CHOCOLATE AND CHAMPAGNE, a comedy with a dark center

A Beverly Hills woman wakes up middle-aged and finds her life with a younger man undignified.

The stage version was performed in New York at the Creative Place Theatre.  Think of...

...only this is her movie, and she gets the younger guy.

Diana, a woman of a certain age, deals with a birthday by throwing out her younger live-in Jim.

They're right for each other, and she regrets it immediately, but she can't take him back: her daughter Jackie, who idolizes and competes with her, tells her Jim has seduced her, and Diana believes it.

So she makes do with the respectable but empty new life she'd thought she needed—with older lawyer Griff.

Jim gives a driving lesson to frantic neurotic Betsy, who almost shoots them off a cliff.  He calms her down and she takes him home. But he can't forget Diana.

Proposed cast: Juliette Binoche (Diana)

DIANA, the Hamlet at the heart of this comedy, is a clothes designer with a boutique on Rodeo Drive, a house in Beverly Hills, and a younger lover, Jim, her kept man for two years now. There’s nothing she can’t handle—except getting older.

Proposed cast: Gael García Bernal (Jim)

JIM is happy with a champagne-and-sports-car life, but he’s also a talented script-writer who’s postponing seriousness into a future that never comes.  Together they’re fast company.  They must have been brilliant at her birthday party last night.

This morning, though, even while he’s making love to her, she’s spooked.  She tells him he has to go.  She wants something more presentable, more—respectable—before it’s too late.

Which shocks him.  He takes life as it comes, but this is a bit violent.

Proposed cast: Kathy Bates (Betsy)
BETSY, the suicidal widow of a husband she drove to suicide, is too scattered to pass a driving test, takes a lesson with Jim, spins the car onto a Mulholland Drive cliff and is ready to gun it and take him with her.

Proposed cast: John Goodman (Griff)
Diana's lawyer GRIFF, more her age and on her success level, has been in love with her for years.  Now’s his chance.  When Jackie tells Diana the lie that Jim has seduced her Diana gives up on Jim and tries to make a go of it with Griff.

Proposed cast: Adelaide Clemens (Jackie)
JACKIE, Diana’s daughter, idolizes her and so misses no chance to pick at and defy her.  Inwardly shaky, she is outwardly impish and sexy.  She thinks she’s in love with Jim; in fact what she needs is a father.

Proposed cast: Jack Roth (Dylan)
Betsy's son DYLAN—eccentric hair, psychotic eyes, twitches constantly and rhythmically as if keeping time to music he doesn’t much enjoy—is in the same class at UCLA with Jackie, over whom he moans uncontrollably.  He disgusts her.

Proposed cast: Rosie Perez (Maria)
MARIA, Diana's housekeeper, is the deadpan foil to Diana's Hamlet, secret ally to Jim, and the one person Diana doesn't dare defy.

Proposed cast: Stockard Channing (Gwen)
GWEN is Diana's mischievous best friend and alter-ego.  She'll take Jim if Diana doesn't want him!  Just kidding.  In an attempt to bring them back together she throws a party and invites both of them, but it turns into a confrontation....

And the final character is Beverly Hills—
—the tone, the climate, the village size and ambiance that make it inevitable for these people to collide.

The stage version of Chocolate and Champagne was produced by Love Creek  at the Creative Place Theatre in New York.

Pretentious Pictures presents a comedy with a dark center.

The Pleasures of the Screenplay

I mean aside from writing them.

My director of photography on EMMA BLUE, Giorgos Arvanitis (, likes to say that it takes three things to make a film: a good script, a good script and a good script.

But it's not QUITE always enough. THE OUTLAW is a case in point—screenplay by Jules Furthman and the great, the unparalleled Ben Hecht; starring Jane Russell (her debut) and Walter Huston, THE actor of his day if we think of Barrymore as theatre. And yet I never saw a movie lie there quite so dead. The directing of Howard Hughes, even helped out by Howard Hawks, somehow embalms it before your eyes. It's like hearing the actors do a read-through—indeed you watch the film not to watch it but to hear the screenplay.

A screenplay is a poem, with a form as tight and limiting and intricate as a sonnet, and those limitations and intricacies must be made to sing.

