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Excerpt: Tinseltown by Barry Brennessel

Tinseltown by Barry Brennessel
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: MLR Press (June 2, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1608203565
ISBN-13: 978-1608203567
Amazon: Tinseltown
Amazon Kindle: Tinseltown

Blurb: Film student Micah Malone learns the hard way that when life sucks, you can’t just yell, “Cut! Let’s do another take!”
His grades are a box-office bomb. His friends create more drama than a soap opera. And his love life needs a laughtrack. While there’s no script to dictate what happens next, can Micah find the direction he needs? Life, after all, is no film school project. But it is great source material. The only source material.
Let the cameras roll. Micah’s quirky story has begun filming.


“No,” Mrs. Castor said. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
I was sitting in my counselor’s office.
“You’re not dying of curiosity?” I asked her.
She smiled. More like smirked. She did that, I think, whenever I was being “irreverent.”
“Did it upset you? The events on Saturday?”
I smirked. “Do you mean am I still obsessing over it?”
She smirked. I smirked. Way too much smirking.
My Greek Chorus takes a break when I meet with Mrs. Castor. I’ve never told her about them, or the fact that I converse with my sister’s cat whenever I’m over there visiting. Probably a lot of things will remain a secret to Mrs. Castor. Some people might argue that going to see her is a waste if I’m going to remain so guarded. But the appointments are only a $10 co-pay thanks to the university’s generous nature, and unlike my chorus and the cat, she answers back independent of my brain cells and challenges my “long-held beliefs about the way people interact.” Or somethin’.
Here’s my list of what I will talk about with Mrs. Castor this session:

• My friends are great, but they also annoy the crap out of me.
• Yes, it pissed me off and it hurt (like hell) when that Asian guy scoffed at me.
• Of course I have self-esteem issues; why else would I be here?

And here’s a list of what shall never pass from mine lips in this office:

• I had sexual experiences with my French teacher in high school.
• I technically shouldn’t have my high school diploma because I forged a doctor’s note to get me out of gym class my senior year.
• I went to an adult bookstore after I got peeved on Saturday night, and did some “stuff” in the basement theater.

