Director's Cut Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By Stef Donati

Director’s Cut: Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By Stef Donati

In “Director’s Cut” by Stef Donati, every actor wants a starring role. Not every actor gets one.

The more the road curves, the fiercer the gale. Keith Pelkey’s sedan is actually trembling. He steers hard to the right, but the gale fights back, thrusting him to the double line. Jesus. Good thing it’s a side road, late Sunday afternoon, or he might cause a pile-up. Cranking the Metallica on the radio almost eases his nerves. Another mile and this mountain will flatten out, the absence of guard rails will stop being a worry. Home, Keith Pelkey and his wife can assemble lasagna from the ingredients he’s bringing from town.

Past the worst curve, Keith sights a hitchhiker. But not only a hitchhiker. Walking backward, it’s…tall and gaunt, thumb up, blond stubble and flannel shirt and no jacket…yes it is. Alan Clark.

Keith almost veers off the cliff, this time not because of the gale. Alan Clark, with the neck tattoo and that swagger. No question it’s him. Keith has heard he still lives around here. Alan Clark, who in college called Keith ‘chubster’ at parties, filched his clothes from the dorm’s dryer, pinned him to his bed and poured rancid milk down his throat. Alan Clark, whose pitching arm meant expulsion was impossible. Alan Clark, now needing a ride.

Keith almost veers off the cliff, this time not because of the gale.

Keith smiles. No other cars. Even the nearest ranch house lies a half-mile up the road. With this gale pushing so hard, nobody…nobody could prove, not even Keith to himself, these next seconds to be anything but an accident.

How would it feel?

He must decide now: extend Alan a middle finger while stranding him, or briefly stop to make the fool think he’s getting a ride. Or…

Keith veers toward his old nemesis, sees those cold eyes widen. A rumble and a scream before Keith straightens course, fast. Exhaling, in his rear-view he sees the absence of Alan. Jerk’s only chance was to leap from the mountain, and that’s what he did, and he’s plunging now to his death. Keith can’t slow to look; someone might happen by, end up reporting his car’s presence at the scene. Keith counts his breaths, checks his expression in the mirror. Bland as always. Blasting the Metallica helps.

Hours later, with the lasagna half-eaten and his wife finally asleep, Keith Pelkey tiptoes downstairs to catch the local news. The lead story blares his crime, yes, but not his identity. There’s sobbing from Alan’s mother and stepdad. Mid-story, for a moment, Keith can hear only the thump of his heart.

For the next year, Keith Pelkey guards his secret. At the office, or running errands with his wife, he maintains his routine, does nothing to risk provoking the question, “What’s gotten into you lately?” Alas, Keith maintains that routine a little too well. It devolves into such a rut—alongside his bland mood—that his wife ends up leaving him.

 

I read the script to the end. The resemblance of my own name to Keith Pelkey’s was a detail I shrugged off. The name of the writer/director shook me more. Decades ago, Evan

Leunig had been a first-tier indie filmmaker, with two Oscar nominations. So given my seventh-

tier resume, I was stunned by his sending me this screenplay, then following with a call. The third time he stated his name, I accepted this was him. Not a prank.  “It must be acknowledged,” Leunig said, in the brusque tone that had rattled many a veteran actor, “you’re overdue for a starring role. Meet me for lunch. One o’clock, at the Tipsy Wizard.”

Starring role.

I managed an “I’ll be there” that sounded only somewhat befuddled.

I spent the next hour researching. Of course I’d heard the legends about Leunig’s temper, but reading his bio taught me of his zeal for accuracy. Verisimilitude, as he put it. When filming his last movie, a western of all things, he’d insisted that his actors bathe only every fifth day. Even that frequency was, in his view, “a coddling of today’s thespian-nobodies.” I could almost hear his contempt. True cowboys, he’d said, used to go weeks between washings.

But if he hired me, he wouldn’t regret it. This Keith Pelkey character? I’d play him subdued. Faintly haunted. Leunig might berate me in read-throughs, demand endless takes of the shot in which Pelkey simply lifted a salad fork, but I and my bank account could stop starving. And Leunig would be a big name again.

The Tipsy Wizard was near the pet shop where I worked, learning lines in between cleaning out cages. I arrived at the Tipsy by taxi—Leunig’s glimpsing my rusty pick-up, or hearing its punctured muffler, would hinder any scant bargaining power I might have—and strutted inside with the charisma of a young Joaquin Phoenix. I hoped.