I have other favorite screenplays (not that THE OUTLAW is my favorite—it's just that it stands there nude), like THE LONG HOT SUMMER, script by William Faulkner, Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr: "Well, life is very long and full of surprises, Miz Varner, you may jess bah sumpm yet"; and like Truman Capote’s BEAT THE DEVIL: “Harry, we must beware of those men—they’re desperate characters.” “What makes you say that?” “Not one of them looked at my legs!”

And which Rat Pack movie is this from? Dean: “Where’s my drink?” Frank: “In your hand.” Dean: “Is that my hand?”

But the best of all must be TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT by Faulkner and Furthman. ("Take the money and run," said Papa about Hollywood.)

Hawks told Bogart, "I'm going to pair you with somebody who's even more insolent than you are." So in walks nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall: "Anybody got a match?"

She calls him Steve, though that's not his name. "Listen, Steve..."

"Wuz ya ever stung by a dead bee?" Walter Brennan asks her. "They lie upside down in the grass and you come along barefoot and step on 'em!"

Drinking in a Martinique bar and the cops come in. Bogey smiles. "A lot of them, aren't there, kid."

The cold beauty who resents Bogey faints as he's operating on her husband. Bogey catches her, carries her into her stateroom to drop her on the bed and hesitates just that instant when Baby comes in and catches this. "Tryna guess her weight?"


A senryu is a three-line unrhymed Japanese poem, structurally similar to the haiku, but treating human nature, usually ironically or satirically.  (Haiku are about sunsets and landscapes, for which, in the West, we have a limited tolerance.)

She’s like a good book:
One is avid but in a
Hurry to finish.

Life is where you can’t
Believe what your friends tell you
About your haircut.

Men prefer women’s
Bodies to their souls because
They change more slowly.

Poems are like farts:
Other people’s stink; one’s own
Have subtle perfume.

Going to the loo
At a party is like death:
No one misses you.

Was it Heraclitus
Who said you never
Get the same haircut twice?

My skills as a thief            
Have enabled me to steal
What belongs to me.

The library of
The inner self publishes
No glib synopsis.

So obscene in the
Strainer of biography,
The warm cheap detail.

The pointlessness of
Principles: to keep you from
Behaving badly.

Too frivolous, we
Are betrayed by our depths; too
Deep and we get bored.

Human risk, wretched
Human purity: nothing

At least life is brief.
It holds your face in the shit
And then lets you go.

The moment we use
The word “vision” we are no
Longer persuaded.

Fifty-three years old
And I made it without kil-
Ling anybody.

Chaos eats outward
At the compact order in
The heart of chaos.

My daemon uses me
To read every book
I can get my hands on.

My vulgarity
Is all that stands between me
And my suicide.

Desperate thoughts, from the
Outside so beautiful, so
Ugly from within.

It was the poets
Who invented God, after
Which they swallowed him.

The avant-garde is
Founded on the fairy tale
That art moves forward.

Who has not changed channels
In belief that the
Broadcaster felt the blow?

I think of Homer
Or Shakespeare and I want to
Weep.  And some women.

Naiveté and
Cynicism: pups in the
Same noisy litter.

The laughing gods weren’t
Conscious of being gods.  That’s
How we got caught here.

Consciousness grazes,
A random velvet sweeping
Animal muzzle.

We seek the poet
Who’s right all the time, but who
Could bear to find him?

Like your own children,
You try to make artists in-
To yourself, and can’t.

With an adequate
Stomachic one has no need
Of philosophy.

The moment we have
A feeling it has always
Been exactly so.

We cannot transcend
Or identify ourselves.
Something prevents it.

What is poetry
But poverty?—the will in
Tight circumstances.

The serpent holds to
His lines, shouldering through the
Maze of his pattern.

Very pretty.  But
Imagine having to feel
That way all the time!

Oh, my fuck-eat-drink-
Swim-sleep-write-feel machine, do
Not abandon me!

The humiliating
Message: you can’t think
The thought that put you here.

Seducible high
Spirits meld with statements and
Are contradicted.

“Hah!” I shouted.  “I
Exist!”  “That,” said the uni-
Verse, “is your problem.”

Confession of a
Claustrophobic: character-
Ize life and I scream!

He descended into
Hell to write these things.
And it ain’t over yet.

Also by Robert MacLean:
Mortal Coil: A Comedy of Corpses at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES;
The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES;
and the Toby books: 
Foreign Matter at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords; 
Total Moisture at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords; 
The Cad at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords; and
Will You Please Fuck Off? at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords.

