Much is made, these days, of chasing dreams. Tales abound of people overcoming insurmountable obstacles to achieve their greatest desires. This is not one of them. Fred Barnes dreamed as big as any. But in truth, few people are destined for greatness, and it seemed that Fred just wasn’t one of them.
* * *
II. Fred’s Life
Fred worked as a grip on television commercials. He made fifty dollars an hour (plus overtime most days) to set up and move around heavy film equipment. The tools of his trade were so extensive and cumbersome that their transport required a ten-ton truck. Many of these items had colorful names, like c-stands, fingers and dots, Fisher dollies, pancakes, beefy babies, and high-rollers. Suffice it to say that these items looked less colorful than they sounded and were more difficult to master than they looked.
By many standards, Fred lived a privileged life. He counted among his blessings a loving wife, a nice home in Santa Clarita, and the prospect of a pension through his local union. He drove a black full-size crew cab Ford pickup, with dual tires and a flaming-skull tailgate decal. A real sweet ride. It hauled his deluxe fifth-wheel trailer up mountain passes like a boss (for long summer weekends at Cachuma Lake). In his living room sat a plush leather couch, a sixty-inch ultra-HD television, a high-fidelity 7.1-channel audio system, an impressive collection of Criterion Blu-ray discs, and a Bad Boys II poster autographed by Michael Bay. Some might say that Fred had a real sweet life. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was living the wrong one.
This angered him. Sure, he smiled and acted agreeably. But underneath this façade, Fred was coiled as tightly as the high-performance Rancho-brand shocks on his pickup. Petty things set him off, things beyond his control like traffic over the Grapevine. Sometimes, alone in his truck, he would yell at the top of his lungs, a raw and guttural bellow. Anyone who heard that deranged howl might have questioned Fred’s sanity. Increasingly, he questioned it himself.
Oftentimes, he felt that if he had to unload one more high-roller stand off the ten-ton (because the director of photography couldn’t stop fiddling with the background lighting), he was going to lose his shit. He would walk up to the DP and whack the dubious European accent out of his mouth with a fifteen-pound shot bag, storm over to video village and dump artisan cold-brewed coffee in the MacBook-covered laps of those smug agency fucks, and take a rubber mallet to the douchebag director’s Porsche Panamera (paid for by phoning in one Taco Bell commercial).
All that acrimony bottled up inside had, over time, transformed Fred’s appearance. Despite the cheery can-do attitude he projected on set, cantankerous physical features betrayed him. His belly ballooned aggressively, eager to bounce extras out of the lunch line. His beard bristled like a porcupine, quills flexed toward production assistants who touched his gear. His antagonistic swagger deterred any son of a bitch from asking him to waive a meal penalty.
* * *
III. Fred’s Real Life
What Fred really wanted to do was direct. He knew this was cliché, but he didn’t care. He’d fallen into grip work as a quick way to pay the bills after graduating film school in heavy debt. It was supposed to have been a detour that would eventually lead back to his real life.
In his real life, the one he was supposed to be living, he no longer woke up at four in the morning, humped around heavy metal, or catered to the whims of hacks. Acclaimed for his creative genius, Fred called the shots (literally and figuratively). His contract forbade call times before 9:00 a.m. and workdays longer than ten hours, but studios didn’t balk at these haughty demands. A prolific auteur, he cranked out at least one critically acclaimed feature film each year. Fred was paid handsomely for his genius. In fact, he no longer worried about money at all and had turned over the handling of his finances to a trusted business manager. A team of high-powered agents fielded requests for his services. His time was free to create.
But at the age of forty-six, he feared that he’d lost forever the path back to his real life. He had no reel. No body of work. No agent. When he chanced to mention his dream of directing to others, their half-hearted encouragements could not hide the skepticism behind their eyes.
Annoyingly, Fred was a fantastic grip, and that’s how people saw him. Because of this, his services were in high demand, and he worked constantly. With a jumbo mortgage, a home equity line of credit, two car payments, an installment loan on his fifth wheel, a comprehensive cable package (with HBO and Showtime), and an unlimited texting-and-data plan for his iPhone, it was hard to turn down the money.
All this gripping left Fred very little time to pursue his dream. He felt this keenly. He couldn’t relax. Unease pervaded his waking hours. This constant and unresolved anxiety fed the wellspring of his choler.
He countered this by listening to motivational audiobooks, like The Secret and The War of Art. Between setups, he found quiet places away from the camera to meditate and visualize his real life. During lunch, he snuck off to the ten-ton and wrote daily affirmations stating what a brilliant and successful director he was. He tried to carve out a little time and space each day for his dream. But he never seemed to gain traction.
