stuff. This guy should show up in about a dozen places, and he doesn’t. Neither does his supposed son or his purported ex-wife.

Which means that Janna, the woman who was Jesse’s friend, who met him years ago when she hired him to do some work for her, who visited him in the mental home, who filled Audrey in on the details of his funeral, who’s staying in the house with Audrey as we speak . . . It means that Janna is

completely

absolutely

one hundred percent

out of her goddamn mind.

Not just a liar, but bugfuck crazy. Because this has been going on for close to two years, and it’s clearly not about money. This sounds like some sort of weird variant on Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the mental illness in which a parent induces an illness in a child so he or she can be the beneficiary of sympathy.

Gets better:

Janna has done it before. Tania and Will dug around, and found out that she used to haunt another message board, this one dedicated to singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg. There’s an entire history there, and it’s complicated as hell, but a woman named Janna St. James was discovered to have been posing either as Dan Fogelberg himself or as someone named Daniel who claimed to know Fogelberg. The back-and-forth with all the participants on the board gets intensely complicated in the way that only Internet controversies can. The important thing is that there’s an entire online community that was victimized by an impostor who turned out to be a woman named Janna St. James.

Also, the Janna St. James on the Fogelberg boards made reference to having once been gang-raped and abandoned in a field. Audrey’s Janna had told her the same story. Another check shows that there is no AP office in Aspen, where she claimed to have worked, and gee, you’d think you’d be able to find her interview with Ted Bundy somewhere. When you read Janna’s e-mails to Audrey about her AP experiences, it’s pretty clear that all she knows about professional journalism comes from reading romance novels.

 

Meanwhile, during the course of this conversation with Tania, I found out, for the first time, what Jesse’s last name was.

James.

Are you kidding me? That wasn’t a red flag? How bloody perfect — the tortured cowboy poet’s name was Jesse James?

Middle name: Jubilee, believe it or not. Jesse Jubilee James. All of a sudden, I see one of those stud muffins from the painted cover of a shitty romance novel. She — a powerful business mogul with long hair tightly done up in a bun (aching to be set free) and coltish legs who’s so busy achieving she forgot to find love. He — a scruffy-faced stuff muffin with windswept hair, three days of beard and a work shirt unbuttoned once more than is the timid norm.

So. The love of Audrey’s life never existed, and the monster that had perpetrated this sick joke was now staying in her house with her.

And Audrey had no idea.

What would you do?

I spent most of Monday night talking with Tania and some of Audrey’s other friends. I suggested a fairly direct plan of action, and people hemmed and hawed and went back and forth. It was drastic, and it was decisive, but there was some notion that Audrey should be allowed to decide what to do, as though she could possibly process the information we had and make a calm, rational decision in the moment. I pointed out that when someone’s being raped — and this was, indeed, emotional rape — you don’t ask them if they’d like you to pull the rapist off. You make that decision for them and face the consequences later.

The strange thing about something like this, about an encounter with a genuine monster, is that our minds tend to default to what’s normal, to what we know. We found ourselves talking about the situation as though Audrey had simply made friends with an eccentric person we didn’t like. Surely, it’s Audrey’s business whether or not she wants to be friends with Janna, isn’t it? Then someone would remember that a potentially dangerous lunatic was in the house with our friend.

I called Harlan. He understands people like no one you’ve ever met. We were at dinner once, and he started chatting with two biker dudes at the table next to us for a couple minutes. He asked one guy, “How long have you played chess?” The guy was stunned. Harlan had deduced from the way the guy carried himself in idle banter that he was a chess player. I’m pretty good at figuring out what makes people tick — you have to be to be a decent writer — but Harlan knows. He thought my plan was pretty solid, but offered one variant on it that was brilliant, and completely out of left field.

Here’s what happened:

Tuesday, late morning, the gang of five met at my place, which is just a couple of miles from Audrey’s. While we were there, Audrey and Janna were enjoying their morning at home, discussing what to do with the day. Sarah, one of Audrey’s oldest friends, was also there; she’d been staying with Audrey since she moved here from New York, and the night before, Sarah and Janna had spent Monday night staying in, watching a DVD of the 2006 movie Notes on a Scandal. (These are ironies you can’t make up.)

Then Audrey gets a phone call, a truly out-of-left-field call.

“Audrey, this is Harlan Ellison. It’s imperative that I talk to you and Tania as soon as possible about Josh. I’m very worried. Tania’s on her way to your house right now, and I’d like the two of you to come here.”

Audrey asks if she can bring her friend Janna, and Harlan says no.

Audrey asks if she can bring her new puppy, and Harlan says no. You don’t argue with Harlan Ellison; she says yes.

Then Harlan calls me and tells me it’s a go. Tania leaves to get Audrey. The rest of us wait a few minutes, then follow.

Audrey and Tania arrive at Harlan’s, and he sits them down in his living room and tells Audrey that he had lied. Josh is fine. Then he lays out the whole messy truth, with all the information Tania and Will have dug up.

Audrey is, of course, devastated. Tania sits there holding her hand as Harlan goes on. Meanwhile, the rest of us go to Audrey’s house. We meet outside, and Sarah lets us in.

And there’s this woman, this Janna, this thing: a morbidly obese woman in her mid-50s, dull-eyed and empty-faced, sitting in our friend’s front yard. We walk in, Audrey’s friend Ianthe videotaping the whole thing in case Janna wants to claim we assaulted her, or something. I walk up to Janna, and I say the following:

 

“Hello, Janna. I’m Josh. This is Ianthe, Will and Neil. We’re friends of Audrey’s. I’m gonna make this short. We know there is no Jesse, and there never was. It was you. We don’t care why you did it, and we don’t care what’s wrong with you. You’re going to pack your bags right now, we’re going to call you a cab, and you’re going to leave. You’re never going to contact or even think about Audrey again. We’re going to take down the information from your driver’s license, and if you ever try to reach Audrey, there will be consequences.”