Comedy of corpses MORTAL COIL

A funeral director in love with an heiress kidnaps her grandfather’s corpse to help her find the will the old man wrote and swallowed before dying.

Think of:

Proposed cast: Edward Norton

Delmore Danruther—clown, slacker, womanizer, wild man on the dance floor—takes nothing seriously, especially his job as a funeral director.

He fields the calls, picks up the bodies (sometimes from accident scenes, grotesquely distorted), sells the coffins, organizes the ceremonies, occasionally presides at them himself, and has to do all the jobs that go with the turf—help with the embalming, wash the cars and clean the toilets.

Amidst all this chillingly realistic death he's a Bugs Bunny of a guy—playful, ironic, false eyebrows as he reads a service, ball-and-paddle in the back room, loves driving the big cars.

But if he gets a call from someone whose family member has just died, he can suddenly be tender. And despite his boss's nagging he won't sell grief-vulnerable people coffins they can't afford.

Had a job hosing down buses at the terminal, then was picked up in a bar by Hannah Merklinger, whose husband owns the funeral home. She got him the job, part of which is keeping her happy.

Falls so deeply in love with Merrilie that he almost dies for her. When he gives his all and then finds her in bed with someone else, it breaks his heart and his spirit.

Proposed cast: Leslie Mann

MerrilieGornton, twenty-five, beautiful, refined, the potential heiress to a huge fortune, moves in a horses-and-sports-cars world out of Delmore's reach, has a blond-god boyfriend in the background.

Combines innocence and curiosity in a way that keeps us guessing. Is she caring or calculating?

Is horrified when Delmore lets her see some realities in the back room, but discovers in herself a fascination with them that amounts—fortunately for him—to a fetish.

In discussion: Paul Mazursky
Anson Gornton, eighty-six, Merrilie's grandfather, CEO of multinational empire Gornton Pharmaceuticals and one of the richest men in the world, is on his death bed.

Creaky-voiced but loud and authoritative all the same.

Surrounded by family members awaiting their share of the pie.

Mistakenly pronounced dead, then wakes, takes Delmore in his cheap black suit for Death himself and confides in him.

We’re never sure if he’s crazy or making sense.

Extraordinarily well-hung.

Wraps his will in cigarette foil and swallows it before dying, causing a scramble for the body, which Delmore abducts.

Proposed cast: Peter Bogdanovich

The boss, funeral-home proprietor J. Luther Merklinger, late middle age, is a pasty, insipid tightwad.

Sucks up to the Gorntons.

Has it in for Delmore, who never makes any big sales. Suspects him of fun-having in the back room.

Has no idea his wife is sleeping with Delmore.

The stage version is out with Baker's in New York and mounted regularly by American theatre groups:

THEME SONG (for optimistic female voices, to the tune of "Shuffle off to Buffalo"):

When you're in the mortuary
You may find it cold and scary—
No, no, don't recoil.
Off you're gonna shuffle,
Shuffle off this mortal coil!

Comes the undertaker later
And he'll drain your radiator
And he'll change your oil.
Off you're gonna shuffle,
Shuffle off this mortal coil!

First he'll put you on the table,
Then he'll pump out your insides.
He'll make your condition stable
With formal-de-hyde!

You'll be magotty and wormy—
It's enough to make you squirmy—
When you're in the soil.
Off you're gonna shuffle,
Shuffle off this mortal coil!

Just because you feel immortal
Doesn't mean you'll never die.
You'll get hard and rigor mortal—
No use to won-der why!

When you're pushing up the daisies
You'll be lying back and lazy--
No more moil and toil.
Off you're gonna shuffle,
Shuffle off this mortal coil!

Shuffle off, shuffle off, shuffle off, shuffle off,
Shuffle off this mor-tal coil!

