When Erin calls me from Telluride, she talks about the high country, the 13,000-foot peaks beautiful enough to break your heart. She describes the ponderosa pines and the aspens and the way the snow gleams like sugar above the tree line. As she talks, I listen to the rhythm of her words, the timbre of her voice, the way the unfamiliar verbiage seems to stick on her tongue like snowflakes. Mostly though, I take small, quiet hits on the joint I lit here in Los Angeles before the phone rang.
After dropping the phone back into the charger, I fill a water glass with Grey Goose and cranberry and flop into the lounge chair closest to the hot tub. It's cold for late afternoon and I watch the clouds of steam billow up off the chemically treated water. Because I've left both sliding doors to the deck wide open, the Moby CD that Erin gave me last Christmas, along with a few hundred cubic feet of forced air heat, is blaring out onto the deck.
Staring down into the glittering expanse of Nichols Canyon, I watch my hand shake and sing softly along with Moby as he belts out, with what I regard to be an almost disconcerting degree of exaltation, "Nobody Knows My Troubles But God."
After my second vodka and cranberry and most of the next CD in the five disc, The Pretenders, The Singles, I shuffle back into the house, heading for a walk-in closet next to the sauna in the master suite. I pull down an old black Samsonite garment bag and start packing.
Halfway to LAX, I call Roger from the Land Rover. I explain to his voice messaging system that I will be missing the Elfin Warriors pitch meeting tomorrow at Fox Family Channel. After another call, this one to cancel Wednesday's chiropractic appointment, I floor the Rover, turn the radio up and slide into the fast lane. KMZT is playing a Bizet opera which I do not own. I am pleased and weave through traffic as John Alder sings an aria from act two of The Pearl Fishers.
After about twenty-five blocks or so of La Cienega's used car lots and pawn shops, the phone rings.
"Jack, what do you mean you're skipping Elfin Warriors?"
"Roger?" I ask. "Why are you at work at this time of night? Shouldn't you be somewhere in West Hollywood feeding Roofies to underage starlets?"
"Pilot season, my man. You think I can afford to live the way I do on the dough I make off of you?"
"Roger," I say. "The way you live, you couldn't actually afford it if you repped half the people at CAA."
Only twenty-nine, Roger Rogers had been my literary agent for the last four years. Roger possesses nearly infallible instincts about matching writers with material and an almost uncanny ability to determine precisely how much a given production company or studio will pay for one of his clients? services. Roger also has, it should be mentioned, the ethics of a sociopathic barracuda looking to score a desperately needed fix of narcotics. As Erin used to say, "if unscrupulousness is ever declared an art form, they will be hanging Roger's carcass from a wall in the Getty after he dies" Largely because of some golden combination of these qualities, Roger owns houses in Malibu and Maui and a vacation condo in Jackson Hole.
"I don't want to go to a pitch meeting for a television show," I say loudly, above the aria. "Let alone one that features broadsword-wielding elves,"
"Did you at least look at the script?" he asks.
"Roger, it's television."
There's a long pause on the other end of the line.
"I understand your position, Jack," Roger says, in a tone that suggests anything but. "However, a deal in play at Fox gives me some much needed leverage to negotiate with the producers of the feature film you do want to write."
"Fair enough," I say. "Tell the Fox folks my back is acting up. I'll take the meeting the second I'm out of traction."
Aside from being semi-legendary around Hollywood, my back problems are entirely fictional. My former manager at Brillstein-Grey felt it was important to have a readily available excuse for missing any meeting. Chronic lower back pain struck him as somewhat more socially acceptable than my actual chronic low-grade depression. As a result, I've had biweekly appointments with a celebrity chiropractor in Beverly Hills for the last six years.
"Is this about Erin?" Roger asks.
"Roger, I'm heading into a canyon. I'm losing you."
"Jack, you ought to leave that girl alone."
"You're breaking up, Roger. I'll be back in a week."
After another twenty or so blocks, the phone rings again.
"Roger," I say. "I'm in Topanga. You're all static."
"Mr. Williams," an unfamiliar voice says. "My name is Judy and I'm calling from Land Rover USA, Land Rover's financial services group. How are you today?"
"Mr. Williams, the reason I'm calling is to inform you that we have not received the last two payments on your Land Rover Discovery."
"Sorry," I say. "You're breaking up." I reach for the Nokia's "END" button. "I'm heading into a canyon."
It's dark and cold and the wind is blowing hard out of the northeast when I debark the turboprop I boarded in Phoenix. The Valium I took mid-flight hasn't quite worn off, so I don't mind (too much) that I've drawn a really talky shuttle driver. After a ten-minute monologue describing the rugged beauty of the San Juan Mountains and extolling the virtues of Western self-sufficiency, he finally says something I care about enough to respond.
"Town or Mountain Village?"
