Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013
I was in Clark County Correctional for armed robbery, and I was mixed up in armed robbery because I ran with the wrong types, and I ran with the wrong types because I was caught picking the pocket of someone who organized lowlifes like me into a profitable crime ring. I don’t remember why I started picking pockets. But it was the easiest money on The Strip. The house was always supposed to win, but if you rolled out of the Golden Nugget with a winning look on your face, I would gladly put you back in the red. Anyway, I was part of his crew for nearly twenty years. It was not glamorous. I don’t doubt that busboys and garbage men enjoy a better class of women than I ever did. You don’t rest long enough to figure this out until you’re locked up.
I escaped from Clark County Correctional because I was afraid it would be too late for me once I served my sentence. Too late for what? I’m not sure. But there was a situation, and an opportunity, and I was out under cover of darkness. I lifted clothes from a truck stop. Did a dine-and-dash at a twenty-four hour diner. Before I dashed, the waitress said I was a dead ringer for the actor Charlie Grand. Sorry, I said. Don’t watch much TV.
But the truth was I knew, like the rest of America, about the melting-down TV star. Just didn’t feel like conversation. What I couldn’t have guessed then was that, briefly but very publicly, I would become Charlie Grand. But first I had to become Randall Blanton.
One of the old crew dealt in stolen identities, and threw me Mr. Blanton for free. With this second-rate but criminally-clean identity, I went to L.A. and found work with a driving service. It was a black suit and hat, black sedans and limos. I must’ve developed a reputation among clients as an efficient and quiet driver–I was in hiding, after all–because I was hired out to bigger and bigger clients. I mean movie stars. The rest of my time I spent walking the streets or in a bar somewhere, just to be near regular people. I’ve always been terribly shy, especially with women. Usually, I ended up sitting somewhere in front of a TV and looking for my clients until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Only then would I go back to my room.
Once, a woman approached me and said I looked like Charlie Grand. She was built like a plank, but nice-looking in a way. Pretty brown eyes. I said my name was Randall. She asked if I got that a lot, and I said sometimes. She asked me other things, but she kept leaning over to hear me answer, like I didn’t speak loud enough, and I felt embarrassed by that so I shut down. It was pathetic. Later, in my room, I imagined the conversation happening all over again, making up both sides. I said I was Grand’s body double, but only for nude scenes. Big laugh! No, but I’m a driver for a lot of stars. That’s fascinating!
I suppose it was only a matter of time before Charlie Grand ended up in the back of my limo. The entertainment news shows had reported that at the height of his meltdown, he’d fired nearly everyone around him. The publicists who tried to spin his outbursts as “bad reactions” to prescription drugs, the lawyers who’d settled to the tune of millions with the producers of the hit TV show he’d been fired from–all gone. I figured his firing spree extended all the way down to his driver. So here he was in my limo at two in the afternoon, dressed in a black T-shirt and dark jeans.
He stared in the rearview, asked me to turn around at the next light. “Take off your sunglasses,” he says. “The hat, too.”
I did as he asked.
He leaned forward to get a look at me. “It’s like looking in a mirror. People ever say you look like me?”
“Sometimes, Mr. Grand.”
“It’s uncanny,” he says. “Are you an actor?”
“No sir, Mr. Grand. Just a driver.”
The light changed and I started driving and Charlie Grand relaxed into his seat.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Randall Blanton? What kind of sorry name is that? I feel sick just saying it. How about I call you Randy?”
“That’s fine, sir.”
“What’s your story, Randy?”
I told him I came from Reno; that’s where the real Randall Blanton lived. He asked if I was married and I said no.
“I’m shopping for new handlers,” he says. “New manager, all that. You interested?”
“Interested in what, sir?”
“Working for me.”
“Are you offering me a job, sir?”
“You seem like a good guy. Thick skin. You didn’t even flinch when I gave you shit about your name. Plus, it could be fun to weird people out with a doppelganger. I could put you in a dress and take myself to the Emmys!” He burst out laughing at this. “No, even I’m not that weird. Think about it, and I’ll have my assistant, Nadine, call you. Don’t try anything with her. She’s an angel, but don’t ever tell her I said that.”