And the novel was short-listed for the London Observer's P.G. Wodehouse Comic Novel Prize:

We had this guy working for us, his name was Jump. Nervous guy. Every time you spoke to him, he jumped. Just getting his attention was an act of cruelty. "Jump," you'd say, and he'd jump.
I don't know why he kept on with the job. The bodies frightened him. He hated being left alone with them, especially at night. Which of course was apt to happen.
He was always checking behind him. If he was working with two lights, and caught a glimpse of the second shadow, he'd jump, maybe throw the scalpels around. It was kind of dangerous!
He just could not not say to himself, This is a dead body. I am in the presence of a dead body. I am touching a dead body. No. For him they were too clenched, too passive not to be secretly hostile.
When a new one came in, his eyes would widen even before he looked up from the one he was working on. He'd watch the silhouette under the sheet, wouldn't turn his back on it as he moved around the table. The first thing he did, when he got to it, was cover the eyes, in case they should roll open, cut to him.
Maybe it was just habit that kept him at it. He was like a second-rate musician who'd achieved some kind of truce with his instrument--just hung in there and did what he knew how to do.
Then too, they say a lot of radio announcers are people who used to stutter. Every day they get up and face it again. Well, Jump did this.
The things that were bound to happen on the job every so often were agony for him. A tremor in the hand, a sudden emission of gas, let's call it, and he was liable to leap back and scream. Up front the clients would wonder what was going on. The boss would stick his head in, and we'd all have to look busy.
I'll give you an example. There's a trick to folding the hands on the chest so they stay in place. If you don't get them just right, an arm can fall away and whack you a good one when you're thinking about something else. It happened to Jump. He dropped an instrument under the table and got down to grope for it when the hand swung onto his back and settled there, the fingers spreading slowly. Of course you don't get a touch much colder than that. Impersonal, I guess you could say.
Jump couldn't speak or move. It was hours before we found him under there. We thought he'd gone out for lunch!
Trouble was, a temperament like that made him too easy to tease. Dog only really ever lit up when he was torturing Jump. He'd wire an arm and jerk it while Jump was working, and Jump would go off like popcorn. Or he'd sneak out at night and cut the lights, listen to Jump panic around in there, cry out every time he touched something dead.
If we got an accident case Dog might slip up and slide a hand into Jump's pocket. When the hand touched him he'd wrestle the smock off and hold it away from him, whimpering. It was really something!
They were both little guys but Jump was pudgy. Dog was gaunt, grim-looking. Dead eyes. A lurker telephone-wise, and in his entire demeanor sort of a scuzz-ball. Something about him made you want to hand him a Q-tip.
We had this joker with buckteeth and Nadine couldn't quite get the lips to close, so she shined up the enamel with a little steel wool. Dog formed the conclusion that that was how things were done and stocked his medicine cabinet with S.O.S. pads.
I think he held his breath too long or something. In most matters his computer was down but if gratification was sufficiently immediate he could be something of a criminal genius. We didn't leave him alone with the bodies either.
One day he did a hospital pick-up and came back with a psychiatrist who'd been strangled by a patient reliving a trauma. I was stretched out on a table. Nadine had treated me to a pedicure and I was just coming out of the anesthetic. I got up on an elbow to peel a kiwi, I think it was, and saw Dog wheeling something quietly past so as not to alert Jump.
After a while Jump turned off the hose and took off his oyster bib. Some clients were milling around at a wake down the hall. We watched absently as he went into the washroom, closed the door, turned on the light.
Of course the joker was in there, sitting on the toilet with his lips pinned back to give him a touch of snarling aggression. The eyes had something urgent to communicate.
Nadine didn't entirely approve of this sort of thing. Professional pride came into it. That oh-he-looks-so-natural look was something she could always bring off, even if it came down to sawdust and Pollyfilla. She could put you back together if you swallowed a depth charge.
But the mouth is always a problem. If it doesn't stay the way you set it the first time it'll never look right. And if the r.m. set into this joker she'd have to tap it into shape with a hammer.
But anyway.
Jump hurled himself against the door until it splintered and he could squeeze through. He stood there winded and wiping his glasses while we pretended not to notice.
Dog roofed his eyebrows and looked around for approval.