The inordinate appreciation and subsequent second mortgage and rental income from the small studio apartment off Colorado Avenue I've owned since the early nineties has really helped me to keep things together financially in LA over the last year. Erin and I holed up there last winter for a month and a half. Through a spate of private lessons, Erin learned to ski steeps and bumps and I did two sets of rewrites for a Tarzan remake that did not reach principle photography.
When the shuttle stops at the corner of Colorado and Oak, I hand over my credit card. Turning on the dome light, the driver examines my name carefully.
He says, "You wrote Highway Robbery."
"That's, like, my ninety-eighth all-time favorite movie."
Without waiting for Cliff-Claven-of-the-Wilderness to remind me that Highway Robbery had the lowest gross of any movie Dennis Quaid ever made, I shove open the door and jump from the running board of the shuttle.
Erin is staying, I anticipate, with Kevin Huvane's girlfriend Alicia at Kevin's place in Mountain Village. On the way to grab a late dinner, I feel the dehydration and stupidity of altitude sickness starting to hit. I pop into a deli and throw down half of a liter of bottled water, hoping to establish some semblance of détente with my symptoms — at least until I get through eating.
Scanning the long wooden bar at the Sheridan for familiar faces, it occurs to me that most of the industry people who ski will still be hanging around at Sundance, trying to snag a last run or cut one more deal. Although I wouldn't usually travel while using the bad back excuse, I'm not too worried about being spotted here by anyone who runs with the Fox crowd. TV people tend to ski at Mammoth or, if they're lucky, Tahoe.
Ensconced in a booth near the door, I order a burger, two glasses of water and a one-third carafe of Merlot. Waiting for my beverages, I start flipping through a copy of the shooting script for the original Scorpion King. According to Roger, I've been shortlisted to pen the sequel, which is a little surprising. Not that many jobs have come my way since getting labeled "difficult," — no other word for it — by a famous director two years ago. Roger hasn't actually suggested starting to prep yet, but I think this job could be my ticket back to the A-List.
When the burger arrives, I take another Valium and hit the waiter up for two more glasses of water. On top of the almost surreal level of mental sluggishness, and horrible insomnia, altitude sickness gives me the psychological jitters.
I'm staring kind of blankly at page thirty when I look up to see Kevin Huvane's brother Chris sitting in a booth across the room. I pick up my burger and maneuver through the small crowd in front of the bar. From behind, I tap Chris on the shoulder with the hand not holding the burger.
"Chris," I say. "How've you been?"
I take a seat on the other side of the booth. Chris looks up from the deal memo he's reviewing.
"Williams," he says. "How are you?"
Before I get through saying that I'm doing fine, his eyes drop right back down to the deal memo. That's when it hits me that the last time we saw each other was throwing punches on opposite sides of a crazed, drunken brawl — that just may have been started by me — on set last winter.
"It was nice seeing you Williams," he says.
I can't believe this grudge-holding asshole is letting a little thing like a right cross stick in his craw like this, but at the moment, I've got bigger fish to fry. I set my burger on the table and ask Chris if his brother Kevin is staying at the house in Mountain Village.
"Kevin is on set," Chris says, still not looking at me. "I did see Erin though," he perks up. "Last night. She was drunk out of her mind doing a karaoke version of Bowie's "Fame" at the Mineshaft Club."
"That so," I say. I really try not to let this sound like a question.
"If you're looking for her, I hear she's staying at Big Billy's," he laughs. This leaves me with a bit of cognitive dissonance. Big Billy's is Telluride's ski school employee housing.
"Jesus," I say. "Later."
I get up and am halfway across the restaurant before I realize that I have just left my burger sitting on the table in Chris Huvane's booth.
I'm itching to reconnoiter Big Billy's, but by the time the waiter shows up asking if I want dessert I'm so wiped out it's all I can do to drink another glass of water and put the script away.
A before-bed email check reveals a missive from Roger encouraging me to more seriously consider the Fox Family Channel job. He writes that even though the producers of Elfin Warriors really like me, my cavalier attitude is about to cost me the job. They are seriously spooked about taking the show to network without a name writer attached, and Matt Strickland, who did Thundar The Barbarian about a million years ago, is willing to work for cigarettes.
I shut down the computer and take a final Valium. Then I put in a call to Telluride's ski school booking a private with Erin Houseman for 12:30 the next afternoon under the name William Wilder.
From the deck of the Prospector bar I watch Erin waiting in front of the "Private Lessons Meet Here" sign. Her platinum blonde hair is tied behind her head and she's wearing a pair of $325 Romeo Gigli wraparound sunglasses she bought on impulse at Birds of America after landing a guest star role on a two-part Touched By An Angel. Holding her body up with angled racing poles, she leans forward over her skis, stretching her gluteals. Her toned, lycra-ed ass mesmerizes two teenage boys waiting for a snowboard lesson.