I found Leunig already at a back booth, far past the meager lunch crowd and the overhead TV on which the Blazers were readying to play Philly. In person, the formerly great filmmaker’s doughy face was haggard, and his reddish hair had gone white. One shot glass before him was empty, while another lay in wait. His girth extended almost into Idaho. Lucky bastard. Because they work off-camera, writer-directors can grow bellies without endangering their careers. Weird, though, his blinking upon my approach.

He had expected someone else. That must be it. Confused my phone number with some older, established actor’s.

But no. He greeted me by name, ordered me a Thirsty Dog as if he’d known me in my drinking days. Next he lauded each performance of my paltry career. His favorite, he claimed, was my work as the folksy neighbor in Angels Are Genderless. I fought off a frown. That role had consisted of three measly lines, one guffaw, and a pratfall off a porch. Was Evan Leunig messing with me? That would fit his nature. But why bother?

No preamble, no comment on the looming rainstorm, not even an explanation for the urgency of this meeting. “You’ve almost won the part.”

Already?

“Understand,” he continued, “from non-speaking extras to the leads, before I cast a movie, background checks are de rigueur.”

Background checks.

I sat very still. The waitress delivered the Thirsty Dog I had vowed not to touch. Once she was gone, I tried humor. “Okay, Mr. Leunig, I’m coming clean. Last winter I got a speeding ticket, and I haven’t paid it.” I smiled, too much like a baby with gas.

His own smile was thin. “A speeding ticket. Nothing worse, ever?”

Barks of laughter from faraway tables. “No,” I said. “Nothing.”

Leunig sat back. “Truly, you have a marvelous affinity for this character. Like him, you’re outwardly poised. Also like him, you never reported your great crime.”

Cheers from the bar, plus a guitar solo on the jukebox so loud that I shuddered. “Crime,”

I said.

“Crime,” Leunig said.

Directors expect verve and obedience and nimble thinking, all at once. The best mixture I managed was, “Go ahead. Tell me what you think I did.”

A sad look. Authentic? He himself had once been an actor. “Two years ago,” he said, “a man started stalking your fiancée. Michaela, yes? Leaving crude messages on her cell, loitering by her apartment at all hours.”

Memories surged, harder than in months. Michaela’s tremors each time her cell buzzed or she found a love note on her windshield. Our sleepless nights. The failed auditions, hers and mine, over and over, until my career attained mediocrity while hers continued going nowhere. The—

“Some nights,” Evan Leunig was saying, “even with you there…isn’t this so?… the

stalker and his car remained outside Michaela’s bedroom window until dawn. Frightening you both.” Before I could deny it, Leunig added, “One morning, you manned up. For several dogged miles, you trailed the creep. In his Pendleton apartment, you confronted him. Alas, the confrontation entailed so much force that by the time you left, this monster was no longer alive. Was he?”

A chorus of groans, even a boo. I almost sipped my drink. Instead I kept my voice low. “Who told you this story? Not Michaela.”

An imperious headshake. “No, not Michaela. The private detective I hired.”

A private detective. Jesus, this man thought the world was a movie set. This time I took a sip. Had his detective turned up how withdrawn Michaela became, once I’d explained to her why

her stalker would never again be a bother? Had this detective turned up how goddamn much I

missed her?

“Back to my script,” Evan Leunig said, “and your fitness for this role. Keith Pelkey’s

crime was both righteous and spontaneous; so was yours. To an outsider, his life seemed unchanged; so did yours. Then his mate deserted him; so did yours.” He rolled his tongue, like a lizard spying a spider.

I surprised myself then, with my words and my glare. I needed this job, any job, and here I was saying, “Listen. If this is a blackmail threat, Michaela’s stalker won’t be the only one dead.”

Leunig’s eyes gleamed. “Delightful! Two years since the murder, and the wariness that came from it, and still your violent streak can be tapped into.”

I leaned close. Get too loud for even a second, and the whole bar—the whole world—

would learn what I had done. “I never meant to kill the guy.”

“Exactly. Just as your character never meant to kill his old schoolmate. Not truly. And you both have eluded justice for years, while your consciences gnaw at you.”