I got a call to pick up the body of Anson Gornton, the Anson Gornton, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Gornton Pharmaceuticals, and reputedly one of the richest men in the country. His empire had gone multinational after capturing the market with his formula for diet tooth gel.
Legend had it that he'd got his start by auctioning the production rights for wash-n-wear condoms. Fearful of being driven out of business by Gornton Reusables, the major companies had eagerly bought up and suppressed the patent, and young Anson had used the capital to become a major competitor in the field. Of course our little community was very proud.
And now that it was all over, no one was more moved than the management down at the f.h. Gornton's passing would mean the full-package funeral with extra limos and, at the very least, the forty-two-ounce-bronze-and-gold-fleck casket. Anything else would be just fooling around.
Not that there's anything wrong with fooling around.
The boss had been pacing and rubbing his hands waiting for this one. Our location pretty well gave us dibs on the wealthy families in the city--let's not risk losing any business by naming it--but the prestige of burying the chief Gornton would do a lot to consolidate our position.
Besides, it was spring, halfway between the flu epidemics and the heat waves, and two months to go till suicide season. We'd mostly been standing around with our hands in our pockets, jingling our change, and the boss was wild with impatience.
The house was in the uptown ghetto for the rich that we regarded as our turf. But it was so big, this house, and so nearly out of sight on its rolling grounds that it reduced the surrounding neighborhood to peasant cottages. What the hell, when you've got it paint flames on it and screw on a bulb horn, I always say.
We pulled up at the back door and Dog got out the stretcher. I checked to make sure he hadn't gone wee-wee on his shoes or anything. You have to watch him.
In the doorway stood a squat woman in a nurse's uniform, arms folded. She fixed us with a sneer as we approached and turned away without speaking to lead us inside.
We went along a hall and up stairs. I addressed her haunches. "Did the doctor sign the certificate?"
Doctors never want to sign death certificates. They mean piles of paperwork.
"He'll have it for you."
This was vague. "I can't move him without the ticket," I warned her.
She stopped and turned on me, hung her face down into mine like an apparition from the long forgotten racial past. "Don't start with me," she said.
Open-mouthed I exchanged glances with Dog.
We climbed again. "The old fart was always on my case. Don't you start."
Chastened, we followed silently along the upper hall until we came to a man with a black bag. The doctor.
"Here they are," she said.
He nodded at a tall oak door, said, "The body's in there," and turned to go.
My forefinger came up. I wasn't going in their whispering polite explanations about why we couldn't take it away. Puts a strain on things.
He handed me a freshly filled-out form, and I examined it, verifying the legibility of the signature and the cause of death. You don't want to expose yourself to anything too iffy, disease-wise.
Smiling my approval, I folded the paper and filed it in my pocket. The hard part was over.
These words hammered the door as if rock-concert speakers had been set up on the other side.
The medicos trembled. Their expressions withered. It came to me with horror that what we were hearing was the voice of the dead man! That is to say, he wasn't dead!
Now, this kind of thing happens once in a while. Joker wakes up on the table with the pump in him and you've already got his crowns out. It's embarrassing.
But in the middle of a call! I mean I've been a party to some pretty tactless faux pas, but they don't come any fauxer than showing up too early to collect a corpse!
The floor creaked as I turned to tiptoe away, and the voice vibrated the door. “WHO’S THAT? HAS HE COME FOR ME ALREADY? IS THAT YOU, MR. D? OPEN THAT DOOR!”
I might have made it off stage in time if the croaker hadn't grabbed me and torn at my pockets until he had the paper back. Of course one sees his point. We were in lawsuit territory! Headlines!
The door swung open on a crowd of people around a canopied bed, making way so the occupant could see me. He was beak-nosed and bony, and his eyes and mouth were round with rage. He looked like he should have been dead, I could see that. I figured him for an extra-long.
"Well, Mr. D.," he greeted me, trembling, his voice creaking like a coffin lid, "you seem to be a trifle early!
There I stood, all right, black-suited and empty-handed. The medical team had vanished. Dog lingered beside me out of some canine instinct of loyalty, peering and open-mouthed.
It was a situation to test the f.d.'s social skills! Not something you carry off with the lift of an eyebrow!
