Continuing a short story from a collection I wrote around the turn of the century. In part 1: It’s September, 1999, and Pamela is the producer of a hit TV show — the only hit on a crappy network, which just won an Emmy. But that didn’t stop the network from deciding that this would be the last season, and the show ends in May, 2000. Also, keep your eyes peeled for an appearance by someone you may have met a couple of Saturdays ago in another short story from this collection.
The last season came together and Pamela had managed to talk Vince and Mister out of their stupider ideas — no, she was not going to have a disgruntled ex-employee blow up the family’s church during services in the penultimate episode leading into the sweeps month two-hour series finale, nor have the oldest son come out as gay. “This show is not Sunset Circle,” she’d told them in response to that one, taking one last swipe at Chuck and Cindy and their show, which had been renewed. Again.
At least she managed to talk them into giving two of the daughters less than happy endings. In the back of her mind, these were her secret spin-off seeds that might bear fruit later.
But as May rolled around, it was time for that annual ritual, the wrap party, that was always at its most maudlin when it happened for the final time.
She stood by the bar at the Century Club, Althea and Oded at her side, holding court as one network exec after another came by to say how sad they were that Father’s Daughters was over. She smiled, shook their hands, pretended to accept their condolences, knowing exactly which ones had voted her down. The grand finale aired in two days, the writers’ offices had long since been abandoned and the studio space was already re-rented and being re-tooled for a new show. This party was a footnote, but an obligatory one, the official wake for the corpse that was already decomposing.
The actors were avoiding her, the ones that had bothered to show up. A cast of seven regulars and three top-of-show recurring roles, and four of them weren’t there. The leading lady, the oldest daughter, middle daughter’s boyfriend and the wise-beyond his years teenage son, all missing in action. So was a big chunk of the crew and half of the writing staff. That would never have happened before, not in the days when she had everybody walking on eggshells to keep their jobs. But that power had been broken. She couldn’t fire people who didn’t work for her anymore.
The exec parade petered out and Pamela finished her drink — club soda — and Oded took her glass unbidden, heading to the bar for refills. Pamela wasn’t paying attention to him, though. She rarely did. She was wondering where her son had snuck off to, then she looked at her daughter.
Althea was brooding, face down, looking bored out of her skull. She’d been doing that a lot lately. Pamela had tried everything to snap her out of it — a shopping trip to the original Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, a new car, tickets and a backstage pass to an N’Sync concert, a spa-day makeover. Nothing worked. She’d never thought of things like family counseling or Prozac, not for any of them, because they weren’t that kind of family. They were a happy family, an ideal family, Pamela was convinced of that. They were the family that rarely existed in the real world, the old-time, traditional, fully functional TV family. There were no flaws here, none that Pamela could see.
“Isn’t this a great party?” she said to Althea.
“Can we go?” Althea muttered.
“In a while,” Pamela answered. “I kind of have to be here, you know.”
Althea rolled her eyes, sighed.
“Hey, tomorrow, why don’t you and I go to Tiffany — “
“I’m busy tomorrow.”
“You know, somebody has a birthday coming up,” Pamela sing-songed. “Have you made your list yet?”
“No.” Althea glanced up, on the edge of saying something, but then she looked down again, shook her head, started to walk away. “I’m going to dance.”
And Pamela was reaching after her, but Althea had blasted off and was already halfway to the dance floor. “Why don’t you dance with Oded?” she called out, but it was buried in the noise from the DJ and the thousand schmoozy conversations. That was the real function of one of these parties, she knew. Finding the next job. Nobody was here for her.
Nobody, goddammit. Nobody. The few of her own people who’d bothered to show weren’t even coming to this corner. She could see all the writers’ assistants huddled on the balcony, looking down at the dance floor, glum. Her story editors were off with Chuck, laughing and joking.
Her co-executive producer wasn’t here yet, but that was par for the course. It always took that woman four hours to get ready to go anywhere, and it was amazing she ever found designer-anything for these affairs in her size, which was thirty-four if it was a day. Still, Steph was the only one Pamela could trust, the one who was always letting her know who was out to get her, the one confirming rumors that would otherwise have just been paranoia.
“I’m worried about so-an-so” coming from Steph’s lips was usually the thin end of the wedge that would always end, a few weeks later, in somebody else getting fired. She was a good person to have around.
But, until she got here, Pamela was standing alone by the bar in the Century Club, feeling isolated in the darkness, waiting for the proper obeisance to be paid. She remembered some old movie line, some Chinese actor, saying “I see a room full of empty people.” That was certainly true. Empty, and apparently blind.
Oded returned, handed her the glass. She looked at it, thrust it back to him.
“Where’s the goddamn ice?” she snapped.
Oded shot back to the bar without a word.
Her life had been perfect for TV. She’d lived one sitcom after another, wound up in a one-hour drama, ending in a heartwarming family show. Her first husband had been a soldier, her high school boyfriend. She’d married him in a fit of panic before he shipped off to Viet Nam. God, whenever she thought about that, she felt so old.
By the time he’d come back two years later, she’d really grown cold on him, but they were married, after all, and he came with benefits — medical insurance, housing. He’d also come out of the war relatively unscathed, decision made to become a career soldier.
