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Ryan Priest
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patronsaint.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2012

 

The Patron Saint of Schmucks

 

by Ryan Priest

 

          Is there a patron saint of schmucks?  A saint of ne’er-do-wells, losers and your all around unlucky? I ask because I think I’d be great for the job. I’ve always held a soft spot for the losers. You know, generally good people who just can’t seem to make it work for them in this world around us. Usually they’re special in one way or another but, only one and therein lies the problem.

          If you’re normal then you’re normal no matter where you live. You’ll fit in because by definition you adhere to the norm. Most normal people accept their normality, which is understandable, it’s normal, but give me a schmuck, someone a hair’s breath away from that line and you can rest assured he’ll think that makes him exceptional.

          I see a lot of these types in my business. I work on the outskirts of the entertainment industry. Every year more and more of these young kids sweep in, in their cars, on the bus, some even have enough money to fly and they’ve all got the same expectation.

          They think they’ll just walk down the street or maybe into an office and they’ll be discovered and whisked away by kind and talented people to some movie set or recording studio. A lot of them have been local stars in their high school choir or college theater group, others have simply always been told how great and talented they are and now it’s time to cash in on that.

          My office is at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Shattered Dream road. By the time they make it to me they’ve usually been in town a month or so and spent all of their money. They’ve told people back home they were going to be stars. They’ve told off employers and lifelong enemies. It’s very hard on them to accept that it’s not going to happen. Like all good dreamers most don’t have backup plans. They feel betrayed, lied to and worst of all like suckers. That’s where I come in. My business finds these types day work as production assistants or extras in movies. I try to keep track of who’s worked most and who needs it. I usually help keep them on their feet for a few extra months before they turn back. For my services I don’t make much but it keeps me from working for someone else.

          If I’m the Saint of Schmucks then it stands to reason that there also has to be a Demon of Schmucks. I think I know who that would be. His name was Bernie and he rented the office across the hall from mine. Bernie made low budget Internet porn and sold subscriptions to it off of some web-page.  I got one of my kids the job programming the web-page. That’s how Bernie and I first met.

          Josh, a blonde twenty-something from Arkansas had told me he used to be a programmer. I knew Bernie needed a web designer. That’s how it works. I try to check the under-the-table work that’s always floating through LA and I see which of my guys I can get hooked up. I charge fifty a month or whatever they can pay. Well Bernie got his web page and didn’t pay Josh so our first real meeting was my banging on his door and not leaving until I had Josh’s check in my hand. Bernie had given me some bull about forgetting and having a broken answering machine.  He didn’t seem at all ashamed of or even inclined to hide that he was a scumbag.

          After the incident with Josh’s check, Bernie latched on to me. I couldn’t get through my day anymore without Bernie bursting through the door to throw me off track with some new narrow observation of his or a piece of gossip he may have heard.

          He did what I did, almost. He found the young, down on their luck kids, disillusioned and broken of spirit who’d do anything for quick cash. The difference between us was that Bernie could care less about them. He liked them because they’d do his movies for peanuts and low costs kept him in competition with the big guys. Or so he said. I had no idea that Internet smut even had ‘big guys.’ I always pictured short, greasy, men with shifty eyes working out of low-rent buildings, basically Bernie.

          “Oh no, no, no! Internet porn’s a six billion dollar a year business.” He was always spouting off these figures. I’m not sure if he thought I was interested but I’m pretty sure he didn’t care. He liked to have someone to talk to and no one in his life had ever tolerated him for long enough to teach him any real conversational skills. So I let him ramble on and on. Like I said, I have a soft spot for losers.

          I had to watch my kids around him, though. He was constantly trying to peek out of his office to get a look at any female who ever came in to see me. If he thought they were attractive enough, then rest assured the second they left my office he’d be all over them, telling them how pretty they were and about how much money they could make.

