Sunday, February 03, 2008

Small Town Boys - Chapter 50

Chapter Guide

Christmas Presence

“Trish Owens on Line 1.”

Donny picked up the phone, holding up his hand to Rudy, who was in the middle of explaining why all the security protocols in Pelican would have to be rewritten. It was a little after ten the next morning.

“Nice to finally talk to you. Lunch?”

“It’ll have to be quick,” he replied.

“I’ll brown-bag something. See you around noon.”

Trish’s idea of “brown-bagging” turned out to be avocado and bean sprout sandwiches on whole wheat bread, a side of cole slaw each, and bottles of Orangina from the local natural foods store. They sat at Donny’s conference table, shoving aside the stacks of papers and binders. By the time Donny had finished his first half of his sandwich he had told her about his meetings with Eric and Gina.

“Christ,” Trish said, wiping her hands on one of the brown-paper napkins from the bag, “this is what you get for going out of town for a week. Do you ever check your cell phone for messages?”


Trish held out her hand. “Gimme your cell phone.” Donny handed it to her. She glanced at it and pushed a few buttons. “What’s your password?”


She keyed it in. A tinny little voice said, “You have four new messages. To listen to your messages, press 7.” Trish played them back; they were all from her, all increasing in urgency, asking him to call her. She erased them, handed the phone back to Donny, and glared at him. “For someone who works in the computer business, you’re a fucking idiot.”

“I don’t get it. When did you call?”

“The day after Thanksgiving, then the next day and the next. I thought you were avoiding me. See that little envelope icon? That means ‘you’ve got mail.’” Donny looked at the little screen on the cell phone. He had never paid attention to it before. “I set the ringer so that it goes off when you get a message.” She shook her head.

“So why were you calling me?”

“Because I was trying to tell you that I am the producer of Small Town Boys.”

While Donny gaped at her, she explained that Jack had wanted to appoint one of this regular producers to oversee the project, but they were either all too busy with other things or weren’t interested. Trish had volunteered, and over the last two weeks she had secured commitments from several other backers and had begun laying the groundwork with a studio and several casting directors. “I’ve been doing this out of Jack’s office, but it’s all the way downtown. I’ve been thinking about renting a small space closer to home.” She looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

“Here?” Donny said. “We don’t have any empty spaces, and besides, I don’t think it’d be all that good an idea to mix my moonlighting with my real job.”

Trish shrugged. “Well, then, how about that little office you’ve set up in your house? All I need is a desk and a phone, and besides, you could probably write it off on your taxes as a business expense. And it’s perfectly located; it’s half-way between my place and downtown and I don’t have to fight the traffic. Oh, and the production company will pay rent, too. So you actually will make something off it besides what you’ll be making as the executive producer.”

“Is this how it works?”

“Are you kidding? Some of the best movies in Hollywood have been produced out of someone’s empty bedroom. Oh, we need to come up with a name.”

“A name?”

“For the production company.”

“I thought it was Magahee Associates.”

Trish shook her head. “No, Jack’s company never appears on the production credits. Every project gets set up as a corporation for the purposes of making the project. That makes it separate from the main corporation and shields them – and you – from personal liability. That way if anyone sues you, you’re not personally on the hook. Once the production is finished, the corporation is liquidated. That’s why you see all those cute little names at the end of a TV show or the beginning of a movie; ‘Birdbath Productions,’ or ‘The Samantha Corporation,’ named after the executive producer’s kid or their cat. So whaddaya want to call it?”

Donny shrugged. “You can call it ‘Old Potato Productions,’ for all I care.”

Trish chuckled. “I think we can do better than that.” She finished her sandwich. “Well, okay, then. I’ll call the phone company and get a line set up, and I’ll stop by your place after work and drop some stuff off.”

“I’m probably going to be working late, and then I’m going to the gym. But Mike’ll be there.”

Trish’s eyes widened. “Mike’s living with you?”

“Just until his condo’s ready. Then Danny’ll be back for Christmas in a couple of weeks.”

“Your brother in the Air Force?”

“Yeah. He’s got a little leave; gonna come in and pick up his Jeep.” Trish started to gather up the remains of the lunch. “So,” Donny asked, “if you’re doing all the producing work and hiring all the people, what exactly is my job as executive producer?”

