The Reel

A Short Story by Charles Alverson

They say that if you give the public what it really wants, they'll turn out in droves. Well, they must have wanted B.J. Morris dead because, behind its overwrought-iron gates, Forest Lawn was bulging at the seams with droves of the unwashed. It had taken both my press card and a double sawbuck even to get to an outer ring of Hell from which Morris's flower-engulfed coffin was reduced to mortal size. To my surprise I found Wally Burns, B.J.'s dog robber, there, too.
'I'd have thought you'd be down there having to be restrained from joining Phyllis on the funeral pyre,' I said.
'My job ended when B.J. did,' Wally said. 'And even if it hadn't, my contract explicitly excluded suttee.'
'How could you work for that son of a bitch,' I asked. 'What was it-thirty years?'
'Nearly. When you got to know him, B.J. was a lovable little guy-in his own way. Growing up in the desert the other side of Barstow, I used to keep pet scorpions. You could get to like them. Same thing with B.J.'
'Better you than me. Nobody knows how you stuck it.'
'We came to an agreement early on. He didn't push me too hard, and I didn't knock him on his ass. At least not after the first time.' He returned his eyes to the crowd below. 'B.J. certainly got a four-star turn out. I've seen about every face who ever worked for him. And a lot who thought B.J. was only a myth.'
'Maybe they didn't believe he was dead. There was a guy doing great business in sharpened stakes outside the gate.'
Wally's eyes stopped traversing the crowd. 'I don't believe it,' he said.
'What? Has B.J. changed his mind?'
'Evelyn Steward is here.'
'Where?' I demanded.
'Down there to the left of the magenta stretch hearse. In the beige suit.'
I could see her, but barely. 'What could be more natural?' I said. 'Hollywood's queen of class comes to say good riddance to the king of schlock.'
"Forget I said anything.'
But my nose for news was working overtime.
'You're talking about the Reel,' I said. 'So the fabled B.J. Morris Reel existed.'
'Of course it did,' Wally said. ' B.J. and I used to watch it sometimes after a long day of destroying promising careers.'
'You prick,' I said.
'Tell me you would have passed up the chance to see the most famous actresses in Hollywood going down on B.J. Morris. Before-that is-they became famous. Look me in the eye and tell me that.'
'I can't,' I said. 'I've been hearing about B.J's fabulous Reel since I got off the bus from Pittsburgh. Where is it now?'
'I burnt it,' Wally said.
'You burnt it?'
Wally's thin lips turned up in a smile. Yeah. How's that for sacrilege?
'It's worse than that. Do you have any idea how much that reel was worth?'
'About half as much as the Mona Lisa, he said. 'Priceless. That's partly why I burnt it. That and B.J.'s explicit orders. When the news flash came that B.J. had gone to cheat his maker, I high-tailed it down to the Mega lot, opened the safe, took out the reel-by that time it was on video tape-burnt it, cleared out my desk and that was that.'
'You didn't take one last look at it?'
'No. And you wouldn't have, either, if you'd seen the last entry.'
'The Evelyn Steward bit?'
'I didn't say that.'
'Yes, you did. Tell me about it.'
'You don't want to know.'
'I do. Who can it hurt? The reel is gone.'
'Yes, the reel is gone. B.J. is gone,' Wally said.
'So, tell me.'
Wally seemed to weigh the idea in his head and suddenly said: 'All right. But in strict confidence. Promise?'
'Promise.' And I meant it.
'You know the set-up in B.J.'s office?'
'Not intimately.'
'Well, action central was just in front of his desk. On the wall to the right was a photo of that dog of a race horse B.J. bought, a couple of decent French impressionists and so on. Well, low on the wall was an elaborate collage of shattered glass.'
'I vaguely remember. '
'Behind that collage at about hip level-B.J.'s hip level-was the camera. And on the back of B.J.'s desk was a little button which started it working.. The routine on the reel was pretty much the same. You'd be looking at B.J.'s office from the viewpoint of that collage, and B.J. would be saying something like: "Little girl, I think you've got a great future ahead of you at Mega" As he was saying this, B.J. would come into shot unzipping his flies. Out would come the McGuffin,' and B.J. would go on: 'All you have to do is grasp this opportunity.'
'That's what he called it? An opportunity?' I asked.
'Among other things.'
'And he just stood there with his dick out?'
'And he just stood there,' Wally agreed, 'ready for action.'
'And he got it?'
'And you burnt it?'
'I thought you didn't approve of sexual exploitation,' Wally said.
'I don't,' I said, but my hand wasn't on a bible at the time.
'And you wouldn't want it to be generally known that a great many of the stars-to-be of the silver screen had to-shall I say-oblige B.J. Morris in order to kick-start their careers? For instance: Mary diGennaro.
'The saintly Mother Superior from 'The Wall is High'?
'None other,' Wally said.
"Of course not,' I said indignantly. 'Do you think I'm a rat?'