          He’d gotten a few of them too, this Demon of Schmucks. He’d take them into his office where he and or his friends would have sex with them on camera. He paid a couple hundred bucks and turned them out feeling like prostitutes. I suppose they were prostitutes but I don’t really care. That’s just another word and I tell them that too, when they’re back in my office crying into a box of tissues and spilling their guts to me about how horrible Bernie had made them feel.

          It’s hard to hate someone who doesn’t hate you back, so I gave up trying. I didn’t hate Bernie. He was just one more person trapped out here without a road map. He did things that I hated and he didn’t seem to care so I simply understood. That’s Bernie. He was made that way, if not by birth then by years of dejection and failure. The world had probably never shown him the least bit of kindness or concern so those ideas were foreign to him. They say that you only hate what you can’t understand. I’ve always found it ran the other way too: You can’t hate what you do understand.

          This enlightened approach to Bernie and what he did had its limits though. Schmucks always test their limits. They seem almost fated to the path of maximum resistance. Every morning I get no less than five messages filled by the hurried voices of people who I’ve booked to work who have either shown up late or not shown up at all.  Even down on the outs, with nothing, a foot from Skid Row and they’ll still find a way to mess up an easy opportunity. I liken the behavior to compulsive gamblers who’d bet their last cent on a far-gone hope. Somewhere deep inside, the schmuck still thinks he can get the better of the system.

          So when Bernie first tested my limits I knew we were only beginning a stage in our relationship that had no choice but to end in destruction. That limit’s name was Kristen.

          Living in Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, for so long you develop a calcified cynicism to all aesthetic.  You know how every special effect works, you know how much work goes into making the stars look like something other than the brain dead, wrinkled, liver spotted hacks they actually are. You see the models before they go into make-up and after and somewhere along the way you forget there even is such a thing as natural beauty. Every type of beauty has its market, season and price. I had been in that place for years when I first met her.

          She’d come from Idaho and I remember mumbling about how I hadn’t ever actually met anyone from Idaho before while the whole time my mind could do nothing more than try to process all the ways in which she was radiant to me. She had long brown hair and this milk white skin. Her lips were pert and smooth in an almost perpetual flush. She had these deep blue eyes with a crystallized iris like a turn of the century kaleidoscope.  That day I couldn’t have told you that, though. My mouth was operating completely by rote repeating my standard spiel to any new applicant but my head was somewhere in the clouds bounding up like a drowning man for air.  I couldn’t put my finger on it then but I’d later come to believe that she was the first thing in ten years that made this city even tolerable to me.

          The girl was articulate too, sweet and articulate, but unfortunately so god-damned beautiful. Bernie could smell fresh meat and my head had still been too discombobulated to stop him from leaping onto her the moment he heard my door close.

          I made it out in time to see the look of horror on her face as Bernie, seemingly oblivious, kept jabbing his card at her with an outstretched hand. He had a habit of hiding his cards around my office so I already knew what it said: Bernard Pyle Filmmaker.

          Had it not been for a two-year relationship with a hippie chick who’d dragged me to every inner-peace, quasi-Zen spirituality workshop in southern California, I’d have punched Bernie’s head through the wall. As it happened I was at one with myself that day and managed to stifle my inner roar into an outer high pitched squeal, “Stay away from her!”

          But Bernie just gave me a smug, jocular look as if to say, “All’s fair in love and war.”  Only this wasn’t about love. I was enamored by Kristen, sure, but this was about something else. She was the first person I’d seen in a long time who was pure and wholesome. She’d somehow made her way into the last place on Earth you’d expect to find innocence and in a metropolis of twenty-three million she’d found a way to knock on my door. She was my ray of sunshine, my lone rose in a sea of thorns and I wasn’t going to let Bernie put a price tag on her and mass market her simple elegance to his hordes of rabid, foam-mouthed subscribers.

          Kristen looked surprised and even blushed at the situation, my rushing to defend her honor against the pornographer. She promised me that she had no intention of compromising herself in any such way. Bernie only smiled and crept back into his lair with that same lecherous smile.