The next day, I had a message at the driving service to call Nadine. She asked me to come to Mr. Grand’s office. The office had a temporary look to it. The waiting room was spare, a leather sofa and a couple chairs, nothing on the walls. There was no reception desk. A young woman’s voice called out from an inner office. Nadine’s desk had nothing on it but her laptop and iPhone. She looked to be late twenties or early thirties, movie star-cute. But they can’t all make it, I supposed. She was surprised at how much I looked like her employer. He wasn’t kidding, she said. After a few questions, she offered me a job as Charlie Grand’s personal driver, pending a background check. I accepted; I knew that, given Charlie Grand’s instability, this job was less secure, but the salary was considerably higher. And I liked Nadine.
I spent the next couple weeks driving Charlie Grand from meeting to meeting with managers and publicists and all manner of Hollywood types. He was often irritable on both sides of these meetings. I got the feeling things weren’t going well. It wasn’t surprising after the indefensible things he’d done, threatening to kill his girlfriend and then beating on those prostitutes. At the end of a long day of meetings, I returned him to his home.
“Come on up with me, Randy. Help me put this goddamned day behind me.”
A few days earlier, I’d had an enlightening conversation with Nadine in the office. As it was, we were Charlie Grand’s entire staff. We’d chatted a bit by this time. She’d come to L.A. to act, but got burned out doing commercials and bit parts. So the other day, just to be friendly, I asked how things were going. She sighed, kind of sank into her chair.
“Mr. Grand can be demanding,” I say. It was a throwaway comment, but Nadine sat up straight.
“I know Charlie has a reputation, but he’s a very talented actor. And deep down, he just wants to be taken seriously. We’re going to get him get back into films.”
“Hey, you don’t have to sell it to me.”
“I’m sorry, Randy. I’m so used to feeding that line to people just to get a meeting.” Then she spoke quieter, even though we were the only ones around. “I know Charlie’s a woman-hating nut job, but for some reason, he’s very sweet to me. He’s never come on to me, hasn’t even made a comment about the way I look.” Then, as if it had just occurred to her: “Do you think he hired me because he’s not attracted to me?”
“I think that’s impossible.”
“And this is a good job. It’s going to help me network my way up. I’d like to be a producer. And Charlie’s been nothing but supportive. I bet he’d help you, too.”
“Help me what?”
“Don’t you have a screenplay or something? Charlie could help you get it read. You should do whatever he asks. Trust me.”
I wasn’t a writer, but I still put my trust in Nadine when Charlie Grand asked me to come up. He led me to an enormous living room area with thick carpeting that whispered under our feet. Installed in the ceiling was a projector aimed at the blank wall that the leather furniture faced. The opulence was immediately clear, but so was a creeping disarray. End tables were littered with prescription bottles and sticky tumblers. The carpet was filthy. No one had cleaned up after Charlie Grand in some time.
He plunged into one of the leather sofas and took out his phone.
“I’m going to get some girls over here, okay?”
“Excuse me, Sir?”
“You have a preference? Blondes? Redheads? I want two of the same, so I don’t get buyer’s remorse.”
I must’ve looked at him like he was speaking Chinese.
“What I mean is, I don’t want to see yours and decide I want her instead. Oh, who am I kidding–I’m going to take the hotter one no matter what!”
As he made the call, it became clear to me what he was talking about. When the call was over, he looked at me and said, “Well we can’t have you dressed that way when they get here.” He disappeared into another room and returned a minute later with a pair of jeans and a T- shirt. They’d clearly been laundered and folded by someone whose job was to launder and fold a millionaire’s clothes. I stepped into a half bath the size of my room and changed into Charlie Grand’s threads. I felt like a swaddled baby.
Back in the main room, Charlie had poured us drinks. “Hope you like bourbon. And brunettes!”