“Well, you’ll see. It’s more like an honorary position, but you do have some power; f’r instance, you can fire people. Of course, you won’t do that unless we – the rest of the producers and the director and everybody else – think you should. But you’re the one who gets to do it. And you’ll make a lot of money.” She hitched her purse over her shoulder and grinned. “Not to worry, Donny. We’ll go over it all.” She held out her hand. Donny, unsure what she meant, shook it tentatively. Trish laughed. “Okay, if that means we’re formally in business, fine, but what I really need is the spare key to the house and the alarm code.”

Donny went back to work, and it wasn’t until he was pulling in the driveway after going to the gym that he remembered his lunch with Trish; her car and another behind it were parked out front. It was a little after eight, long past sunset, and the Christmas lights on the house down the street were lit. Even after all this time, it still seemed funny to him to see twinkling lights in a palm tree. Mike’s Range Rover was not there.

A long phone extension cord ran from the table in the living room into the office, and Trish was on the phone. Another woman was with her, standing next to the desk and writing things down on a pad. Trish nodded at him and ended the call. “Hi honey, how was work?” she said with a giggle. Donny played along. “Fine; where’s my dinner?” he replied, and they all laughed. Trish introduced him to Wanda. “She’s on loan from Jack. She’s going to be the production associate, which means she will be the one who really does all the work around here.” They shook hands. Wanda was an attractive Latina with large brown eyes, a nice smile, and as they exchanged pleasantries, Donny learned that she had worked for some very big names in the industry. He was impressed that she would take a job on such a small production, and said so.

Wanda smiled and nodded. “There are no small productions; just short pay.”

Trish got up from the desk. “The phone company will be here tomorrow to install the two extra lines, and we’re having another desk and stuff sent over from Jack’s so Wanda will have a place to work.” She pointed at the empty corner. “Should fit there, don’t you think?”

“You got the phone company to come tomorrow?” said Donny with amazement. “It took us a week to get them to set up an appointment for us.”

Wanda smiled knowingly. “I know people,” she said.

Trish nodded. “She does. Anyway, we’re off to take care of some stuff, but we’ll be back first thing in the morning. What time do you leave for the office?”

“’Round seven-thirty,” Donny said. “Say, has Mike shown up?”

“No, but he called about ten minutes ago,” Trish said. “Kinda surprised him when I answered. He said he was going out to meet with some people and wouldn’t be home ‘til late. Hope you don’t mind me answering, but I was expecting a call.”

Donny shrugged.

“Oh, and just so you know, I’m meeting with Aaron tomorrow to interview some writers. Be nice if you could join us.”


“Yeah. Just to polish up your script and make it film-ready, and besides, if it becomes a series, you can’t be expected to write every episode.”


“I’ll let you know.”

“It’ll have to be after work and after the gym if you want me there.”

Mike came home around ten. Donny was already in bed, on the verge of sleep, when he heard the back door open and Mike’s “whoops” as he caught his foot on the phone cord. Donny opened his bedroom door and blinked in the bright light in the hall.

“Hey,” said Mike. He looked a little glassy-eyed but not falling-down drunk. “So what’s up with…?” He indicated the office.

“Trish is setting up a production office here. She’s the real producer for the project.”

“Cool,” Mike murmured. “Makes it easy for you, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, since I’m ass-deep at work.”

“Hope she’s better than the idiot Paul hired for Back Home Again. Which, by the way, will be on in two weeks.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“There’s talk of making it a series if it does well. Jason’s really pushing that.”

“Would you do it?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Well, I thought you were tired of ‘that shit.’”

“Work’s work.” Mike turned on the light in the guest room and clumsily kicked off his shoes.

“So, how’s it going?” Donny ventured. He really hadn’t spoken much to Mike in the last couple of days.

“’S’kay. Lotsa stuff out there, all I gotta do is … y’know….” He tugged off his shirt and tossed it on the bed. “Meeting tomorrow with some more people. Casting directors and shit. By the way, haven’t heard from your people yet.”

“I’ll tell Trish.”

Mike undid his belt and carefully pulled off his pants. “By the way,” he said again, “when does Danny get here?”

