Driving. People's eyes went wide when they looked over and saw Michael Sennet driving next to them. A black Jeep Limited. Something about that black car with the gold lettering, Limited, made Michael think of a throne being carried through the L.A. streets—held up by his money and fame.
There was only one good reason to live in L.A.: Hollywood. The city was lit by a union of sunshine and studio light—a strange, artificial light like a nighttime sporting event that was so bright and electric that you couldn't believe any of it was real. Michael owned this city. Everyone wanted to meet him, be him. He could see the desire in everybody's eyes, a kind of breathing hope. Even the failure that existed here—and there was more failure than success—was lifted up by his presence. They all drove right alongside each other on their way to the same Pacific Coast Highway, Westwood, Bel Air, San Vicente, Olympic, Pico, Sunset Strip, Culver City, Hollywood Boulevard and beyond.
He was their mayor—responsible for the city's optimism. He was even responsible for the economy. He was a politician by default. More people wanted to see him driving on the freeway than the mayor in a cold limousine. Maybe that's why he liked to drive so much. When he was driving he felt at home in the sprawling city—in the whole city—because ALL of it would welcome him with reverence, nervousness, encouraging laughter. And that just made him feel good.
He was now on the 405, about to pull on the 10 to go downtown to meet Marty Goldfarb—producer, friend—who was on the set of a loft made to look like Soho, New York.
But he wasn't paying attention. He was about to miss his exit. He had to pull over three lanes in the five lane highway, quickly. He was a good driver. He made the first two in that beautiful smooth sweep that was like surfing. But the offramp was almost here, and he wasn't on it yet. If he didn't pull off soon he'd hit the yellow divider. He'd once seen in a movie that it was filled with water. He didn't want to hit that divider; seemed too messy. He turned onto the offramp sharply and was forced to pull directly in front of a pickup. The truck honked wildly, skidding left then right then straight, and then it started speeding up, its nose coming up to Michael's rear like the reprimanding eyes of a teacher. I guess they don't recognize me, Michael thought. The pickup was right behind him, almost nudging him. Rust red, dented, headlight eyes bearing down, it almost seemed to be growling. This is like a movie.
Michael sped up and looked in the rearview mirror. The pickup sped up right along with him. They were on the offramp, high above the city now, held up with columns that would break in the coming earthquake. Michael's heart pounded. Imagine dying like this, murdered, on the freeway. Such anger in this city.
Finally, solace. The offramp was ending as they pulled onto the 10. But this only made things worse. The pickup sped up faster and tried to get right alongside Michael. Pretty fast for a piece of shit. Michael had nowhere to go because some silver hatchback was in front of him. And the pickup was almost here. Who knew what kind of rage the pickup would inflict on him? Michael looked over at the pickup with wide-blue-eyed fear. It couldn't have matched the look that the driver of the pickup made when he realized who he had been toying with—a look of smiling, red-eyed deviance that immediately changed to worried submission to oh shit I didn't see that car in front of me, swerve, change lanes, hit the wall, sparks, crash against the side wall, up on two wheels and topple over, skid on its side to a complete stop on the shoulder of the 10, lucky I didn't die, my heart is in my ass, throat and feet.
Michael saw all this happen in his rearview mirror. He immediately pulled to a stop on the narrow shoulder of the freeway.
The pickup lay on its side a quarter mile away. Michael wasn't sure why he was walking in that direction—help, vengeance, curiosity—he just was.
He was almost there. Some people were rubbernecking, but most sped by, a sound like a swarm of indifferent killer bees. The driver, dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt, a worker of some kind but with no equipment in the back of his truck, had managed to open the door of the pickup. He was trying to raise out of the truck as if cracking out of an egg.
Michael arrived before the man could pull himself all the way out.
The man looked up at Michael from inside his truck, feet standing on the passenger door. He was overweight, pale, meek-looking in person. Sad rather than angry.
"You," the man said.
"Me," Michael replied.
"I didn't know it was you."
"If I had known I wouldn't of—"
"But you did. And look what's happened."
Michael felt good now. This was why he had come back here: humiliation.
The man made a thoughtful smile. He said, "I didn't think you were real. I thought you were animated."
Michael glared. "You sure you want to be insulting me. You're in the middle of a predicament here."
"Sorry. I'm sorry."
The man frowned with guilt and some fear. He stared up at Michael's eyes made dark by sunglasses. It almost seemed as if Michael wasn't here to help.
Michael took a step back from the truck and surveyed the moment. There was something searing, something pathetic, here. A symbol and a symptom of how things could go wrong. All the dumb, aggressive energy of this city crashed on the side of the freeway. And I'm part of it.
Michael placed his hand on the roof of the truck and peered down. The seats and the dash were cracked. It smelled of old plastic. "Here, take my hand," he said. He put his hand out. The man grabbed it which felt strangely intimate, like old friends in agreement. Michael started pulling.
A car started honking on the freeway. Michael turned around. A girl in a red Nissan Sentra hung out the passenger side, screaming, "Hey, Michael! I love you, Michael!" and drove on.
Everybody's going to hear about this, Michael thought.
He turned back to the truck. In one motion he pulled the man out of his truck. Somehow the man wasn't hurt. He brushed off his pants and stood next to his truck, staring at it like it was a big, collapsed pet.
"Thanks," the man said, eyes still on the truck. Then he looked at Michael worriedly, but with a slight embarrassed grin. "You're not, you know, gonna press charges or anything, will you?"
Michael considered this with no change of expression. "No sir," he said. "I won't if you won't."
Copyright©2006 Henry Baum
"Michael Sennet" is excerpted from Henry Baum's novel North of Sunset which was released in 2006.