          “I think women who do that stuff are whores.” Kristen said to me while looking down at the card Bernie had managed to slip her.

          “You’re god-damned right they are. And you want to know what else?” I began, “It mars you for life. It hurts your career, closes doors for you in the business world and no man of any worth would ever think seriously about marrying someone who’d done it.” I gave the exact opposite of the speech I gave to women who’d already made the video. 

          When they’re crying in your office and you want nothing more than to give them the world you have no choice than to tell them what they want to hear. Confirming the fears they already have really serves no purpose other than to convince them they’re worthless and fling them off into an entirely new level of self destruction. However, to the ones teetering on the edge or even thinking about taking Bernie’s offer, I usually find myself nothing short of candid.

          “He takes something out of your soul. Something you can never get back.” I said, surprised at my own impromptu sermon. I was normally laid back and easy going but around this girl my nerves were wound and on edge. My breath hung on her every word and I lived or died by her impression of me.

          “It’s okay, I’d sooner go home than do a porno.” She’d said and then we both forgot all about it. Bernie wasn’t the only one in LA who liked a pretty face. I found it easy to get her legitimate work. Hollywood is there to sell a product. Perfect people in perfect cities.  Kristen’s face could help sell this image and so she worked a lot in front of the camera, being an extra, a few modeling jobs.

I liked finding her work because each new job was a new excuse to speak with her and further our association that much more. I was enjoying our budding friendship too much to see a great big obstacle getting closer and closer. If you’re not in the industry you probably don’t know but television shows and production companies go on a three-month summer hiatus.

Summer hiatus is like this giant sweeping hand separating the weak from the strong. If you survive your first hiatus though, things change. The union guys you work with pick up a little respect for you and they throw you more work in the industry. Getting in good with the union lifers kept me in work for my first few years solely as an extra. It was by doing this that I learned the odds and ends of extras casting.

Kristen had been warned about hiatus, by me, by everyone. She hadn’t listened. Nobody ever does their first year.  To my credit I tried to get her work. I tried for all of my kids. I can’t really afford it but I even hire one or two of them to help me organize my files. Give them fifty bucks a day for about a week.

          Without thinking, in a move I’d later regret I let Kristen have my one allotted intern slot.  I thought that working with her I’d get a chance to turn our casual business relationship into something else. I was right too. We worked well together and got along famously. She worked late with me every night and we’d order out. She told me about her dreams and about her past. She was just what she seemed to be. A small town girl who’d wanted to make something more of her life.

          I was so impressed by her that I was intimidated by her. I never let on how I really felt. I could imagine her rejecting me, giving me an awkward and uncomfortable look. I couldn’t be that to her. I couldn’t be the older man, the one who preys on young girls. I’m not that old, thirty-three, nevertheless coming on to her struck me as opportunistic and scummy. Like something Bernie would do. I feel a sort of responsibility to my kids, some of which are actually older than me. But I look after them like a big brother, especially the yearlings.

          I’d promised myself that when she was out of the office I’d ask her out. I’d made it to Friday night, our last night together and I hadn’t so much as slipped that I might be interested in her. She made her money and we had had a great week. I figured, if she shoots me down now I’ll still always have that week.

          Fate and destiny play a big role out here in the city of angels. Actually it’s always fate and destiny—if you’re getting what you want it’s fate, it was supposed to happen, it was meant to happen and it happened but never luck. Luck is for what doesn’t work out your way. Bad luck is what keeps you from the life of success you believe you’re somehow entitled to have.  It was my luck that night that I’d forgotten my cell phone at my office. 

          So I, in a routine we’ve all practiced many a time, neglected to even sit down before turning right around and heading back to retrieve my forgotten item. To sit down, to eat a bite or relax at all just begs to have that tiny bit of happiness ripped from you when the time came to leave. Better to keep the momentum alive and then collapse in a giant immovable heap later.