“Right before Christmas; why?”

“Just want to know when I need to get outta here. If there’s nothing shakin’ after Back Home Again goes on, I might just take off for Idyll-weird and stay there.” He waved at the bed. “Unless you get another bed in here, ‘cause much as it would be fun, I don’t think Danny’ll want to sleep with me.”

“No, I don’t think you’d be his first choice,” Donny replied. “Well, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you like.” He looked at Mike, standing there in his underwear, and in spite of his slightly inebriated state, his tousled hair, and the fact that he might be hiring him to work on his project, he felt the warmth growing in his chest, leading down to his groin. “G’night,” he said and went back to his room. “G’night,” Mike replied distantly.


Donny’s days at work became twelve to fourteen hours long, and Friday, the day of the board meeting, he left the house at six-thirty to help collate the preliminary presentation on Starship Enterprise, finally wrapping it up at ten-thirty that night. Other than the little reminders of something else going on in his house when he was gone – a Dunkin Donuts bag in the trash in the kitchen, the door to the office slightly ajar – it was like there was nothing else going on except dizzying long hours working with Rudy, Eric, Ellie, and the three new “code talkers,” as Eric called them. Donny barely remembered their names; they spent all their days in the war room with Steve and Brany. Marc spent most of the days working on the finances element with Cathy. Donny hardly had a chance to even say hello to him, and the brief “look, um…” was forgotten.

The only pause came on the Saturday night before Back Home Again was shown. Paul had gotten a video of it and invited Donny, Eric, Mike, Aaron, and some other people – twenty in all – to watch it on his big-screen TV. Cocktails and snacks were served in the living room, and Donny garnered some attention as the executive producer of, as someone called it, “the next big thing.”

Paul herded them into the little theatre and dimmed the lights. The score, a solo piano variation on “Simple Gifts” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” led to an establishing shot of a bucolic view of a farm and a wheat field, and the title, in simple script, faded in. The audience applauded politely, and since Jeremy Dixon was not there, when his name appeared in the credits, someone in the room chuckled ruefully. Donny couldn’t see who it was. When the writing credits rolled, it said “Screenplay by Aaron White,” which got a smattering of applause, as did the producing credit for “Eric McKay.” He was sitting next to Donny, and he whispered, “I’d like to thank the Academy….”

Donny watched the film with a new-found critical eye, having read the script as it was being filmed. It was pretty much as he remembered it, but Aaron, who was sitting behind him, kept whispering to himself and scratching notes on a copy of the script. At one point both Jeremy and Mike appeared shirtless as they baled hay with their father, their muscles highlighted by the sweat and dirt, and this got an appreciative murmur from the audience. Mike, who was sitting next to Donny, chuckled self-consciously and slumped a little in his seat.

As the final credits rolled over the freeze-frame of the brothers hugging each other in the “snow” in front of the family home at Christmas, the audience applauded long and loudly. Paul stood up and beckoned to Mike, Aaron, and Milo to come forward and take their bows, and they did, Aaron nearly tripping over his feet as he walked down the aisle. The audience rose to their feet and gave them a standing ovation.

As they were getting ready to leave, Aaron came up to Donny and nervously plucked at his sleeve. “I’ve, uh, I’ve been talking to, uh, Trish, and she wants me to meet with you as soon as possible. About the writer.”

“Okay,” replied Donny. “I’m really in the weeds at the office, but I think lunch or something sometime.”

“We’ll call you,” replied Aaron, adjusting his glasses.

“Hey, good job on this,” said Donny, nodding at the theatre. “Turned out great.”

Aaron shrugged. “Oh, well, you know… good people and all that.”

Donny looked around to see if anyone was in earshot. “And you were right about Mike,” he said quietly. “He blew Jeremy off the screen, so to speak.”

Aaron nodded tightly. “Right. Is he going to be in yours?”

“Don’t know yet. The casting people haven’t gotten back to us,” he replied, slipping into the plural and suddenly conscious of it. “We should know in a couple of days. Trish’ll let you know, I guess.”

Aaron nodded again. “You’ll like the writer I’m lining up.”

“Tell me again why you’re not working on it?”