“Micah, did you hear my question?”
“No, sorry.”
Mrs. Castor’s ears turn red when she’s frustrated.
“What was it, specifically, that hurt you about Saturday night?”
She was trying to get me to repeat the oft-uttered mantra that I give people the power to define my self-esteem.
I wish I could explain to her the polar opposites of my emotional state Saturday night. On one hand, at the club I felt like Frankenstein’s monster stumbling through a male beauty pageant. On the other hand, being in the dark, creepy adult video theater I was like Cinderella tip-toeing through a lair of sex-starved knights and pageboys and trolls (though there were far more trolls than anything).
It wasn’t as though I decided to drive to the place because I needed to gaze at naked men. Just no point in going home and crawling into bed, ice pack pressed to my eye as I tossed and turned, analyzing over and over the “incident.” I would see the events of the evening from every conceivable angle. That’s what film students do. At least, this one does.
And, okay, I admit I was feeling kind of reckless, and angry. Somewhat horny. Curious. All that combined with an “I don’t give a shit” attitude. Not exactly a state of mind I would call rational.
So off I went. To a creepy dump called Tinseltown. Funny, but true. I’m not kidding. You can put all kinds of meaning to it, you know—the film student who ends up at a video store named Tinseltown, ha ha, but I figure if a geometry major goes to a gym called Curves or a public safety officer shops at Safeway (get it?) it doesn’t hold some sort of cosmic significance. So I walked in, and the clerk—who was in his twenties and geekily attractive—sat behind the counter reading a biography on Proust. He looked up and said, “Theater?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Ten bucks.”
I nodded to the book. “How is that?”
He shrugged. “Sucks. But I gotta read it.” He looked at my swollen eye. Maybe he thought I was a street tough. Or that I got in fight over drug money. Or I was in an abusive relationship. Who knew? I did feel a sexy swagger in my step, but I sure as hell wasn’t enjoying the throbbing.
He handed me my receipt.
“Good for twelve hours,” he said. “Just show it at the counter when you come back in.” He picked up the book and sat back down on a stool. “If you leave.”
I was about to ask how to get to the theater, but as I turned I saw the sign: “Theater in Rear.” Simple, to the point. Well done, Tinseltown management. And don’t think I didn’t get the double entendre.
As I walked all the way to the back of the store, passing by the magazines and sex toys, I kept hearing Stan describe the place to me a few weeks ago, as if it were some mystical spa situated in a magical land that held all the secrets of life.
“Ten kinds of lube,” he gushed, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head.
“Too bad you run through fourteen brands in one night,” Jasper shot back. “Alone.”
I opened the door to the theater. Only it wasn’t the theater, I discovered, as a blast of cold air rushed past me, and I beheld a cinder-block wall, pitted cement staircase, an empty Burger King cup, all dwarfed by a scummy apartment building about fifty feet away.
“One level down,” the clerk yelled out, in a pretty pissy tone. The cold air probably nudged him awake from his Proust ordeal.
I started down the steps and the door slammed shut behind me. The small parking lot in the rear of the building came into view as I reached the bottom step. There were two pick-up trucks, a Volvo station wagon, a new Beetle and a Mini parked in the dinky spots. Kudos to you parkers, I thought. If they’d been trying to find room to park at a wedding, funeral, sister-in-law’s surprise birthday party, or some other chore-like event, they would have declared it impossible, and hoped it would mean they weren’t required to attend. But to park here…
When I reached the entranceway at the bottom of the stairs, I wondered how many people were peering out at me from the apartment building. Not that it mattered. More to the point was what lay on the other side of the door. In this mysterious lair known as “The Theater.” (At least they didn’t try to dress it up by spelling it theatre. As if Shakespeare were in there overseeing the staging of Romeo Does Julio.)
Greek Chorus: Be brave, Micah. Open the door. You have the power to leave. You’re in control. Besides, you’ve already paid your $10.
I could always count on the Greek Chorus to use logic as a ruse to get me to do stuff I’d be better off not doing.
I was brave. I opened the door. I stepped into the darkness. And Lord only knows what else I was stepping into. I didn’t really want to look down and see.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. But my ears picked up instantly on the synthesizer music and the moaning. The “oh yeah, that’s it, baby, oh god harder harder” dialogue was coming from all directions.
“There are four rooms!” I remember Stan telling me. “Two straight, one bi, and one gay.”
Heads turned when I walked in. There were about twenty chairs lined up to my right. Four guys were watching a small screen. Three heads turned back to the movie a few seconds after registering my presence, but one stayed focused on me. I studied him. Even in silhouette I could tell it was an older guy, probably 50- or 60-something. I leaned against the wall, trying to figure out my next move. Sit in a chair? Walk into another room? Bolt?