She looks at me, blinks. Looks at them, blinks. Looks back at me, and says the following:

“Okay.”

Then she gets up and staggers back into the house. She has a hard time walking because of her size. So much so that in any other circumstance, you’d feel a pang of sympathy. Not here.

She starts packing. Will — Tania’s boyfriend — is quivering with rage. He’s young, and doesn’t understand yet how random, insane and chaotic the universe is. He still lives in a world where answers will be provided if you demand them.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, bitch?” he yells. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

She looks up at him with her cow eyes and shakes her head.

“I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

I pat him on the shoulder. He’s never going to get the answers he wants.

She finishes packing her two suitcases, and for a moment looks at me, as if to ask for help, then seems to remember the situation, and picks up the suitcases and hauls them out of the room. It’s a big effort. She’s immense, and allegedly has only one lung. I hope that’s true.

Everyone’s looking at each other, shrugging — what the fuck? We were ready for all sorts of reactions, but not this one, not this docile acceptance. She goes outside, and walks halfway up the stairs to Audrey’s gate. Then she sits, winded by the effort. We’re following her everywhere, silent lurkers. She looks at me, and I can’t help myself. I ask her, “Do you have any other hobbies?”

“No,” she says.

“You should get some,” I reply. “This one sucks.”

I think I hear Sarah snicker. Janna gets up and walks to the door, then sits just outside, waiting for her cab. Finally, it’s Ianthe’s turn.

“You put our friend through an emotional wringer for almost two years.”

Janna looks surprised.

“Two years?” she says. “No.”

Sarah chimes in: “How about a year and a half?”

Janna nods. “Could be a year and a half.”

And then this look crosses her face, as she realizes for the first time that she gave up her shit. She clamps her mouth shut, and doesn’t say anything else.

A few minutes go by — minutes that should be awkward, would be awkward if this were a normal situation, but it’s not. Those minutes are uncomfortable for her, but not for us. For us, these minutes are as close to vengeance as we’ll ever get to wreak upon this monstrous bitch.

The cab shows up, the driver gets out, sees this woman hauling two suitcases, and looks at this group of five young, healthy people at the door.

“None of you going to help her?” he asks.

As one, we all shake our heads no. It’s a satisfying moment.

And then she’s gone.

I call Harlan and give him the high sign, a line from one of our mutual favorite movies, The Sweet Smell of Success: “Cat’s in the bag. Bag’s in the river.”

He tells me Audrey and Tania are just leaving, then fills me in on what happened there. Audrey seemed to take it well, but she’s clearly in shock. And now we all realize that it’s possible we had the easy job. We thought dealing with the lunatic would be the tough part, but we may have been wrong.

So we wait. Twenty minutes later, Audrey shows up, and the first thing she does is walk up to me and give me an enormous hug.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

“I love you, you asshole,” I reply. She smiles. It’s going to be okay. For all the bullshit of the last two years (or year and a half), she’s a tough cookie, and I think she’ll be all right.

I can’t help but wonder who the guy Audrey talked to on the phone was, though. Janna is allegedly married, and if that’s true, the situation becomes even stranger. It’s one thing to be a lonely sicko, trolling the Internet for emotional sustenance. But when it becomes a team sport, when there’s another person working with you . . . then you’re venturing into what Bruce Robinson calls the realms of the deeply unwell. Try as I might, I have a hard time imagining the dinner conversation in that household.

 

At the insistence of her friends, Audrey hasn’t contacted Janna to confront her, and she’s not pursuing legal action (if it’s even possible). The drama has to end. She has to leave it behind and move forward. I hope she can. I think she can. But she has the impulse to try to make sense of it, to try to make it better. She told me she wanted to stop Janna not for her own wounded feelings, but so she doesn’t prey on anyone else. I suggested that if she really wanted to be selfless, she should help Bosnian refugees, or orphans in Darfur. She needs to let go.

There’s also this — someday, Janna will prey on someone who is not capable, and strong, and possessed of smart, strong friends who care about her. And that person will snap, and Janna will end up in a ditch somewhere. Call it karma, or call it the natural progression of things, but Janna will end up her own victim. It would be immensely satisfying to witness it, or at least read about it in the paper, but we never will. You just have to learn to accept that these things happen, and that you rarely get to be there for the big payback. Just trust that it’s coming, and take what solace you can from that.

The last thing that I can’t get over is this: As strange as that day was for me and Tania and Sarah and the others, I can only imagine how truly bizarre it must have been for Audrey.

We spend much of our lives alone. Some cope with it better than others. The ones who don’t are primed and ready for victimhood. You have to learn to be with yourself, because if you don’t, there’s a whole world of drugs, booze and rotten people who will be your friend until you’ve been sucked dry. Beware of what loneliness makes you do; and beware of this creature, because she is out there, she is real, and Janna St. James is only one of her pustulant manifestations:

Josh Olson is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His screenplay for the film A History of Violence was nominated for the WGA award, the BAFTA and an Academy Award. He co-wrote The Discarded with author Harlan Ellison for ABC’s Masters of Science Fiction series. He adapted the Dennis Lehane story “Until Gwen,” which he is also directing, and is currently adapting L. Frank Baum’s Oz books for Warner Bros.


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