* * *
For, unbeknownst to him, poor Fred battled an invisible and terrible force greater than he could imagine. The cunning overlord of Los Angeles, the mini-Satan who ruled that land, fed off of broken dreams. The more people who dreamed, the more powerful this evil entity became. And everyone dreamed in Los Angeles. So, with each passing decade and with every wide-eyed transplant from Michigan or North Dakota or Maine or wherever, this demon grew bigger and stronger and hungrier.
His name was Kal, and he lived at the southeast corner of Beverly and La Cienega, from whence his dominion extended out in a thirty-mile radius. His kingdom was known to many as the Studio Zone. Within the Studio Zone, Kal orchestrated complications great and small to thwart people’s dreams. Nobody “made it” there without his explicit consent. He bestowed fame and fortune on a select few from each generation. This was part of Kal’s plan. He needed poster children to inspire his flock, to convince the hopefuls that dreams really can come true. But success was dear. Kal would never allow his famous ones to enjoy their achievements. It’s no coincidence that so many celebrities suffer addiction, disease, and catastrophic accidents. Happiness and satisfaction made him sick. Dejection and misery, those were dishes into which Kal could sink his fangs.
* * *
V. Waking Up
Sometimes Fred would awaken from his life to find that years had passed and he’d made no progress at all. It was on one particularly hot June 16—the Santa Anas were blowing in—that Fred awoke while driving north on Interstate 5. Early evening, as he climbed the Grapevine, he realized that almost two years had elapsed since he’d vowed to really start taking action. He’d determined to write screenplays and make short films. These were to be stepping-stones toward becoming a famous director. Yet the video camera that he’d bought collected dust in the closet, and the pages of his screenplay remained blank. He had accomplished nothing, again. It struck him that twenty years had slipped away in such increments.
As he pulled into his gleaming concrete driveway after a fourteen-hour shift, not extraordinary in Fred’s job, reality wavered. It couldn’t be that he was stepping out of that same Ford pickup onto that same driveway of that same tract house, assaulted by those same ornery Santa Ana winds, exhausted and threadbare from another day of that same drudgery. This wasn’t meant to be his life. Something had gone haywire. Fred’s rage festered like an abscess. It oozed poison into his blood.
Kal savored this silent rage of desperation.
* * *
VI. Melting Down
As Fred trudged toward his front door, he choked down his feelings. His wife was a buoyant, astute woman, and he didn’t want to infect her with his venom. When he entered the house and called to her in a forced tone of cheer, she greeted him with a hug and a kiss. She told him that she wished he could have made it home earlier, so they could have eaten dinner together. Fred had wished this, too. He wished he had time to do a lot of things. But time was one of Kal’s great weapons, and he made sure that Fred had none to spare. So this one innocent comment was all it took to ignite the smoldering distemper packed so tightly in Fred’s guts.
Rational thought flew from his mind. He threw his keys down on the ground. He ripped off his Dodgers cap and chucked it across the room. He stomped back and forth down the entryway, yelling and cursing incoherently.
This was a side of Fred that he never showed. This was how he really felt. And how he really felt quite resembled a giant toddler in meltdown. He had never hurt or abused his wife, but she instinctually shrunk back from this violent outburst. Finally, he marched into the living room and flung himself down on the couch, where he hyperventilated for several minutes.
After some time, his wife looked in on him and asked if he were through. He apologized, didn’t know what had come over him. He was stressed, tired, overworked. Maybe a weekend at the lake was in order. She was not impressed. In fact, she was shaken by his little episode and informed him that his behavior was unacceptable. She expected him to act like an adult and conduct himself with decorum, even if he was upset. He saw the truth in all this and acted contrite, but underneath, he resented her scolding. The rage crept forth.
* * *
The next morning, the unwelcome alarm screeched at 4:00 a.m. Fred felt awful; he needed another three hours of sleep. But that was normal, and it was time to go to work. Time to drive through the quiet morning gloom to the job that was not his dream. As he prepared for the day, he indulged himself in a vitriolic inner monologue cataloguing his resentments. By the time he made it to set, a cloud of discontent surrounded him.
The shoot that day was a mayonnaise commercial with a director whom Fred despised. Even after working with him for eight years, the man still didn’t know Fred’s name. Whenever he wanted Fred’s attention, he would snap his fingers and say, “Hey, man.”
Fred tried in vain to project his sunny persona, and his failure triggered concerned inquiries from his coworkers. He informed them that he was just a little tired, and a grip brother presented him with a Rockstar energy drink from a private stash.
But it was no simple trick to outplay Kal. Shooting close-ups of food on a soundstage was tedious enough to be cruel. Kal had conceived this type of filming to separate people from their enthusiasm for life.
