Sometimes I exaggerate.
GO WEST, JESSE JAMES
During our time in Hollywood, Wade, my writing partner, and I have had our fair share of painfully horrible business meetings. It comes with the territory. We assumed we were prepared for pretty much anything.
We had not taken into account Tom Fernet.
Tom had been given our names by a mutual acquaintance and called me up to discuss an opportunity. He explained that he had an idea for a film about the outlaw Jesse James and was looking to pay decent money to have a treatment written. He was a well-spoken man, intelligent and articulate, if not a little eccentric. His words seeped through the phone with a strong southern lilt, Virginia born and bred. Not wanting to pass up any chance to make money writing, I told Tom that Wade and I were interested.
His office was located on a trashed block in the more seedy section of Venice, tucked snugly between a bargain locksmith and what was once a small bakery (now a gutted, abandoned building). Wade and I exchanged an apprehensive glance, and then I knocked. The door opened immediately, as if Tom had been waiting for us right on the other side for hours.
He stood before us, a younger, much-less handsome Charlton Heston look-alike. Probably in his mid-fifties, his wild white hair sprouted from his scalp, refusing to obey his command. When he grinned, I saw that his teeth were crooked and brown, with several gummy gaps where entire teeth were missing.
“Come in, come in!” Tom bellowed in his warm Southern drawl.
We stepped inside Tom’s office, and I stopped dead in my tracks. Every square inch of every single wall in the entire office was completely wallpapered with photographs. Not photographs of Jesse James, as one might imagine from a Jesse James enthusiast. No, the quilt of scrappy images blanketing the room was comprised entirely of women. Mostly celebrities. Mostly in sexy positions. Floor to ceiling. Many overlapping. The sheer number of things pinned and stapled and taped recklessly to the walls instantly created a chaotic, claustrophobic overtone. The pictures were ripped from their original sources without precision, and hundreds of frayed, torn edges flapped on the walls as if the room were breathing. It was as if I were being attacked by a rabid copy of People Magazine. Tom didn’t say anything to clarify this “hobby” and instead said, proudly, “Okay, the first stop on our tour,” and pointed gingerly to a small sepia-toned photo right in front of us.
“This is Jesse James at age sixteen, which is pretty much what he looked like during the one year he lived in California. This is what I want our movie to be about. We’ll call it: Go West, Jesse James.”
I tried my best to look at the browning photo of the young Jesse James, I really did, but the picture was tacked below a huge spread of Britney Spears in a compromising position and just above a large color photo of a scantily dressed Christina Aguilera torn carelessly from the local newspaper. Also stapled to the wall in random places, I noticed a handful of Polaroids of young women, smiling and waving at the camera. I made a mental note not to touch anything…
In a desperate attempt to get the meeting started, I asked Tom what he did for a living.
“I do a lot of work in the beverage industry.” Tom explained. “In fact, I’m about to introduce a new beverage to the Southern California marketplace.”
“A new beverage?”
This was a question I knew I’d regret later and Tom was up out of his chair. “I’ll show ya.” He rummaged around a makeshift desk and returned with a plastic bottle that looked like Cherry 7-Up. He handed it to me, a proud inventor.
I had to study at the label twice to make sure I was reading it correctly. Unfortunately, I was. Tom’s new beverage was called: SUM PUSSY.
“We’re gonna market it in low-end gentlemen’s clubs. I got high hopes.”
“I can’t help but notice you’ve neglected to include a list of ingredients.” Wade commented, glancing at the back of the bottle.
Tom’s smile tightened, “It’s an energy drink.”
“Now, before we git started thinkin’ about our movie, we should discuss our business arrangement. I got a deal in place already with Douglas James, the last living descendant of the Jesse James lineage. I own fifty percent of this project, and Douglas owns fifty percent. And you guys don’t git to walk in here off the street and git fifty percent right off the bat. Although, you write the treatment and maybe even write the script, I could change the deal around. Actually, I’d be willing to give you guys fifty percent of the deal right now, and I’ll share my fifty percent with Douglas, maybe. Though, I won’t give him half, because he hasn’t done shit. Maybe ten percent for Doug, forty percent for me, and you guys could split fifty percent.”
The question in my mind at this point was fifty percent of WHAT? What in the hell was this crazy old man talking about?
Before Wade or I could even comment on the worrisome aspects of Tom’s proposed “business arrangement,” he handed us thick packet about Jesse James and began what can only be described as a college-level lecture on the infamous outlaw. After thirty minutes had passed, Tom’s seminar had not yet reached the era when Jesse James was actually in California.
“Excuse me, Tom, could we possibly skip ahead?” Wade requested.
Tom looked mildly confused by this interruption. “Uh…okay.”
Wade flipped ahead in Tom’s handout. “I’m trying to picture what exactly you want this film to be about, and I’m trying to imagine what Jesse James did in California. So I was looking ahead and I happened to find a section of your outline labeled ‘What Jesse James Did In California.’ I just wanted to ask a couple questions about this section.”
Tom nodded, “Sure.”
Wade continued, dryly, “Okay, the first bullet point under this section reads ‘He punched cows.’”
Startled by this, I leaned over and glanced at the outline in Wade’s hands. Sure enough, there it was.
“Yep.” Tom said. Clearly this bullet point needed no explanation.
“He punched cows?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know. He was a cowpuncher.”
Before I could explain that no, I wasn’t familiar with that turn of phrase, Wade interrupted again, “Okay, fine, whatever. My real question is this second bullet point here. ‘He didn’t do any outlawin’.”
“So, are we to understand that during the year in which Jesse James lived in California, he didn’t rob any banks, or—“
“Nope. He didn’t do any outlawin’ at all. He lived with his uncle, worked on cattle drive, and tried to go straight.”
“I see.” Wade said, folding the outline in half. Our man Tom had somehow ferreted out the most boring year in the short life of Jesse James, notorious American Outlaw, and now wanted to make it into a movie. Perhaps we could call it, The Year Jesse James Took Off.
“So, how does that sound? Do we have ourselves a deal?” Tom asked, sincerely.
Wade scratched his head, “So… you want to hire us to write the treatment?”
Tom’s face squinted up instantly. “Okay, so, look: there’s no money. But that’s why I’d be willing to give you fifty percent. You can own part of this deal, and we’ll all collect when it gets made.”
This revelation was our cue to rise and get the hell out of crazy town. We thanked Tom for his time, and told him we would discuss the project amongst ourselves and get back to him shortly. As we walked towards the front door, which was wallpapered with images of Kristi Yamaguchi ice skating, Winona Ryder candidly walking along a private beach, Pamela Anderson naked, and a young Reese Witherspoon from Cruel Intentions, Tom blurted out, “Have you ever heard Billy Gashade’s Ballad of Jesse James?”
“No.” I sighed.
Then Tom, inexplicably, began to sing: “Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man. He robbed the Glendale train…”
“Glendale, California?” I asked, suddenly hoping that maybe we’d finally found the one fricking thing Jesse James actually did on this coast.
“Nice meeting you, Tom.” I extended my hand.
Most of the drive back was in utter silence, punctuated by the faint smell of antifreeze burning in my engine: the foreshadowing of my radiator cracking later that evening – a fitting finale to the humiliating day.
“Wow.” I said, after a long pause.
“Yeah.” Wade replied.
“Sorry about that.” I felt responsible for dragging poor Wade through the fun house.
Wade smiled, “Well, we may not have landed a writing job today, but we did get a character for our next serial killer movie.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “And I don’t know about you, but I sure could go for Sum Pussy right now.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
Go West, Jesse James - Originally published in Script Magazine’s January/February Issue