"Come right in, Mr. D.! Bring your familiar with you!" He turned to a priest sitting beside the bed. "Get up, Father," he snapped. "I'll make my confession to Death himself. Sit here, Mr. D."
The priest made way and I sat down. Dog stood at my shoulder.
"Fag, anyway," the old man confided.  "Wants to wear skirts and hang around with men."  He curled his lip at the priest.
The nurse came in behind me and bustled around the bed, thermometer poised, gang-waying among the onlookers. She came up on the other side.
He leveled a long finger at her. "Do not touch me!" he commanded.  “Back away!”
She withdrew a little, weapon raised.
"Where's the quack?" he spat. "Unavailable, I suppose!"  She scurried away and he thrust out his nose and tracked her around the bed until his eyes met mine.  "Doctor!  You doze off for a nap and you wake up with a sheet over your face!"
Across from me a woman leaned forward and straightened his pillows. "Grandfather," she whispered, "you have to rest." She touched his shoulder.
Without looking away from me he let her hand guide him back.  "I don't need any attendants but Merrilie," he told me.  “Don’t look at her, Mr. D.!  She's not for you!  The only vital thing my miserable line has produced is this girl.  She's the only one who's glad to see me back!  Take one of these others!"
I glanced around at the carefully neutral faces. The room was full of people!  There had to be more here than the immediate blood.
"They're waiting for the money."  He grinned with malice and his voice went low and sneaky.  "They're waiting for my final curse.  They don't know yet who it's going to be, you see.
"Chetwode there, he's my only surviving son.  The others killed themselves behaving like spoiled children, one way or another.  Not Chetwode.  How are you, Chetwode?"
A tall, fat, fiftyish man frowned back at us from the foot of the bed.
"Those are his lawyers over there.  That's his former wife, there.  Those are some of his dependents.
"Yes, Chetwode is the heir apparent, and I do mean apparent.  I'm at liberty to snip him out of the proceedings without fear of veto.  His lawyers against mine.
"There, over there, that's Hornton Gornton.  My grandson by my first wife.  Done very well on his own. Course he wants more.  That's the main body of his entourage gathered with him there.
"And this—there—where is he—there, that's Lamont Gornton, another grandson.  Or is he a nephew?  I don't know.  He's a fag, too.
"Of course I could leave it all to Petey down there.  See him?  Little fellow down there with the pimples, picking his nose.  Don't eat that, Petey!
"But then, the significance of the thing would be lost on him.  Has to go to a special school to teach him to keep to the right of the hall.  Don't you, Petey?
"These sharks would eat him.  He's too young anyway for a responsibility like that, though he probably deserves it.
"But he's Merrilie's little brother, you see, and that would bring the money too close to her.  "Don't look at Merrilie, Mr. D.
"Have you ever seen such an ugly family?  Eighty-six years old and I've got eight kinds of cancer, and this pack of dogs is all I've got to show for it all.  They'll stop jumping to be fed long enough to sit up and beg for you when you're dying, if you don't tell 'em who gets the money."
He lay back and sighed.
"Truth is, I don't know myself who I'm going to give it to.  Only one thing's for sure: it won't be Merrilie. At least I can spare her that.  That horror.
"Do you know what it's like, Mr. D.?  Never to have anyone speak to you, be with you, love you unless it's for your money?  Unless it's for some advantage you can give 'em?  Do you know what it's like?
"Of course you do, Mr. D.  You're the only other one who does.  No one speaks to you except to beg favors, do they.  Don't really want you around, do they.
"Well, maybe Chetwode understands.  He already gets it second-hand, being my prime heir, so he thinks.  Wants it first-hand.  Course his blood pressure's bad.  Eats too much cheese.  May go before I do!"
He laughed at Chetwode,
"And Hornton.  Hornton knows.  Hornton has penetrated to the poetry of money.  Knows how it moves, don't you, Hornton.  A highly cultivated man, you know.  Ready to go to the peak of refinement, just as soon as he has enough money.  Yes.
"No, it's a curse.  Maybe the worst one.  I can protect my granddaughter from that."
He sat up and turned towards her.  "And don't give me any of that nonsense about comfortable, young lady!  You're not here to be comfortable!”
I got my first glance at her, but she stepped back among the others, veiled by her downcast look.
"And when I make my decision," he said, threatening me with a forefinger and then chopping with his hand, "there'll be no countermanding it.  My own minions are present to ensure that every detail of my final will is observed.  Brokers, accountants, trustees—"  He gestured broadly at the room.