I took the bourbon. I was hoping it would settle me. Because here’s what I was thinking: There’s a woman about to be delivered to me like a present, and I have no idea what to do. A brief rundown of my history with the ladies: When I was a petty criminal, my girlfriends were runaways and strippers (often both) and liked to party, so as long as I had a little money and could keep the good times rolling, they were happy. But as soon as things got tight, they’d bail. There was nothing about me that kept a single one of them around. Since I’d become Randall Blanton–Randy to everyone by now–I wanted to fly right and meet a regular woman, someone who’d like me for just being me (setting aside that who I am is a great big lie). Someone like Nadine, not that she’d ever go for me. It had only been a few months, but I was starting to doubt any regular woman would be with me–it was still me, after all, running around in Randall Blanton’s name. If I wanted female companionship, it was likely going to have to be with L.A.’s bottom feeders. I was clearly beneath Charlie Grand-grade prostitutes. So why was he was sitting across from me looking slightly bored, like we were waiting on pizza?
Charlie pitched his movie idea to pass the time. He was sick of all the trends: movies about fast cars, comic-book superheroes, lovable dogs. He wanted to do something big, something that would indict Wall Street, Washington, and the War on Terror, and play in Blue and Red states. Something that would bring people together. Something Oscar-worthy. He had no idea what the plot would be, but knew that he would be the hero. An American Hero. Probably ex-military, called upon to use his superb physical skills and razor-sharp intellect to save America’s fate. The leading lady would have to be someone new. I suggested Nadine, but he didn’t hear.
Then the girls arrived. I was immediately of two minds about them: They looked like the sorry girls I’d run around with for twenty years, dressed in halter tops and short skirts and high heels. But they were stunning versions of those girls. All the lines were right, there wasn’t anything extra. You couldn’t have ordered up a better plaything if you were someone like Charlie Grand.
Charlie set us all up with bourbon. He claimed one of the girls and brought her to the sofa. Mine sat in a chair by the chair I was in. Charlie told them his movie idea. For a while, he talked and the girls laughed and I sat there. The whole time, he was petting his girl’s bare leg and she was touching his hair. When he said I was his bodyguard, my girl got out of her chair and came and sat on my lap. Things started to get freaky at that point. I looked into my girl’s green eyes, which were the only thing that let you know there was a person in there, and said “Excuse me.” I set her on the chair’s wide arm and got up and started to leave.
I figured that was that. I would go back to just being Charlie Grand’s driver (unless he fired me), and pine over Nadine. If no one was going to have me unless Charlie Grand was bankrolling it, I was ready to give up and spend all the energy I’d otherwise waste on women yearning for the best woman I knew, even if she’d never want me back. But Charlie had chased me down in his foyer.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t belong here, Mr. Grand.”
“Why are you insisting on acting like you don’t deserve what I’m giving you? You might’ve been a worthless nobody when you were beating around the desert doing whatever you used to do, but now you’re one degree away from Hollywood royalty. I’m King Midas, and I touched you, so now you’re gold. Start acting like it. Now go back in there and show that whore some appreciation.”
The next morning, a faint knocking woke me. I was in one of Charlie Grand’s bedrooms. The knocking was someone at the front door, but I didn’t rush to answer it. I figured Charlie would get it. I remembered what had happened was that I’d gone back with Charlie. Him talking to me in the foyer was kind of like when I was caught picking the wrong pocket when I was still a teenager. That man had chosen me to be a petty criminal, which was not so good. Now Charlie had chosen me to be, I don’t know, part of his entourage, his team. Which could be very good. Maybe I would write a screenplay. Anyway, it was a relief to leave things up to fate. I’d come back inside and the girls entertained us. At some point I fell asleep.
The knocking was unrelenting. I picked up the clothes Charlie had given me and put them on so I could go see who the hell it was. It was Nadine.
“Charlie,” she says. “I am so sorry, but I can’t get ahold of Randy. I’ll take you myself.”
“Slow down,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t find Randy. He was supposed to pick you up this morning. You look awful. Let’s go inside and get you freshened up.”
She pushed me inside and walked briskly toward Charlie’s master bedroom and into his closet, where she grabbed a new outfit.
“Put these on, and do something with your hair.”
I stepped into the master bathroom. Charlie was passed out on the floor, naked as the day God made him. I covered his lower half with a towel to give him a shred of dignity.
“Mr. Grand,” I whispered, nudging his shoulder. He gave a little groan; he might’ve meant to say, “Go away.”