In fact, Kal felt a particular concentration of despair coming from that very stage in Encino, not just from Fred, but from the director all the way down to the production assistants. He sent out one of his invisible tentacles, which he wrapped around the stage, encasing it like a spider does its prey. In this manner, he could mainline that negative energy straight into his brown, syrupy blood. It gave him a little rush, an extra bump that, for a moment, calmed the rapacious hunger.
* * *
VIII. Hanging On
The energy level of the crew instantly crashed. The grips sent a man out to fetch more Rockstar drinks from the mini-cooler on the ten-ton. The agency producer leaned over to the line producer and asked if she could arrange a Starbucks run. The director excused himself for a minute and retreated to the privacy afforded by the heavily tinted windows of his Porsche. Everybody enlisted their drugs of choice to fight off what they considered to be those ordinary afternoon doldrums.
However, when a man’s life force drops below a certain threshold, common drugs are no help. Fred had reached this dangerous level. A playback monitor looped take eighteen of a butter knife swirling a dollop of creamy mayonnaise onto freshly sliced country loaf. There was a discussion underway about how to fix the dollop so it met brand specifications for shape and consistency. Fred stared at the video loop and grew entranced by the image. His vision dimmed. He wanted nothing more than to find some dark corner of the stage, wrap himself in a furniture pad, and fall into a deep state of hibernation.
His sympathetic nervous system sensed danger and sounded the alarm, flooding his bloodstream with norepinephrine and causing his heart to kick-drum. Vexed by these wild physiological swings, Fred panicked. He needed to get off that stage pronto, or he might just collapse in front of the cute craft services girl who was now circulating a tray of chai latte smoothies. And that would not do.
* * *
IX. Losing Grip
Fred stumbled across the stage and shoved open the door. As he staggered into the harsh sunlight, his progress was arrested by a blast of heat so dry that his skin seemed to wither and crack. He blinked and squinted and cupped a hand over his brow. There was no escape. Nowhere to turn. He stood teetering on the scorched blacktop of that dreary parking lot, the heat twisting from it in vapors. How he loathed this heat and its insistence, swept in from the Mojave Desert to remind people what this land really was. It teased and licked and penetrated, until his simmering cauldron of rage boiled over and erupted.
Bruce Banner had never felt such fury, and if it had been possible, Fred would have transformed into something even more menacing than the Hulk. In that moment, he hated everyone and everything and, given the power, would have smashed it all to dust. He looked to the sky and roared his disapproval of the world, the trumpeting call of a great beast.
Fifty feet away, a Panamera sat idling in the parking lot. Fred’s roar penetrated even the high-quality sound-dampening materials of the luxury vehicle, and the director’s head popped up from behind the dash, his nostrils and upper lip encrusted with white powder. His eyes widened at the sight of Fred standing, nay wobbling, near the stage door, eyes to the heavens, caterwauling like a wounded brontosaurus.
The director wiped his face on the sleeve of his Dolce & Gabbana shirt, got out of his Panamera, and crossed the lot. He called out, “Hey man, are you okay?”
But Fred was not okay. He saw the director blurred and muted, as if the mayonnaise had somehow gotten in his eyes. His limbs tingled, his ears buzzed, and a bubble of impending doom swelled in his chest. He gulped down the acrid air. Still, he could not get enough oxygen, and the world faded to gray. Fred sensed that his life was ending.
The director approached cautiously, as if scared to catch some infectious disease. He hitched his matte-black glasses up the bridge of his nose and said, “Man, you don’t look so good.”
A vast distance opened between them. The director’s mouth had moved, but Fred heard nothing for several seconds. Suddenly, the sound waves crashed into him with palpable force, knocking him back a couple steps. He swayed like a palm tree in a stiff breeze and struggled to understand what was happening.
The director began to emit light in spectral shafts, and Fred noticed patterns of color forming around the man’s body. His chest illuminated into a brown oval, from which a patchwork of jagged green and yellow spread. Red beams shot like lasers from his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was a growl, low and monstrous, “Hey. Man, you’re scaring me. Say something.”
Was this the devil, sent to collect him? Fred recoiled from the hideous being. He jerked his head around, searching for a way out, but like in a mirrored funhouse, that distorted monster leered back from every direction.
* * *
X. Fred’s Last Stand
His survival instincts redlined, and he knew that he must act. He reached down into some deep, primitive reserve and mustered up one last burst of resolve. Fred charged and sounded a battle cry. He pumped his legs as fast as they would go, and the world melted into a blur. Only his enemy ahead remained in focus.
But no matter how fast he ran, he could not close the gap between himself and his foe. And as he swung his clenched fists back and forth, the thing in front of him morphed and transformed into a montage of everything he hated. It cycled between traffic and smog and “Valet Parking Only” signs and “No Parking” signs and narcissistic directors and conniving producers and litterers and graffiti and lines at the checkout stand and celebrity tabloid magazines and the Santa Ana winds and Fisher dollies waiting to be carried up flights of stairs, and finally the thing became humanoid again, shining brown, yellow, green, and red.