"These," he said, indicating a row of expressionless men seated at the foot of the vast bed, "are the senior partners of Ferngert, Ormstead, Upjohn and Urmquart, my law firm.  They will verify that I am of sound mind when my last words on the subject are uttered.  Gentlemen, am I of sound mind?"
Four heads nodded once.
He grinned at me.  "Fun, eh?  It wouldn't surprise me if the entire professional class were represented in this room, now that you're here, Mr. D."
His grin dissolved.  He took my lapels and pulled himself close to me, shaking with the effort.
"Mr. D.," he breathed, "are you going to stuff me with newspapers?"
The silence was room-wide.  Interest in this sort of thing is pretty general.
"We don't do that any more," I assured him.
"But you have to—embalm, don't you?  Won't you have to—
remove the viscera?  Won't they rot?"
"Well I want to know!" he shrieked.  He puffed indignantly for a moment and edged towards me again.  "Mr. D.," he whispered, breathing urgently, "Mr. D., what comes next?"  His lips quivered.  His watery eyes searched mine.   “What's after?"
My eyes welcomed him, but did not unbar the door.  "I'm not supposed to say," I said.
"Please!"  He jerked me close.  "Tell me:"
I shook my head.  "It's a secret."
His forehead fell to my chest.  "Mr. D.," he whispered, his voice sinking to a sob, "I'm afraid."
He cringed in my shadow.
Now, the f.d. is often called upon to take the role of psychiatrist, but not to the actual corpse!  I had to improvise.
"Serves you right," I said.
The crowd stirred.  There were shocked murmurs.
"You've been having too good a time.”
"Mr. D.!" he implored.
The atmosphere was strained.  Outcries erupted in the room.
"God's getting you back," I said.
"I don't want to go!"  He hung from my coat.
People were exchanging remarks, forming strategies.
"You've been living on Haagen-Dazs Hill, here," I said.  "All this luxury, all those women.  Did you think I'd never catch up with you?  You've had your chocolate mousse.  Now it's time for the other thing "
He peeked up playfully.  "There have been a few women," he creaked.
I nodded knowingly.
"Just to beguile the time.  Will it go hard on me?”
I surveyed him from the height of doom.
"I've been bad," he said.  "I know I've been bad.  Listen: Mr. D.: listen: come here: listen: you know, the truth is, my attendants were not altogether to blame for their mistake back there.  I did have a, what you might call a, an out-of-body experience.  Yes I think so!  It was vivid!  I was floating up, you know, and the whole thing was turning below me until it didn't matter any more, and there I was at the threshold of some enormous bliss!  But my way was blocked by this—immigration officer.  He was a real presence!  I said, Look, I want you to know I've always more or less believed in this!
"And it was true!  Many's the time I've thanked God that I didn't wet myself when I went to the toilet, and I meant it!  I felt real gratitude!
"Suddenly I was plunged into a profound darkness.  Flames blistered me!  My flesh shriveled on the bone!  A giant fiend grinned at me and lashed me!  I screamed and made no sound!  Mr. D.!"—he pulled me to him and whispered wetly—"I had an erection! Yes!  My black old banana—stood up!"
He swallowed with difficulty. "Was it only a dream?"
There was no sound but his desperate breathing.
"We must cling to hope," I said.
He sagged against me, a spent force. "There is no hope.  I'm going to die."
This is the one that generally gets them.  The grief therapist is on safer ground, here.
"That's Okay!" I said.
He didn't brighten.  I gave him a moment with his thoughts.
"Don't try to understand everything," I said.  "You'll only tire yourself."
Across the bed the nurse stepped up for another shot at regaining authority.  "Time to take these," she barked.  She rattled a paper thimble of pills and gestured defensively with a glass of water.
He leered around slowly at her.  "Feeling a little constrained after our error, are we?"
"You were comatose," she stated.  "All the vital signs were gone "
"Vital signs," he sneered.  "You wouldn't know a vital sign if it came up and asked you to dance!"  He turned to me.  "Can you imagine anything so nihilistic?"
Her eyes dared me to smile.
Suddenly he was eager.  "Look," he said, "look: why don't you take Nurse?  I mean, not in the biblical sense, of course.  Hah!  How would you propose an approach?  How would you--apply yourself?  I mean, all right, if you want to get excited in that direction, but surely there are less challenging ways of banging the gong?  No no no, the idea is grotesque.
"Couldn't you just, you know, cover her with your cloak and cancel her ticket?  As long as you're here?"
I gave her my grim-reaper look.  "I'd like to get her on the table, all right."
Dog grunted.
"Or Chetwode!" cried the old man.  He was red-faced with excitement.  "Chetwode's all ready to go!  One little strain and he pops! He can't even do it!"  He screamed and laughed at Chetwode.