“Are you all right?” Nadine asks from the bedroom.
“Just fine,” I say. I whisper to Mr. Grand, “You’ve got to get up. You’re supposed to… I’m not sure, but you’re supposed to do something.”
“Go away,” was absolutely clear this time.
So I dressed and did something about my hair. I figured I owed it to him.
Nadine put me in the back of her car and started giving me the who’s who about the people we were having lunch with. Another agency she was trying to match Charlie with. The names left me as soon as I heard them.
Then she says, “I’ll interview some new drivers as soon as possible.”
“Hold up,” I say. “Let’s not do anything rash.”
The posh restaurant we pulled up to was one I’d taken Charlie to a few times. I had left Charlie at the front door, then parked around back. Once, the breeze had carried this wonderful, heady, oyster smell from the deck. The next few meals I ate, I felt like I was eating from a grease trap. But this time, Nadine and I got out and let the valet park the car. The maître d’ greeted us warmly and led us to the deck where, at a table under a trellis (for privacy, I’m now sure), the agency people were waiting. After the introductions, it went about like this: Nadine and the woman from the agency spoke earnestly about Charlie’s career, the guy from the agency did a lot of nodding and looking thoughtful, and I put my energy toward savoring every morsel the waitress placed in front of me. Fresh spinach with quail eggs! Slices of honeydew wrapped in prosciutto! When those were all gone, I gave the waitress this timid wave and she rushed over. I asked, “Would it be possible to get another plate of those melon things?” And she was back quick. When the thing seemed to be running down, Nadine looked at me expectantly. Between not paying attention and not understanding what I’d heard, I really had no idea what had been said.
“Well,” I say. “This all sounds very good. And I want to be in movies again. So I say we get in bed together!”
The agency people got all excited over this declaration and started making arrangements with Nadine and I was able to tune out again.
I’d come with Nadine as Charlie’s employee; “surrogate” wasn’t in the job description, but he’d been good to me and I thought he’d appreciate my efforts to cover for him. But things were conspiring to make me feel like I was Charlie Grand: Nadine’s attention, the never-ending food and wine, the fawning of the agency people. I felt like a king. When Nadine and I had left the restaurant, I asked her to walk with me for a bit before we got back in the car.
I say, “Let’s cancel the rest of my day. Do something fun.”
She looked at me like I’d gone crazy. Like Charlie had gone crazy.
“Come on,” I say. “We’ll get to know each other better.”
I think she was about to say yes, and I was going to spend the day with best woman I’d ever known, even if she thought I was Charlie Grand, when I was only Randy Blanton pretending to be Charlie Grand, and really I was only me pretending to be Randy Blanton. Then the paparazzi showed.
“Mr. Grand! Mr. Grand!” It wasn’t a mob or anything, just a couple of jerks, but they made a hell of a noise. It was all, What do you have to say about this or that terrible thing Charlie Grand had allegedly (and probably) done. I think if they’d shown up a moment earlier, I would’ve said something very different than I did. Something like, I’m Charlie Grand! Hollywood royalty! I don’t have to answer to you parasites! Come back when I’m nominated for an Oscar–maybe then we’ll talk! But the possibility of having to keep up with Nadine had collapsed my heightened sense of self. I was really just me, which wasn’t much. So I said what I would’ve said, if I were Charlie Grand.
“Look, I regret the way I’ve behaved lately. There’s no question–I’ve done some terrible things. I apologize to anyone I may have hurt, and hope they’ll find it in their hearts to forgive me. I apologize to my fans, too. I’m ready to get my career started again, and I hope you’ll support me.”
That’s about it. Nadine rushed me back to Charlie’s. Charlie was sobered up by now; the three of us watched the “Contrite Charlie” clip over and over on TV and followed the story on Nadine’s laptop. They were astonished, but not angry. It was decided that my deception would be kept a secret for now, but I wouldn’t be Charlie’s driver anymore. Charlie signed with the agency Nadine and I had lunched with.
Now that Charlie’s in a hit movie and has the goodwill of his fans, I figure the story can be told. And telling it shows me how far I’ve come; I think a lot more of myself these days.