Checking her watch every minute or so, Erin does a few more warm-ups. Just as I sense she's about to say "fuck it" and walk away, I step into my skis and head down to meet her.
"Erin Houseman." Smiling, I say her name like a short, declarative sentence.
"Jack?" Erin turns around. She looks at me in surprise. "Jack, what are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing," I say.
"But you won't."
"I'm ?" she says. And there's a pause during which I believe I'm about to be granted some insight into Erin's flight from Los Angeles. "Teaching skiing," she says finally.
"I'm here to affect the outcome," I say clumsily.
As Erin simply looks past me after removing and boxing up her sunglasses, I'm in no way under the impression that this is the right answer. Maybe the right answer is "Because I love you and want to be with you." Maybe the right answer is "You are the only one for me." Maybe there is no right answer or the right answer can only be given by someone else — someone who is not dizzy with altitude sickness or nearly gob smacked by Valium poisoning.
I'm certainly not going to learn anything right now. Because all of this flashes through my mind in the time it takes Erin to pull her ski goggles down from her tan forehead and skate off toward lift seven, her skis kicking up tiny arcs of light, dry snow in her wake.
Slamming my poles into the snow and pushing off hard, I follow her along the frozen San Miguel River past the descending gondola.
Midway down a run called The Plunge, I pause to take in the scenery as Erin throws herself off a cornice more than eight feet high. A huge amount of powder explodes around her as she lands. Emerging from the blast Erin is standing tall, one pole in the air and the other wide in front of her. A dozen or so yards later, stopping in another concussive wafting of light powder, Erin turns back to face me.
"Oh my God, Jack," she yells. "Did you see that?"
She points back at the cornice with a pole and lets loose a scream. "I've been going around that motherfucker since I got here."
Since she got here? Erin has been in Telluride for approximately two weeks, allowing for transportation. At least that's when we had what Erin termed "an important dialogue with regard to the future of our relationship." Sitting poolside on elaborate pieces of designer beach furniture in back of the Hotel Fenix on Sunset, Erin told me she needed some space. I suggested she go down to Cabo for a few days or maybe drive up to Big Sur.
Erin got up and stood at the rail on the other side of the kidney-shaped pool, looking down into the LA Basin.
"I think I need more than a few days, Jack."
"No problem," I said, starting to get extremely uncomfortable. "Take a week."
Turning my skis back into the fall line, I follow Erin off the cornice, picking a spot where it's about three feet high. Landing in my own small cloud of powder, I see Erin, her knees tight together, tearing down the zipper line in front of me. She rips off quick, precise turns over moguls the size of Volkswagens. Repeatedly, she falls forward, plants a pole into the hardened snow and slaps her skis into position for the next turn.
Trailing after Erin on the groomed half of the trail, I follow as she slips through the trees onto a newly-cut double black run named "Aces and Eights." After the first big turn, we pass a "Caution: Extreme Terrain" sign. From there, the mountain drops away sharply, and I get the feeling that if the actual pitch of the run could be determined from the spot where one commits to the descent, this run would remain largely unskied.
Dragging my poles behind me, I try to control my speed as the backs of my skis skid across the snow. When I start lifting the front tip of my uphill ski at the end of each turn just to get out of the fall line, I know I'm in over my head.
Soon, I catch an edge and lose all control of my right ski, which goes shooting off into the ether. I shift my weight and try to balance on my other ski, but I'm going too fast and the fall line is too complex. Within a tenth of a second, I have fallen backwards and am in the middle of an accident terrifyingly reminiscent of the ABC Wide World of Sports' "'Agony of Defeat"' credit sequence.
I see Erin from across the Sunset Room at the Miramax Christmas party. It's three years ago and she is standing in front of a theme-decorated Christmas tree. Because Miramax has just paid four hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for my script Salvation, I am being accorded all the customary attention and empty deference typically bestowed on the Flavor-of-the-Month.
I politely excuse myself from the meaningless, but highly enthusiastic praise, of a gaggle of vice presidents of production. Gladhanding my way across the room, I am reminded of the old Samuel Goldwyn quote: "'The most important thing in Hollywood is sincerity. If you can fake that, you can accomplish anything."'
Tall and radiant, Erin is fending off the clumsy advances of a junior agent from Innovative who looks like he's attended several more functions where alcohol was served than was judicious. When I introduce myself, the guy from Innovative, realizing that in the Left Coast pecking order he's at least six levels down, bails.
"'To the sellouts go the spoils," says the woman with whom I will cohabitate for the next thirty-six months. I often suspect my life would be different and, more likely than not, better, if I weren't invariably attracted to very bitchy women.
Upstairs at La Casita on Colorado Avenue, I'm reading Daily Variety and waiting for Erin. Between an exposé on corruption at Vivendi Universal and an interview with Jerry Bruckheimer's tailor, I start on my second Margarita and begin speculating on exactly how many beverages involving tequila one can wisely consume after ingesting fifteen milligrams of hydrocodone.