He glanced down at his own heaving chest and saw a brown light glowing there. Green and yellow patches shimmered on his flailing arms. Now it made sense. The figure barreling toward him was the monster he hated most: his own pathetic self.
When Fred looked up, his loathsome projection advanced, and the distance began to close. They bore down on each other like two locomotives. Fred wanted to destroy the thing, to blast it into smithereens and put it out of its misery. He leapt from his feet and threw his body horizontal, headfirst, into a human-shaped missile. Like a mirror image, his opponent did the same. They flew toward each other, two grotesque lightning bugs caught in a cosmic game of chicken.
* * *
XI. Fred, Meet Fred
Their heads collided, but instead of the skull-crushing, brain-rattling impact that Fred had expected, he met with something soft and yielding. It felt like dipping his head into a tub of warm vegetable oil. The two forces plunged together and, meeting no resistance, began to disappear into each other like some cheap illusion. First their heads vanished, then their necks, shoulders, torsos, and so on.
As Fred dove into himself, only one thing shattered: that distorted lens through which he’d viewed his life. He no longer saw a washed-up failure who had abandoned his dreams. He no longer felt the constant, nagging pressure to do something great. He no longer raged at everything that seemed to have stood in his way. Now he saw clearly.
Two sets of feet were all that remained of the bodies that had collided. Like the sun sets into its reflection behind the Pacific, the feet set into each other. Nothing was left of the two Freds. All fell still and silent, and Fred found himself floating in blackness.
* * *
From someplace far away, a disembodied voice spoke in an Australian accent, “Oy mate. Can you hear me?” The sound echoed and reverberated until it cocooned him in a feedback loop. Fred wanted to reply, but he had no body and hence no mouth with which to speak. He drifted in the direction of the voice, moving by intention alone. “Fred, is it? Come on, mate. I know you’re in there.”
Fred accelerated and began to move freely through time and space. He raced faster and faster across the void. He didn’t know exactly where he was coming from or where he was headed; he just knew that he had been called. His pace quickened until he traversed galaxies in a nanosecond. Suddenly, he crashed into his body, and a firm smack to the cheek jolted him awake.
He blinked and squinted into the sunlight. A man in a paramedic uniform leaned over and said, “Oy, good to see ya. You made it back.” The man had short, stubbly brown hair and a round, jovial face. Fred gathered that he was flat on his back in the parking lot. He turned his head and saw an assembly of concerned people, including the director, huddled nearby.
“Where did you come from?” Fred asked the medic.
Wrapping a cuff around Fred’s arm to take his blood pressure, he replied, “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“I came from someplace… it was nowhere, really…”
“That’s how it goes,” said the man, smiling. “But you’re here now.”
Fred pondered where he’d been and where he was. The heat radiating from the pavement warmed and soothed him. “Am I okay?” he asked.
“Your vitals are normal. Could have been exhaustion, a panic attack … who knows? We can take you to the hospital if you like, but my recommendation is to go home, take it easy, and keep an eye on yourself for the next day or so. Wouldn’t hurt to see your GP for a physical. Do you have someone who can pick you up?”
With unexpected gratitude, Fred thought of his wife and replied, “Yes, I do.”
The medic offered his hand and hauled Fred up to a seated position. Fred felt different. He felt lighter.
“Good?” the medic asked, and Fred nodded.
* * *
XIII. Wide Awake
For the first time in a long while, Fred was good. Even his appearance improved. His countenance transformed from surly to pleasant. He stood taller, and his belly receded back into his torso. The hue of his complexion turned from ruddy to golden. Fred looked more like the sanguine young man he’d been twenty years ago.
This new feeling of Fred’s flowed through Kal’s tendrils back to his lair at the corner of Beverly and La Cienega, and his blood burned. A foul taste arose in his mouth and he spat to cleanse his palette. He knew that flavor, although he was seldom subjected to it, and he cursed that he had lost another victim, another source of sustenance. For Fred no longer dreamed.
* * *
Fred would never be known as a creative genius. Like many, his life was destined for obscurity. But free of his oppressive dreams, he could relax and have a little fun. He found the artistry in manipulating a c-stand, in shaping the light with fingers and dots, in feathering a dolly up to speed. The invisible strokes of a master. Practiced over time, they would build his pension nice and fat. And each night, he would happily retreat to his comfortable home in Santa Clarita. He would not only conduct himself with the decorum that his wife deserved, but with something like joy. It wasn’t the life he’d dreamed of. It was the life he had. And it was pretty damned sweet.
Jason S. Dennis lives in Los Angeles. He attended USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and works in advertising. His flash fiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review and Exposition Review.