A guy came from the room way in the back. He started toward me. I looked away, at the screen where Muscle God was entering Screaming Brunette from behind. They were near the pool. Pool Boy was jerking off to the whole thing. The camera was steady. The natural sunlight provided a golden hue. The director must have been using hand signals to tell Brunettte to ratchet up the screaming. She looked at the camera three times and her volume grew after each glance. That always breaks the spell for me, when someone—usually an extra on a TV show—looks directly at the audience. I notice it every time. Oh, there was a scene in an old Streets of San Francisco episode (Stan would jump in and say, “‘45 Minutes from Home’,” first broadcast October 7, 1972!”) where this guy and gal are crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and a car pulls up next to them, and the family is staring at the actors and—
The guy from the back room stood about an inch from me.
I smiled. “Hey.”
He scanned me up and down. “Come on,” he said, tilting his head to the room he just walked out of.
“Uh, no, thanks. I’m just—”
“You sure?”
Oh, that accusatory okay, the one that lets you know that you simply have no idea what’s best for you. Mothers use this a lot.
I scurried into the dark chamber on my left. It was empty. There were three chairs in the back corner. I plopped down. Apparently this was the trans room, based on the movie that was being shown. Stan didn’t mention a trans room. The star looked like Diana Ross. All I could think of was LadyBoy Sings the Blues. Or Moans the Blues. Or…something with BlueBoy. Ah, Micah, shut up.
My swollen eye hurt. I was trying to forget the stupid incident at the club. Did the gang even care that I was gone? Did they even notice?
I sat in that damn empty, dank room for twenty minutes, staring at the walls, and listening to slaps and grunts and howls. No one even poked their head in the door to glance at me or the screen. I guess the trans room wasn’t a big draw.
I thought—no pun intended—screw this! I stood up and headed back to the other room. As I walked toward the exit, the door opened, and in came a curly-haired guy, my age, in jeans and a black shirt. Hands in pockets, he shuffled past me, and nodded when he was close enough that we could make each other out. He turned and locked eyes with me before he headed into the very back room.
Well, this kind of changed things. I mean, he just cruised me. And he was cute. I’d go so far as to say hot. My definition of hot anyway.
One of the original Gang of Four I saw as I first walked in stood up and made a beeline for the back room.
This was jerk-like behavior on two levels: he was going after “my” guy, and…he didn’t exactly get out of his chair and come seek me. God, I hate that.
Greek Chorus: You have every right to go into the back room, too, Micah.
That seemed more like something Mrs. Castor would say, but in this scenario the whole universe was all jumbled up. I could even see my kindergarten teacher gleefully pointing to a flowery inspirational poster with some poem or proverb and a picture of a kitten as she told me to Just Go for It!
It didn’t take long for me to figure out the back room was the gay section. You can pretty much guess what was on the screen. Hot Czech boys taking a break from their farm chores.
Six guys were scattered around this room. Two in the corner, making out. One sitting by the door. One standing in the opposite corner of the lip-locked couple. And then there was the cutie, sitting against the far wall, with Mr. Jerk-O two seats away from him. Drooling.
The cutie looked up. We locked eyes again. A nervous excitement swept over me. Goosebumps. A flutter in my stomach. Blood rushing to my face. I could tell my cheeks were turning pink. What a great combo with my black-and-blue shiner.
I slid into a chair. I looked up at the screen to, you know, kind of play it cool. A mop-topped boy, let’s call him…Josef…was going down on…um…Czech name, Czech name…Václav. (Sorry, but it’s the best I could think of under the circumstance.) The cutie stared at me. His hand was gliding over his crotch. Jerk-O moved closer. He put his hand on Cutie’s leg. Cutie nudged him away. Jerk-O tried again. A harder nudge, with a look that screamed, “Are you serious? Get away from me!” Yeah, I liked it. He was cute and assertive.
Now I’m not sure which I like better, though I guess it depends on my mood. It’s sexy when the guy does a “c’mere” tilt of the head. It means he’s a take-charge, I’m-a-top kind of guy’s guy. But it’s gallant when he actually makes the effort to stand up, walk over, and sidle up next to me, like a matinee idol singing outside your window at midnight, neighbors be damned, and then showing up with roses the next day, and bumping into you (“Isn’t this a surprise?”) the day after that at the public market.
Cutie was gallant. He brushed past Jerk-O and sat down two chairs from me. Five seconds later he slid into the chair next to mine. Then our shoulders touched. Then he caressed my leg. He was Bulgari to my Gio. We smelled good together. He leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“You’re the cutest guy I’ve seen in here for months.”
Greek Chorus: Awwwww…
“What happened to your eye?” he cooed, and then gently kissed my cheek.
“I ran into a door.”
I thought he’d laugh or smile at my cliché line, but he burrowed into my neck and sighed.
Was this a dream?
“I’m Patrick,” he said as he undid two buttons of my shirt and let his fingertips graze across my nipples.
My name was furthest from my thoughts as I wrapped my left hand around his bicep and felt it flex as he undid the rest of my shirt. In a matter of seconds everyone else in the room had focused on us. The hot dudes in the film had been upstaged.


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