The wives of Hollywood power players liked to wheel their small children here in thousand-dollar strollers, especially on Wednesday mornings for Toddler Time. They gathered to preen and posture while they sipped half-caff lattes and gossiped about the next “it” person they would be entertaining at their grinder box-house, spat out by some visionary architect that got his rocks off at pitching radical, indulgent building plans to rock stars and movie hustlers.
I decided to sit in the Barnes and Noble, at the Grove at Farmer’s Market, to do some writing and cull some characters from the upper-crusty crowd that was in dire need of a culling. If I didn’t get something in to my editor soon, I would be back to answering calls at a reception desk and making up excuses for the boss when he was screwing his assistant in her studio apartment at lunchtime. I waited until Toddler Time was over, since what I was looking for were three-dimensional characters, not the flat, high-gloss kind that came out of the pages of a bored and morally bankrupt magazine. There, at the corner table of the cafe I sat with my laptop, trying desperately to tease some depth from the characters on the screen. It was impossible not to notice him when he walked in, strode in, without so much as a glance in any direction to get his bearings. It was the entrance of a man who had spent a good deal of time practicing casually dramatic entrances.
Franco. Not this guy.
He was known in equal parts for throwing himself into a movie role to the extent of cutting off contact with family and friends, as well as creating videos and short stories parodying other famous people. He was the perfect yin-yang of perfectionism and douchebaggery. And on this particular morning, he was at the Barnes and Noble #2089, headed for the literary fiction shelves.
Now there was a character in need of a culling. His $200 distressed-by-Zimbabwean-hunters-who-beat-them-against-rocks-by-hand jeans sagged a little in the ass, and his carefully half untucked t-shirt had a crease line from being ironed by an Ecuadorian housekeeper. He was the living, breathing embodiment of a Lorde song, complete with a timepiece on his left wrist because James Franco doesn’t wear just a watch.
I ignored the excited teenage giggles I heard echoing from the corner of the bookshelves where I knew the actor/professor/writer/self-caracaturist was being idolized somewhere between Twilight and The Secret Life of Bees. My attention wandered to the bakery case where I ogled a slice of chocolate mousse cheesecake. There was no telling how old it was since nobody in this neighborhood would be caught dead eating cheescake. I pushed it out of my mind and took another drink of cranberry juice. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. The location was proving to be more distracting than inspiring.
As I slowly pecked away at creating a catalyst for my character’s slaying of the two guards outside his rented Moroccan slum, Kitty, by POTUS blaring through my ear buds, I sensed a presence had entered my personal space, and I glanced up.
As if a lightswitch had been flicked, the face in front of me instantly lit up with a smile that was just a little too bright, a bit too…rehearsed.
As I yanked an earbud from my left ear, I heard him saying “Mind if I use this seat, it’s pretty crowded in here today?”
The long, drawn-out sigh wasn’t meant to be audible. Physical betrayals like that are only one tiny reason that I would never be part of that crowd in this town. Somehow I summoned half a smile, nudged the chair opposite me out a few inches with my well-worn Chucks, and said “Sure, help yourself. Hopefully my keyboard tapping won’t bother you too much.”
I popped my earbud back in before he could respond and wondered to myself if people like Franco fear being too close to the common people. We of the wristwatches and Gap jeans and subpar grooming habits…after all, I hadn’t had a haircut for at least three months, and manicures were an unrealized extravagance.
Tap-tap-tap, I glance up only briefly, but long enough to see the book jacket that he’s behind. I yanked out the earbuds again.
“Why would you choose something that’s so utterly expected?”
He lowered the book and peered around at the title, as though he’d forgotten what he was reading. A large black box with the name Sacrilege was on the front cover. He looked at me with one eyebrow raised, his left one, and replied “Not a fan of Salinger?”
“It’s not that,” I answered. “It’s just that after the Lindsay article, I would expect a new gimmick.” I’d never been one for flattery, simply for the sake of flattery, yet this was beyond my usual boldness. But I didn’t care. What’s he going to do, write a “fictional” story about me? Pffft.
