Before Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald went off to Hollywood in the winter of ‘27, they left their daughter, Frances Scottie, in the care of Scott’s parents, who lived in Washington, DC.; on their last afternoon in town Scott took his mother, Mollie, to a matinee. Scott was never sure whose idea it was to see Flesh and the Devil, though Mrs. Fitzgerald adored John Gilbert, and Greta Garbo was one of those secrets Scott managed to keep to himself. Gilbert gave his mother a lot to think about that day, and even though she annoyed Scott with questions about a cartoon they watched before the movie began, her warm thank-you afterwards surprised and touched her son in a way that made him think he’d never see her again, and at the same time knowing this wasn’t true. On the train the next morning, relieved that his daughter seemed content to stay behind, he was still sad that in the last reel Garbo fell through the ice and drowned. Then somewhere in Kentucky, feeling a little tight and dozing off, he kept breathing Zelda’s perfume and dreamed he was rescuing his idol.
_____It was his first trip to the west coast, and Scott was convinced he could write a feature for United Artists, and go home with easy money. They were introduced to Lois Moran, an up-and-coming 17-year-old actress, and Scott couldn’t believe how beautiful and intelligent she was, then made the mistake of describing her in similar terms to Lois’s mother, all within earshot of Zelda, who went back to the couple’s hotel room, where the evening clothes intended for their first Hollywood party were laid out on the bed, and used Scott’s straight razor on them.
_____In the end United Artists passed on his flapper comedy, about a magic lipstick that made its wearer irresistible to men. He and Zelda took screen tests and quickly grew bored with the process. Zelda ended up making faces, and Scott hated how he looked: too pale, too old. On the long trip back East, they were going through El Paso when they again quarreled about Lois, and in the club car that night, his wife removed the platinum wrist watch Scott gave her when he was courting Miss Sayre of Montgomery; Zelda opened the nearest window and tossed it out. The train gave a long, mournful whistle. In the Texas dark, Lois, or maybe Garbo, found it in the deep grass.
Chinese Coffee, East 52nd St.
Half a block away it seems too busy in front of my building: neighbors, strangers, all looking like they’re in the way. And there I am, about to walk into it after finishing work, ready for the bad news about the break-in, or the child found unconscious in the foyer, a hand trying to keep us back. And sure enough someone notices, turns from the others to step in front of me, though her voice tries to be friendly: “Hi, could you wait a minute? We’re almost done.” But what they’re doing isn’t police work, they’re making a movie, and the short sad-faced man looking homeless in the middle of all these people is dressed for fall even though it’s June, with a grimy raincoat and black beret pulled down to keep his head warm. In a low voice he explains what’s going to happen next, and I realize he’s talking about the brick wall two doors down, and the sunlight still on it and how well this works, and if you get rid of the coat & hat and clean him up, the poor guy could pass for Al Pacino, and with the woman next to him saying Al this and Al that, maybe I’m right, and I listen to the voice again, and yes, it’s Pacino—louder now—“OK, let’s try it.”
_____Then everyone comes off the steps as if they know where to go and what to do, and I’m wondering who the director is and where’s the rest of the cast and what are they calling this thing? “Chinese Coffee,” one kid tells me like it’s a password or he just made it up, but that’s really the name, Pacino’s directing himself, and even the title says the film’s being shot quickly and cheap, though it won’t be released for another three years, with Pacino as an unsuccessful New York City writer who in the scene they’re filming today gets mistaken for this serial killer by a quartet of detectives jumping out from their beat-to-death undercover car.
_____I watch as they slam him against the wall—over & over, take after take, with Pacino each time forced to press his whole body into it, the bricks painted a rich deep red that in the finished film looks redder still. A close-up shows you his weariness, but also surprise, as though the man can’t believe these things keep happening to him, while the actor once more feels the wall on his hands and face, the warmth left over from the first time.
David Petruzelli has had work published in crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, The New Yorker, Pleiades, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A poetry collection, Everyone Coming Toward You, won the Tupelo Press Judge’s Prize and was published in 2005. He lives in New York City.