But it had turned into a strange marriage of convenience a few years later, when she caught him with that Navy boy — and didn’t really care. Roger had freaked out, but she told him they had a pretty nice arrangement. She got to live a lot of places, meet a lot of people. He got to have the show wife, obligatory for an officer. And necessary, to cover up other activities, which could have led to a court martial and dishonorable discharge. But, naturally, if he was fooling around, there was no reason for her not to. She’d always wanted children.
Roger never knew that Walter was actually his. It had been a very strange night, after a very rough year. Pamela had been pregnant — that one belonged to a very nice young Sergeant who worked with Roger at the DOD — but then she had a miscarriage. That had been at Thanksgiving. Then, about a week later, Roger came in, drunk, depressed. She’d been inside all day, hadn’t watched the news, so she had no idea.
But he was crying and started drinking everything in the house. Then he lay on the sofa next to her, put his head in her arms. She stroked his hair and he kept crying, then he suddenly sat up, turned and kissed her, jamming his tongue in her mouth. God, they hadn’t done that since high school.
Suddenly, he was all over her, which was strange, but she didn’t stop him. He pulled off her clothes with silent need, dragged her into the bedroom while pulling off his own, then threw her on the bed and climbed on top.
Pamela was amazed. She had never been fucked with such desperate energy before, or as roughly. Roger was pounding her like uncooked Chicken Kiev, headboard slamming into the wall, and then he ripped the fitted sheet off the bed as he clutched it in orgasmic spasm, elastic snapping into Pamela’s shoulders as Roger shuddered out a groan, then rolled off of her.
He didn’t remember a thing in the morning, and she never reminded him. But she would never forget the night that Walter was conceived. How could anyone of her generation ever forget the date December 8, 1980?
Just to make sure, she didn’t see the young sergeant again until the doctor told her she was pregnant. But she never told Roger that he was the baby’s father. Better that way. Yes, officially, Walter was Roger’s son. But the emotional value of Roger not knowing that would help if any future arguments about those sorts of things came up.
Althea was definitely not his, and Pamela didn’t have to withhold any information to assure him of it. That night in December was the one and only time she and her first husband had ever had sex. One single incident in nearly twenty years.
And then it was over, divorce finally granted not long before Roger suddenly “retired” from the military. She always knew there was something funny about that, him leaving the service at the ripe old age of thirty-nine after an abrupt three pay-grade promotion, and with a ridiculous pension.
But they’d made a deal. Roger would never try to see Walter, and Pamela would release all rights to any of his benefits. She hadn’t been living with him for about five years at that point, anyway. She’d already moved out to Los Angeles. She ran into Roger once, after the divorce, saw him getting out of a brand-new BMW — a seven series, not a three, meaning he really had money, he wasn’t just pretending. They chatted briefly, he mentioned his house in Laurel Canyon, which he’d just bought. So, maybe Pamela had gotten the short end on that one.
But that didn’t matter. It freed her up to marry Dennis, finally. It was about time, since they’d been together for four years already. The kids needed a father in the house, and Dennis repaired motorcycles for a living, out of the garage. Sure, it was a little blue collar, but it gave her time, so she could take a job as a production assistant for a TV show and work insane hours. But some day, she hoped, it would be worth it.
Apparently, though, she wasn’t the only one working long hours. She’d found that out when she went to look for a screwdriver in the garage one night, opened the toolbox and a plastic bag fell off the bottom of the worktable, splitting open on the floor, spattering white powder across her feet.
She could smell it from here and knew what it was, and she went ballistic. Nobody was going to endanger her children like that. If the cops raided the place, arrested them both, what would happen to the kids?
When Dennis returned that evening, she dragged him out to the garage, pointed at the debris on the floor and said one word. “Bye.” That night, she had a twenty-four-hour locksmith change everything. The next morning, she called a lawyer to arrange one divorce and one arrest. As soon as she was absolutely sure she wouldn’t get into any legal trouble by reporting what was in the garage, she called the police, told them the story and they found Dennis three hours later. Of course, that hadn’t been difficult. He was already in custody, picked up for drunk driving the night before.
By that point, she’d maneuvered over to a position as writer’s assistant on a hit half-hour sitcom. It was an easier show than most, because every episode was written by the producer. He didn’t have a writing staff. He didn’t need one. The man seemed to work twenty-four hours a day, and he was funny, pulling off elaborate verbal riffs in dialogue that just kept building and building on jokes until it all just exploded in a brilliant comedy gut-punch right before the act out. He’d been doing that for two seasons now, solo, with no sign of slowing down.
Then, one day, he suddenly had her calling writer’s agents, setting up meetings. And he farmed out a script to an up-and-coming twenty-two-year-old. And then another, two in seven weeks. By the middle of the season, he was wondering aloud to Pamela whether he should hire a writing staff next season. By the time they got picked up for another two seasons and had eight shows left to shoot for this one, he offered her a script. Of course she said yes, despite having no experience, which she admitted — but he just told her that never stopped anyone else in this business.
And suddenly, Pamela had become a TV writer and climbed up a rung, and she became a staff writer the next season and she never knew why the producer had suddenly changed his ways. She wasn’t in the gossip loop. Yet.
She never would know that the man had been one of Dennis’ clients, and the arrest had spooked him out of all his bad habits.
That falling bag had been her big break in more ways than one.
* * *