Your character. As if my hiring was settled. Which maybe it was. Since Leunig knew of my past, he also must know of my present. The overdue rent, the pick-up riddled with rust.

I pushed aside thoughts of a fat paycheck, of future roles it could lead to. I slid from the booth and I stood, as menacing as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. “Don’t call me again.”

“Brashness and rashness and pain. Why, you’re almost perfect for this role.” Leunig’s eyes gleamed again. “Sit. Hear out the rest of my offer.”

“No.”

“Then I’ll contact the police.”

The cheers from the bar seemed ear-splitting and yet whisper-quiet. I reseated myself,

almost missing the booth.

“The role of Keith Pelkey itself,” Leunig said, “will be only moderately remunerative.

But there’s another job first. It pays two hundred thousand dollars—half right now, half once you accomplish what you’ve so far merely threatened.”

Two hundred thousand. Enough for a dialect coach and a top agent, for quitting the day job in favor of auditions anywhere, anytime.

“What I’ve ‘threatened,’” I echoed. “Ending your life?” Except that made no sense.

“Gracious, no. But you’re warm.”

I breathed. I breathed twice. “Someone else’s life.” I caught the slight nod. “Whose, and why?”

“First, the ‘why.’ The part of Keith Pelkey calls for shame, bravery, and a certain cold-bloodedness. You felt all of these, didn’t you, while killing your fiancée’s stalker? Almost perfect, as I said. But to best summon those emotions, you’ll want a refresher. Or did I overestimate you?” As I searched for a reply, Leunig reached under the table. Crooking an arm to ward off two patrons passing by, he brought out a stack of cash thicker than a triple cheeseburger. He flipped through a series of hundreds, then slid the stack toward me. He pulled it away the instant I tried pouncing. Fine. The matter of payment was satisfactorily answered.

With this kind of cash, I might win Michaela back.

She was worth any crime. Wasn’t she? Our mutual encouragement in those early months, her patience as I practiced lines, the hand-drawn cards we surprised each other with, even the silly riddles she shared over and over. I should never have told her about my having killed—

“Okay,” I said. “You’ve stated the ‘why.’ And the who?”

Gnarled fingers dug into the table’s edge. “My wife Harriet. A much…” Leunig’s face

softened, and I reminded myself of his early days in front of the camera. “A much better person than you or I.”

I waited. “But…?”

“But cancer.” He palmed his chin. “It’s begun eating her. The sunken eyes, the frame wasting away, the decent days getting fewer and fewer…”  He reached to his shirt pocket, halted, brought out a photograph. As I marveled at the very idea of Evan Leunig caring about a fellow human, he said, “Look. Look at my wife.”

I did. Frail, fifties or sixties, with wisps of brown hair, a wan smile, the hollow gaze of

the doomed. I glanced away, cursing myself. By researching this man’s filmmaking career, I thought I had prepared. If he asked, I would remark on each work’s flaws, to demonstrate I was no suck-up. But his private life? I had left that alone.

He was lying. I didn’t know why, but he was lying. Had to be. “Tough break,” I said, shoving the photo back toward him.

“Improvise.”

“What?”

“Improvise, son! Test my story.”

I thought, as fast as I was able. I drew out my cell and typed the name Harriet Leunig, knowing there might be a dozen Harriet Leunigs in this world. But only one needed to be his wife. Up came two short articles on her Stage IV lung cancer, plus photos of her arm-in-arm with the man facing me. The psychopath holding my future in his hands.

I stared from him to the photos and back. Terminal. As cheers rained down behind me, I grasped the booth’s edge for security. Stalling. I would only be hurrying along his wife’s fate.

Ending pain, hardly causing it. For both of them.

And for me.

It was not just the money. The emotions Leunig had mentioned, the shame and bravery

and cold-bloodedness unique to a killing and its aftermath…he was right. To do this juicy character justice, I needed a refresher.

But Michaela, and her stalker…I wanted no part of those memories freshened. As Leunig cupped his Scotch—a finer drink than the Thirsty Dog he had ordered for me—I resisted one last time. “Your wife,” I said, blending a Jack Nicholson-esque growl with a Christopher

Walken-esque cadence. “Kill her yourself.”

“I’ve tried.” He dabbed an eyelid. “So many nights, as she’s slept, I’ve raised a pillow to her head. But for all the amazingness of our twenty-nine years together, in her last seconds she might misunderstand: ‘He’s doing this for himself,’ she’ll think, ‘not for me. I’ve wearied him that much.’”