Aaron gulped and smiled mechanically. “Well, I don’t really have a whole lot of insight to the kind of things… the world… you’re writing about. I suppose I could, y’know, fake it, but I think what it needs is… well, the real touch, that’s all.”

“You didn’t know a whole hell of a lot about growing up on a farm in Indiana, either.”

Aaron nodded as if he hadn’t heard that and went to get his coat.

Mike came over to Donny. “Hey, you think you can snag a ride with Donny or someone? I’m gonna hang out here for a while, y’know… touch base.” He nodded in the direction of Paul and some of the other producers.

“Sure, no prob,” Donny replied.

It wasn’t too far out of the way for Eric to drop him off and then head back to Greg’s. “That was pretty good,” said Eric, talking about the movie. “So, is Mike gonna be in your project?”

“Don’t know yet. He might be.”

“So that’s why he’s sleeping in the guest room?”

Donny looked at Eric, who was grinning broadly. “That was subtle,” he deadpanned.

“Well, hell, Donny, I figure the only reason you’re not sleeping with him is because he might end up working for you. Make things awkward, y’know, in case you have to fire him or something.”

“That’s not it.” Or was it? Donny wondered to himself.

“I just wondered, ‘cause, y’know, you flew across country at the drop of a hat and then drove all the way back with him.” They came to red light and Eric looked at him. “C’mon, Donny, what’s up with you two?”

“What’s it to you?” he replied genially.

Eric tapped his thumbs on the wheel. “Well, maybe I want to invest in your little project, too. Maybe I want to be sure that I’m not betting on a bad deal.” The light changed. “And maybe I just want to know if you’re getting laid on a regular basis.”

“You serious?”

“About which, the investing or getting laid?”

“Investing, you horn dog.”

“Yeah, I might be. That Magahee guy called me while you were out of town, told me to talk to you or Trish about it. She’s, what, the producer now?”

“Yeah. She’s also Jack’s niece.”

Eric chuckled. “Damn, this town. Fucking incestuous.”

“So you think you will?”

“I might buy a share or two. Bart Blumberg called the other day about something else and managed to let me know that Jim McGruder was going in on it. But you knew that, right?”

“Right,” replied Donny. He made a mental note to ask Trish the names of all the investors.

They got to Donny’s house a little before eleven. They went out to the pool and Eric pulled a small joint out of his pocket. The pot smelled good in the cool night air. “So,” Eric said as he took a short toke, “tell me about your trip.”

Donny told him everything, even down to describing what they had for dinner at the Mexican restaurant in Perrysburg, and Eric listened attentively. When he was done, he lit a cigarette, the tobacco a harsh taste compared to Sky’s golden leaf.

“Wow,” said Eric. “His dad, your dad, Scott…. Hell of a week.”


“So, you think you’ve got his dad’s blessing to marry him?”

Donny snorted a little. “Naw. Just be his friend …”

They lapsed into silence. Finally Eric said, “You love him, though, don’tcha?”

Donny thought for a while. “Guess so.”

Eric nodded. “That’s good. We all need that.”

“What about you?”


“Yeah, Eric, you. You need somebody to love.”

Eric smirked. “Thank you, Jefferson Airplane.”

“I mean it.”

“I’m good. I got my…”

“Your what?”

He held up his hand. Donny snorted. “Not good enough.”

Eric leaned back in his chair and stared up into the night sky. “Yeah, well, until we get this ERP thing launched and until you get your…”

“My what?”

“…movie done, I guess neither of us is gonna get any action.” He slowly sat up. “Okay, I’m tired, so…I guess I’d better get going.”

“You okay to drive?”

“Oh, sure. I had one drink at Paul’s and a joint here. I’m fine.”

They walked together slowly out to the garage door, and in the darkness Eric gave Donny a hug, lightly brushing his groin against his thigh. It was hard. Eric grinned a little, waved, got in his Suburban, and was gone before Donny had the door closed.

Mike came home a little after midnight and was gone the next morning before Donny got up, leaving a note that said “Breakfast mtg w/ Jason C-ya.” The entertainment section of the Sunday Times had a picture and a blurb about Back Home Again, and the pre-review called it a “potential holiday classic.”