          Pulling into the parking lot I noticed Bernie’s lights were still on but I didn’t think much of it. I think Bernie sometimes lived in his office and showered god knows where. I vaulted up the steps two at a time anxious to grab my phone and leave before Bernie had a chance to rope me into small talk. The last way I wanted to spend a Friday night was watching Bernie getting drunker and drunker while speaking earnestly and heavily about some point he’d never actually get to.

          I slid open the door to our hallway quietly and crept in so as not to alert anyone to my presence. I carefully slid my key into the office door hearing every little scrape of the teeth against the tumblers. When I felt the lock give I closed my eyes, held my breath and turned the knob as if my self imposed sensory deprivation would somehow translate into a silent lock.

          At that very second Bernie’s door opened and the light from his office fell across me in the darkened hallway like a spotlight. I hesitated to turn around not looking forward to explaining why I was hunched over and creeping into my own office.

          It was a small gasp that turned me around. Staring at me framed by the doorway and back-lit by the office was Kristen. I don’t know if the gasp I heard had been mine or hers. That’s when Bernie, who was sitting at his desk in a bathrobe, saw me. He saw me there like a rat in a spotlight, my heart breaking into pieces, my world coming to an end and he got to see it.

          “Sorry,” Bernie gave a good natured shrug and then bellowed a great jovial hoot and returned to the small television he kept on top of his file cabinet. I climbed to my feet and Kristen shut the door. We were both in the darkness.

          “Today after I left here I found out my car had been towed.” She began and started to cry.

          That was all the explanation I needed to piece together the entire scene. The two hundred and fifty Kristen made off of me had already been earmarked for her rent. She had even been giddy about coming out a few dollars ahead of her rent for the month. Yet having your car towed in this town can and does happen. Like a gunshot out of nowhere and you’re out a hundred or so bucks. You have no time to think about it because that price goes up another hundred every day they have it. In a week most cars in LA are effectively totaled. They’re not worth what you’d pay to get them out. Kristen needed her car and she needed her rent and Bernie had money.

          “Come in.” I said to her opening the door to my office. I handed her the tissue box like I did with all the others. I sat down in the chair next to hers but I wasn’t really there. I had fallen through a hole in my chest into some thick unseen dimension where nothing would ever be good. I opened my mouth to give her the post-Bernie speech but all that came out was, “Why?”

          “I needed the money.” Kristen was crying. Her overdone makeup was smeared and she’d changed her clothes. She was now wearing a tight, short skirt and a skimpy halter top. She didn’t even look like the girl I’d fallen in love with. She looked like everyone else, like something LA created. The tears topped her off, too. There she was, innocence lost forever.

          I thought back to one day a year or so earlier. Nothing about it was the same except Bernie had just finished making a movie with some girl I’d never met. What I recalled was coming up the stairs to see Bernie in the hallway doing this vulgar attempt at a tap dance in celebration. I remembered those fat stumpy legs thudding flatly against the floor and I remember his self-satisfied opportunistic glee no different than a child’s who’s suddenly allowed to have all the sweets he wants.

          “I’d have given you the money.” I told her.

           “I couldn’t ask you.” Kristen cried and fell against my chest. I lifted my arms as if to put them around her but I didn’t want to touch her. Even now she seemed far too delicate and good for me to belittle. Bernie hadn’t seen that. There was no way anyone like Bernie could see beyond physical features into someone’s nature. It’s why he had her painted up that way and in those clothes.

          “Why not?” I asked.

          “Because I like you too much.” She sobbed and I felt an explosion go off inside of myself. I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad. I didn’t even know if it was a medical condition I might want to get checked out but something in me just erupted upon hearing her say that. A mix of happiness, relief, loss and sorrow, the entire gamut of emotions was surging through me as I clung to her.

          “I like you too, Kristen.”

          “But I know how you feel. I know what you said about girls who do those videos.” She cried and I fought every fiber in me not to cry along with her. “I’m so sorry.”