“‘Gimmick’ is an interesting word choice. What makes you frame it that way?” he asked.
“It made for a nice story, didn’t it? Reading Salinger in bed to a fragile, fallen star? It’s pure image promotion.”
“Ah, it would seem that way, wouldn’t it? That is, if one assumes that the ‘fragile’ starlet had nothing to do with the story being written and released.”
So he’s insinuating that Lindsay was on board with the release of this ‘fictional’ story? I suppose a nice bit of sympathy couldn’t hurt in getting her back in Tinseltown’s good graces.
“What’s in it for you?” I asked. “You took a lot of grief for that story, so why did you bother?”
“Because sometimes it’s better to do no harm. She’s seen enough harm come her way. A few shitty articles aren’t going to affect me much, one way or the other.”
“Aren’t you benevolent!”
“Nope, nothing that lofty. I’m just a story-teller. Speaking of which, what are you writing? I trust you don’t mind my asking since we’ve already discussed the nuances of my shameless self-promotion.”
I briefly wondered how I’d gotten myself in this predicament, dissecting morals with someone who probably had a very different idea of morality than most. Deciding I may as well ride it out to the end, I answered “It’s a book called Murder in Morocco. It’s my first full-length novel. I’ve only published a few short stories before this.”
“Could I read the first chapter?” His eyes glinted and I could clearly see the challenge he was proposing; after the boldness of my accusations, would I be confident enough to let him read my writing?
“It’s a first draft, so it’s raw, but go ahead.” I clicked over to the first chapter and turned the laptop around to face him.
For a moment I considered moving my chair next to his and resting my face against his chest while he read. The thought made me laugh, but I stayed in my own seat.
He looked up after a few minutes, pushed the laptop over to me, and said “It’s actually a really good start. I look forward to reading all of it when it’s published. Do you have an agent?”
“No. My short stories were published by a very small, independent publisher. They’ve expressed interest in seeing the book once it’s finished.”
“It might be good enough for a bigger audience. I have a friend who’s a literary agent, I’ll give him a call and ask him to take a look at it once you’re finished. Let me give you his name and email.”
How does one react, exactly, when a movie star saunters into a bookstore, takes a seat at your table, reads part of your novel, then offers to connect you to an agent? I’d like to say my skepticism and complete commitment to remaining unimpressed won out, but ultimately self-interest prevailed. So I thanked him sincerely for reading it and for his offer. I grabbed my phone and punched in the agent’s contact information.
Perhaps he anticipated that an awkward scene transition was imminent, because he chose that time to stand up. “Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of sharing your table, as well as the advance reading of your first chapter. Good luck with the story.”
“Thank you for reading it and for the contact. I really appreciate it.”
And with that, he strolled out with the Salinger book in hand. It was like watching a unicorn disappear into the mist, taking its magic with it.
As the door closed behind him, the barista approached my table and set a plate in front of me. It was the chocolate mousse cheesecake from the display.
“Compliments of Mr. Franco,” he said.
How the fuck did he do that, I wondered.
I’ve always hated the saying “time flies.” As overused as it is, it was what came to my mind five years after that chance encounter at Barnes and Noble.
The contact he gave me proved worthy, and my book was published a year after that day in the bookstore. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably already aware that it was a bestseller.
Things changed so dramatically after that day, sometimes it seemed like a dream. The biggest change came just last year, when a major studio bought the movie rights. I spent much of the last year consulting with the script writers, and now we were a month out from the start of production. Casting was complete, but I had no part in that process. Still, it should have come as no surprise to me to learn who would play the lead character.
Somehow this guy always comes out on top.
Except for Lindsay Lohan. He still swears he was never on top of her.
This fictional short story was inspired by James Franco’s recent short story, Bungalow 89. Mr. Franco, it seems, is a font from which flows boundless artistic expression. And other things, I assume. But I don’t know anything about those other things.