That was the last weekend of relative calm. Donny hardly saw Mike the next week. Back Home Again had won the time slot and Jason was sending him a ton of scripts, so he was out at casting interviews and meetings nearly every day. Donny hardly noticed, though; the war room became his second home, and he got used to getting up in the dark and coming home after ten. He remembered ruefully the cold January mornings working for Frank where he would be driving across the frozen fields to a jobsite, the heater in his truck droning at full blast, the radio weatherman cheerfully talking about highs in the mid-twenties and snow flurries. At least, he thought, here in California it’s warmer than that in the pre-dawn darkness.

It was suddenly Friday, December 23. Danny’s plane arrived at noon, the holiday rush traffic clogging the approach to the arrivals level so that Donny had to wave and honk at his brother who was standing at nearly attention next to the Super Shuttle with his green duffel bag at his feet.

He had gotten his hair cut very short and it looked as if he had bulked up, his shoulders bulging out of his dark blue sweater. They hugged each other powerfully, then Donny tossed the duffel into the way-back.

“Damn, you’re almost as big as me,” Donny said, admiring his brother’s arms.

“Whaddaya mean, almost? I’m benchin’ 225 now.”

Donny grinned. “Two-forty.”

“Shit. I’ll catch up.”

They went back to the office and everyone came out to greet Danny; Ellie gave him a lingering hug, which Donny noticed with interest. Marc shook his hand and smiled, asking how things were going, and Danny nodded and said things were good. He was introduced to the new people, including Rudy, who seemed fascinated by the idea of identical twins; Donny noticed that he was looking closely at each of them in turn as if he was trying to discern the difference between them on a molecular level.

They had arrived just in time for the informal potluck that Irene, Lily and Cathy had put together, and for the first time in three weeks they all sat together and listened to music, ate, and talked about nothing that had anything to do with work. Danny deflected all questions about his duty with a modest “just your average duty assignments for a junior grade Air Force officer,” and let it go at that.

They closed the office early, everybody lugging leftovers out to their cars. Donny asked Marc when he was going to Santa Barbara with the intention of inviting him for dinner that night, but Marc said he was leaving that afternoon, but thanks. “I’ll call you when I get back on Tuesday,” he said. “Good to see you, Dan.”

“You too,” Danny replied. After Marc had left Donny’s office, he said, “What’s up with him? He’s barely said two words since I got here. Still freaked about Jeremy?”

Donny shook his head. “Nah, I don’t think so. We’ve been slammed since this whole Starship Enterprise thing started, and most of it’s on him. And me.”

“Huh. Come up with a better name than ‘Starship Enterprise’ yet?”

“Nope. Nominations are still being accepted, and the winner gets a free ham.” Eric rapped on the door jamb. “We still on for twins day out on Monday?”

“Sure. Whatcha got planned?”

“Beach if it’s nice, wing it if it’s not,” Eric replied breezily. “I’ll call you. Good to see you, Dan.”

“You too.”

Donny was going through his mail. He came across a handwritten card-sized envelope. The return address was a post office box in Maple City. He slit it open. Inside was a Hallmark Christmas card with the nativity scene from, a folded note, and several photographs. It was from Tyler.

Dear Don: Thanks for the advice on weightlifting. I’ve started the program you showed me and it’s helping. Here are some pics of me. Merry Christmas see you soon, Your friend, Tyler.

The pictures were Polaroids of Tyler, trying to strike a muscle-flexing pose. He was standing in front of what appeared to be a bookshelf in his wood-paneled bedroom, his shirt off, his long basketball shorts hanging on his narrow hips, the cuffs below his knees, the flash washing out his skin to a pale pink with little contrast and giving him a bad case of red-eye. He was awkwardly flexing his right biceps, making little more than a slight swelling, his fist balled up like a knot, the hair in his armpit barely more than light fuzz. The other picture was from a slightly different angle, trying to pump up his chest, his eyes looking away from the camera, a study in adolescent awkwardness. Donny showed them to his twin.

“This the kid you told me about? What is he, fifteen?”

“Something like that.”

“Gotta start somewhere.”

“Were we ever that scrawny?” Donny asked.

“You were, twin. Not me.”