          She cried that night at the office and then back at my place. We didn’t make love, neither of us brought it up but there was tacit understanding that we were going to be together. We cared for each other and we wanted each other.

          I’d lost my first dream a long time ago, she was like my second chance and I wasn’t going to let her go for anything. It was that first night holding her in my arms as she slept, my little angel, that I decided I would have to kill Bernie.

          “Hey Josh, it’s me.” I made a call the next day. By this time Josh had moved back to Arkansas and had already landed a job making five times as much as extra work would ever pay.

          “How’s it going? You still in LA?” And we tossed it back and forth like that for a minute or so before I hit the reason for my call.

          “Josh how long does it take Bernie from filming a video to putting it online?”

          “About a day, why?” Josh asked slowly.

          “No specific reason, don’t worry about it. How’s your mom?” And we ended it that way but I knew what I had to do.  Kristen was at her apartment packing up her few things. She was going to move into my place. That way she could save some money and work more on her acting career. I wanted her to have that career too, even though I knew the odds were astronomically against her. But if she was to have any chance I knew she had to receive a fair shot. Bernie’s video would cost her all that, if not now then later.

          I drove to my office and replayed everything I knew about Bernie in my head. No one would come looking for him. The cops wouldn’t look too hard, either. A guy like Bernie has a lot of enemies and in a town of twenty-three million that’s a lot of dead ends. The parking lot was empty save for my car and Bernie’s.

          I’d never killed anyone before and I have never done it since but I have to say I’m not bothered by what happened to Bernie. I knocked on his door and he answered, happy to see me on a weekend and glad for someone to talk to. He said that he had some girls coming in later for more movies but he always said this. I asked absently what he did with the tapes he made and he showed me. He had no reason to suspect a thing. He’d been dying to show me his setup for months.

          “Where’s her tape? The girl from last night.”

          “Still have it right here in the camera.” Bernie said and with the press of a button, his last press of any button, he ejected a tiny tape. He then in his good-natured way threw the tape to me. I gave it one glance and slipped it into my pocket.  Bernie looked at me with a funny grin and I took a step closer to him and slit his throat from ear to ear with a pocket knife. He fell back onto the floor knocking the camera and tripod over with him. He didn’t scream. He only tried to turn over onto his back, I guess to meet death face to face. He didn’t make it though, like everything else he’d tried his hand at in life Bernie had failed to turn himself over and died face down in his own blood.

          I stepped over the body and closed the cassette holder. No reason to tip them off that a tape was missing. I grabbed Bernie's wallet with a napkin in my hand, took Bernie’s two dollars and threw the wallet down. They probably wouldn’t believe it was just a robbery but cops are like anyone else. They want easy ends to easy days so they can get home and collapse too.

          I closed Bernie’s door behind me and went into my office. I had work to do and I’d act as surprised as anyone when Bernie’s new girl began screaming at the sight of a dead body. I’d tell the cops I hadn’t heard anything strange. I’d get away with it too, because I had grit. I’ve survived this city for ten years where millions have gone home. I’m a fighter and I’m a survivor.

          As for Bernie, I can’t feel bad. There’s no reason to suspect life had anything good in store for him. As it was he existed solely as an individual who only hurt whomever he came in contact with. The world is better without him. Still though, when I think of him I always picture him doing that silly tap dance and smiling, one up on the world.

 

The End

 

 

Ryan Priest is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. His first film, The Scam, recently premiered at an independent film festival in San Diego where it was nominated for Best Drama, Best Cutting Edge and Best Picture.

His work has been published in Dark Reveries, Poor Mojo's Almanac, Down in the Dirt, Giggle Water Review, 5th Story Review, Ragad, Ghoti, Twisted Tongue, Delivered, Outercast, Writer's Post Journal, Pink Pussycat's Corner, Lowestoft Chronicle, First Stop Fiction, Mississippi Crowe, Monster Gallery Anthology, and On The Premises.

 

His Web site address is: www.RyanPriest.net

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