My orthopedist tells me that both my ACL and MCL now look like bra straps after a particularly libidinous prom night backseat grappling. The San Juan Trauma Center has provided me with stylish-looking brushed aluminum crutches. These enable me to manage an ungainly hobbling.
When I see Erin round the edge of the staircase, I jam my nose back into Variety and attempt to appear absorbed by last weekend's less than stellar box office.
"'Jack,"' Erin says. Approaching the table, she lifts Variety out of my hand and sets it down flat on the tablecloth.
"'Hi,"' I say.
Erin lowers herself into a chair and asks the waitress for a Pellegrino.
"'You're not going to be exactly enthused about what I've got to say,"' she tells me.
We look each other right in the eyes for almost a full thirty seconds, which — don't let anybody kid you — can be a really long time.
"'No,"' I say. "'I suspect that I won''t."'
"'I'm not coming back to Los Angeles."' Erin gives this a chance to settle and we each take a sip of our drinks.
"'You mean you're going back to Los Angeles, just not coming back to me,"' I say.
Erin looks at the wall like she's trying to consolidate a version of events to tell me.
"'You remember when I got that call from Evelyn at William Morris after the guest spot on Touched last year?"'
"'Yeah,"' I sigh.
"'Well, I didn't tell you, but I signed with William Morris and I've been cast in the new Vin Diesel movie. We're shooting for fourteen weeks in Bulgaria."'
"'I knew about that,"' I say. "'Roger gave me the play-by-play as it happened."'
Her face flushing, Erin sets down the Pellegrino bottle.
"'But that's not why you're leaving,"' I continue. "'You're not the kind of person who walks out on a relationship over something like that."'
"'You,"' Erin gets this out with a little difficulty and pauses, and I'm not sure what's coming next. But she adds only, "'knew."'
"'I knew,"' I confirm.
"'When you remember this, and you will, make sure you remember that you made me tell you."' Erin chokes a little. "'Remember you followed me out into the middle of nowhere and I tried not to tell you and you made me do it."'
I don't say anything. I look at my hands on the checker-printed tablecloth.
"'And I'm having an abortion."'
"'Erin,"' I say. "'No!"'
I imagine I have said this really much louder than I'd intended because everyone on the second floor of La Casita is looking toward our table.
"'Why?"' I start again. Erin now begins her own lengthy examination of the red checkered tablecloth.
"'Because I don't want to be connected to you like that."'
"'Because when I have a kid, I want to do it with someone?"'
Erin pauses. For a short moment the room seems oddly quiet. The she adds, "someone who's not trying so damn hard to be on their way down."'
When I look back up, Erin is pushing her chair back from the table. She is running her left hand through her platinum blonde hair. Her right hand is zippering her red and white Telluride instructor parka. Her teeth are gleaming whiter than the snow above the tree line and her mouth is saying, "'Goodbye."'
I try to get up to follow, but she takes the stairs briskly, her hand just dusting the narrow, wooden banister. Her aprés-ski clogs barely make a sound as she descends. I look over at the shiny metal crutches propped against the next table, down at my bandaged knee.
By the time I stand halfway up, my phone is ringing and I hear the spring-loaded door downstairs slam shut. I drop back down into the wooden armchair and answer the phone.
From his car, Roger tells me that a deal has been signed for Return of the Scorpion King to be penned by Stella Ward, who's just finished the latest James Bond project for MGM. There's a lot of background noise and Roger yells that he's trapped at a red light in Pacific Palisades behind some asshole in a Bentley. Roger adds that furthermore, if I don't accept the Elfin Warriors job by noon, it will go to Matt Strickland, who, since Thursday, he is also representing.
"'I think that once you read the pilot,"' he says. "'You'll really like it."'
"'Tell me the truth about one thing, Roger,"' I ask. "'Was I ever really in the running to write the Scorpion King sequel?"'
"'Better chance of seeing Spike Lee at a Klan rally."'
Not even shaking my head, I turn to look out the small white-frame window, down onto Telluride's quaint Victorian main street. I watch a quartet of week-a-year ski bums in their bone white ski suits push past a tangle of dreadlocked Trust-a-Farians. I swish the remaining ice around in my Margarita glass one final time before swallowing the tiny, cool cylinders like pills. I take a deep breath and tell Roger to please communicate to the producers just how truly thrilled I am to be a part of a project as exciting as Elfin Warriors.
Damian Dressick earned an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh where their thesis advisors were Lewis Nordan, winner of the American Library Association's Notable Book Award for his novel Lightning Songand Chuck Kinder, author of The Honeymooners and the inspiration for the character Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon's novel and the Curt Hanson film Wonder Boys. Damian is currently shopping around his first novel.