'Of course not,' Wally said. 'But you wouldn't have minded a little peek, would you?'
'Possibly not,' I admitted. 'But how did Evelyn Steward come to be the last girl to star on B.J.'s reel?'
'You still don't want to know.'
'Sure, I do,' I said. 'Look, this clambake is going to last forever and it will take even longer to get out. You might as well tell me.'
Wally sighed deeply and said: 'Okay, it was like this: B.J. had been compiling his reel for years. B.J. had a fair eye for talent, but he had a far better eye for pussy. And you know how much a two-year contract with Mega really meant, don't you?'
'Half nothing.'
'Less than that. Besides, B.J. wasn't paying. The studio was.'
'He really was a bastard, wasn't he?'
'Yeah, and the earth is round,' Wally said. "Am I telling this story or not?'
'Tell it.'
'Well, it must have been nearly 10 years ago-1990, I think. I'd been out on the Burbank back lot. I got back to the studio just as they were putting B.J. into an ambulance. Through gritted teeth, he whispered: "Wally, the reel. The reel." And then they whisked him away to the hospital. So I dashed up to his office. There was blood everywhere: on the carpet, on the ceiling, Even on his autographed framed photograph of Jesus Christ. It looked as though somebody had been disembowling horses in there. Then I opened the panel into the little cubbyhole which held the camera, stopped it, and ran it back to that day's audition.'
'Starring Evelyn Steward,' I said.
"I'm telling this,' Wally said severely. Then he continued. 'There was nothing unusual about the scene. The wide-angle lens showed Evelyn sitting on the sofa, and B.J. was just coming around his desk. By the time he got action central, the best part of him was out and looking perky. And B.J. was into his "grasp this great opportunity" spiel.
'But the most interesting thing was the expression on Evelyn's face. Talk about emotions chasing each other. Amazement, disbelief, shock, distaste, disdain, amusement and-finally-determination crossed her lovely face faster than you could name them.
'Finally, Evelyn spoke: "Are you sure that's what you want, Mr. Morris?" she asked.
'"Of course, darling," B.J. panted,'
'It may be a cliche, but Evelyn sprang toward him like a panther. Just as suddenly, B.J. screamed, arched back and flew backwards over his desk. Evelyn backed out of shot quickly. Screams, sobs and moans came from off camera. And they weren't coming from Evelyn.
'But the most amazing thing was that Evelyn came back into shot, leaned directly toward the camera and gave it a smile and a deliberate wink. She then dabbed some blood from her chin with a handkerchief, threw it on the desk and walked out of camera range without a backward look at B.J.'
'Jesus Christ!' I exclaimed.
'Yeah,' Wally grinned, 'it sort of gets you right there, doesn't it. B.J. was in the hospital for a couple of days. Evelyn went on to screen canonization. That's the whole story.'
'No, it isn't,' I said. 'You said that Evelyn Steward was the last entry in B.J.'s reel. What did he do-change his tactics?'
'You could say that,' Wally said. 'After that, B.J. wouldn't risk putting it in anything that might possibly have teeth. And he couldn't even bring himself to watch the reel again, much less the Evelyn Steward show. I won't say the experience made him a moral man, but it certainly made him cautious.'
'Well, Wally,' I said, 'I wouldn't have believed it from anyone but you.
'You heard it from the horse's ass, pal,' said Wally. 'Keep it under your saddle.' And he wandered away to share his grief with other Hollywood veterans.
My old high school football coach have been proud of the way I broke through that mob to get to Evelyn Steward. Pregnant women, grannies, old men on Zimmer frames, I stepped on them all, and soon I was as close to her as I am to you. She still had the kind of glow a camera loves.
Something told me that she was going to leave soon, so I went in for the kill. 'Miss Steward,' I said, 'Bill Blades of the Hollywood Observer.'
She smiled at me pleasantly.
'Hello, Bill. How is Wally?'
'Relieved and gay to be freed from penal servitude,' I said.
'I suppose he destroyed it.' That would have been cryptic to anyone but me-and Wally.
'Yes,' I said.
'That's good,' she said. 'If you see him again, please give him my regards. He's a very nice man, despite the company he kept. What was it you wanted from me?'
'I was wondering, Miss Steward, if you could say, in just a few words, what B.J. Morris meant to your Hollywood career?'
She thought for a few moments, gave me that enchanting smile again and said: 'I suppose you could say that I will always be grateful to the late B.J. Morris for presenting me with a part I could really get my teeth into. Will that do?' And she nearly winked.
It would do, all right. But it would confuse the hell out of those nitpickers who realize that Evelyn Steward never, ever made a picture for B. J. Morris.

2000 Charles Alverson

Author: Charles Alverson chas@eunet.yu Agent: Lora Fountain