They drove home, the traffic thick with last-minute shoppers. Mike’s truck was in the driveway. The reunion was quick; Jason had gotten Mike an interview with the casting director for the Emmerich/Devlin sci-fi movie as a last-minute replacement for one of the second-tier stars playing an Air Force officer, and he was in Palm Springs for the holidays. “So, I’m heading out there right now,” he said as he stuffed his suitcase. “Perfect timing for you, Dan; you get the bedroom all to yourself.”

“For once,” Danny replied. “If you get the part, let me know and I’ll tell you what the script got wrong.”

“It’s a deal.” He zipped up his bag. “Well, I’ll see ya.”

“Where are you spending Christmas?” Donny asked.

Mike smirked. “At the Villa. I hear they have a hell of a Christmas buffet.”

Donny handed him a small package. “Merry Christmas.”

Mike hugged him. “Yours is on the couch, since you didn’t bother to set up a tree or anything.”

Donny shrugged. “What’s the point? It’s not like when we were kids and my mom and dad went completely nuts over the holidays, putting up wreaths and lights and roping and making Toledo Edison rich.”

Donny showed Danny the office, the two desks side by side, the floor stacked neatly with cardboard boxes serving as makeshift filing cabinets. Trish and Wanda had left before they had gotten home, but there was a stack of resumes and headshots that bore a pink Post-It that said “Plz revue thx T.O. Merry Xmas See you Tue.” “Hooray for Hollywood,” Danny said.

They spent Christmas Eve day getting the Jeep running, changing the oil and rotating the tires, going to the gym, and relaxing by the pool. Donny started to ask his brother what he was doing now, but Danny held up his hand and said, “Twin, I can’t talk about it, and I have to report any questions anyone asks me about it, so get me another beer and shut up.”

They had Christmas Eve dinner with their Aunt Barbara and Uncle Ron in Whittier, and Ron, who had served in the Navy, knew what Danny was talking about when he said he was under strict orders. “Say no more.” They called their parents on the speakerphone in the den before it got too late, their voices sounding hollow and tinny.

Christmas Day was quiet. They slept in, opened their presents, taking turns in the family tradition. Donny got Danny a portable CD player that would fit in his BOQ bookshelf and a laptop computer. “You can get e-mail,” Donny said. “I called Colonel Brownwen, your old commanding officer, and checked.”

Danny handed his brother a small box. “Not a computer or even a microchip.” Donny opened it. It was a signet ring with DFH on it. Inside it was inscribed Together Forever. “Yeah,” shrugged Danny, “it’s corny, but it fits. You shoulda seen the look the jeweler gave me when I told him what to put on it. I had to show him our picture to reassure him that he wasn’t asking and I wasn’t telling.” The ring fit perfectly. “Well, it should. I had ‘em size it to my Academy ring.” Danny glanced at his new stereo and laptop, “Look, I know…” but Donny cut him off, knowing what he was going to say.

“Forget it,” he said, looking at the ring. “Based on our comparative incomes, you spent more than I did.” He hugged his twin tightly, tears prickling his eyes.

Their parents called at ten, and the twins assured them that the shirts and sweaters fit fine and thanks again for the traditional stocking-stuffers – candies, little toys, and funny pictures – had arrived safely. They thanked him for the dozen grapefruit and the avocados, and said they were going to have a great feast that night.

Donny had planned to make a roast for their Christmas dinner; it was easy to do and he could watch the football game that afternoon while it cooked. He was in the kitchen getting it ready when the phone rang. He grabbed it, thinking it was his mom calling about something she’d forgotten to say. “H’lo,” he said tersely.

“Uh, is this Don? Don Hollenbeck?” said a young voice.

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“Ty. Tyler Herlinger. From Thanksgiving…?”

“Oh, yeah, hi. Hey, thanks for your card.”

“Sure. Um, merry Christmas.” Tyler’s voice sounded hollow and distant, and there was a lot of background noise, like he was calling from a shopping mall.

“Same to you. How’s things up there in Michigan?”

“Um, okay, I guess. But… I’m not there.”

“No? Where are you?”

“At the airport.”

“The airport? Which one?”

“The one here. In Los Angeles.”

“Oh, you and your folks out here for Christmas?”

“Uh, no. I…I’m here by myself.”


“Yeah.” There was a long pause, and then Tyler said, “I ran away.”