“Would she be right?”

He lifted his glass, set it back down. “Some nights, I wonder.”

It wasn’t my marriage. And from under the table, that heap of money kept peeking.

“My thought?” he said. “A surprise bullet would be the swiftest, the kindest, demise. How about you?”

A bullet. He must have also learned I owned a handgun. I leaned close enough to smell his liquor. “If I kill her, I get the part? Guaranteed?”

He’d flinched on the ‘kill.’ That could be more acting.

Or it could be love.

Soon as he nodded, my throat became cotton. I flashed back. My gloved hands around the

neck of Michaela’s stalker, the wheezes, the thud as he toppled over a lamp onto carpet. His eyes

that wouldn’t move, wouldn’t move, wouldn’t move.

Yes, a bullet should be easier. But Leunig still deserved warning. “We go through with

this,” I said, “and you’ll have nightmares.”

“I’m prepared.”

I doubted that. I could pretend my career, pitiful though it was, was what had cost me Michaela’s love. The five lines in Angels, my turn as a pineapple in a cereal ad, had made her jealous. But really the cause was my killing her stalker.

Michaela. These days, so I’d heard, she was flubbing lines at every audition. Residual trauma. Getting no callbacks at all.

Would I get one from her, if I tried reaching her?

“In an hour…”

I glanced up. The old man across from me was mopping his brow. Even at that, too naïve to comprehend all he was asking for. Paying for. “In an hour,” he said, “my Harriet will finish today’s weekly volunteer stint at the hospital. Reading to sick children. Yes, even sick herself, she is that amazing.” He stared past me. “To recover, and to brood, she rests a while in the park afterward.”

“Not today. The rainstorm’s hitting soon.”

“She loves a good rain. And you’ll love having no witnesses.”

I wanted him to yell “Cut!” I wanted his wife to emerge from the bar, healthy and angry at how well her husband had conned me. But also I wanted this new life I could taste.

“It must be today,” Leunig said. “Before you or I reconsider.”

Had I accepted the job?

“Do I use my own gun?” I was accepting it now. Leaning forward, grabbing and

pocketing all the cash he extended.

One clean shot, from behind. Through the back of her skull. Painless.

And  the woman’s cancer was real. I had the written and visual proof.

I scanned the whole bar for eavesdroppers. If any existed, I still could back out, claim we’d been play-acting. But they all were caught up in their game. I turned back to Leunig. “What if I’m seen?”

“In that rain? She’ll be the only one there.” He swept imaginary crumbs from the table. “But you’re right. Keep your eyes peeled just in case. And…” He slid a briefcase toward me. “Also use this. Character props I’ve collected. A moustache, wigs, eyeglasses. Select the disguise you prefer.”

And throw it all away, after.

“You’re confident I can do this.”

He seemed to hesitate, then cleared his throat. “With all the parties who’ll benefit? Yes, I am.”

Still no one watching. “Your other actors,” I said. “Do they know you have this human side?”

His saddest smile. “Don’t let on.”

At home I chose Coke-bottle eyeglasses, a blond wig, stomach and shoulder padding. Perfect.

###      ###      ###

Same as it had done for Keith Pelkey, for me the late news led with a dead body. The

correspondent’s umbrella deflected the rain. A young woman had been found shot dead in the

park. No identification yet, and no suspects.

Dammit.

A second news channel issued a similar report.

Dammit to hell. I pressed OFF and sat rigid on my couch. Punching the number, I almost fumbled my phone.

Somebody answered. In case it wasn’t Leunig, at first I said nothing. But the “What a day” was clearly his voice.

“Bastard. Did you watch the news?”

“I did.”

“Then you heard the description!”

“Please don’t shout,” he murmured. “Harriet’s asleep in the next room.”

“Exactly! Asleep, and not dead. Young, Leunig. I killed the wrong person!”

“No, you didn’t. Yes, my wife has cancer. But…” Was it weeping I heard? “But I just can’t lose her yet.”

“So who did I—”

“Someone I’d promised to meet in that park.” His voice cleared. “A wannabe. I’d said I had a role for her, so at least she died hopeful.”

I choked my phone. “Michaela?

“Hate me now,” he said. “You’ll thank me at the Oscars.”

*****

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