I laughed too, what the hell.
Hands behind his back, Chetwode pursed his lips, rose up on his toes, dropped.
"He's such a tit.  But no, no, don't take Nurse away yet.  Not a twin spirit, perhaps, but someone to bend over me with tender concern.  The steady rattle of her chatter gives me something to fix on when I'm slipping away.  The thing is"--he drew me closer and whispered--"we've had a little falling out.  I made a grundy in bed and Nurse hasn't forgiven me!"
My ears tugged back as I suppressed a smile.
"It was a big one, too!"
The nurse harrumphed.
"Well I couldn't help it!" he shrieked.  He turned back to me with sparkling eyes.  "Of course it was construed as a gross inelegance.  Things have been awkward ever since."
Giggles escaped through our noses.
"And mind you," he said, steadying himself, "Nurse is a considerable enemy to have!  Her mere presence is enough to induce permanent gynophobia!  Which in my condition is just as well."
He peered back at her.  "If that isn't death, what is?"
Our shoulders shook.
He fell back and laughed at the ceiling.  "Oh," he groaned, "I'm so tired."
I rose to go.  He came forward and seized my hand.  "Mr. D?" he said.  "So I have a little time?"
"You have a little time."
"Thank you, Mr. D.  Bowles will show you down.  It's time for my cigarette."
A butler presented himself and led us through the throng.  Petey peeked from a doorway and withdrew into darkness as we passed along the hall.  Something wrong there, all right.
Bowles was holding the door and smiling us out of the house when she caught up with us.
"It's all right, Mr. Bowles," she said, a little breathless from hurrying.  "I want to say something to Mr.--"
"Yes, Miss Gornton."  He disappeared.
I sent Dog to stow the stretcher and held the door for her while she came outside.
"Danruther," I said.
"I just wanted to thank you," she said, "for managing all that."
This was my first real look at her, and I couldn't quite reign it in.  I mean, ouch!  She was the kind of woman it is unbearable not to have!  You were translated onto another plane!  One look and you had to reorganize totally!
She had the preppy poise and fresh shiningness you'd expect in a rich girl of any talent, but these were as dust in the sunbeam.  I had forgotten how extravagant life could be, how little anything else matters!
Of course I had no chance.  She was absolutely guaranteed to have anyone she ever wanted.  I put my hands in my pockets and gazed at the grounds.
"Well," I said, "I'm glad it was a false alarm."
"Grandfather's been so down.  You were good for him.  I mean, I know he's going to die and everything, but sometimes that makes people feel peaceful, you know?  It kind of sets them free."
She shook her head.  Her eyes were moist with sadness.  I knew I had to protect myself or be destroyed.
"Not Grandfather.  He's playing this awful game with everybody.  And they're all just waiting for him to die!  It's so bitter!"
There had to be a million guys lined up for a chance with her, and here she was talking to me!
And I was so grateful!
I mean, I'm the kind of guy women dismiss as too good-looking.  Clearly up to no good.  I had always been, how shall I put it, blasé.
Well there must have been a committee meeting in heaven over my attitude or something because I was beginning to rethink my whole policy, right there!  I hadn't been stung like that since high school!
"I'm the only one he can talk to," she was saying, "but he doesn't even really talk to me any more!  But, hokie, he opened right up for you!"
Most people do, I almost said.  You know, just as a joke.  Just as well I didn't.
"That's the way I work," I admitted.  "I'm afraid I might have offended Chetwode, though.  I hope it's all right."
Our eyes met. My pupils just lay there and dilated, so I glanced at her hair (blonde), shifted my weight and checked the car, the grounds; looked away from her legs.  I'd been smoother than this at fourteen.
She folded her arms and hugged herself in the evening cool.
"Anyway," she said, "I guess this was sort of a wasted trip for you."
"I get paid anyway," I assured her.  "I don't own the company."  So that was okay.
Conversation failed me.  It was all I could do to keep my personality from disintegrating.
"You know, I guess everybody asks you this but, it must take a really special kind of person to do this.  I mean, all those dead people!"
I shrugged.  "I'm just a guy."
"Yah but, doesn't it get to you after a while?"
That's what people want to know.  They figure consorting with the dead on a daily basis must make you either deeply religious or a nothingist.
"Oh," I said, "I just keep whistling along."
"Hiya Maya! " she gasped.
"I mean, fudge!"
"Yes," I said, but I was watching her warily now.  Hiya Maya? And it seemed to me I'd heard a hokie back there.  A line of conjecture opened up that this intimidating beauty might be something of a jellybean.
She shivered.  "Doesn't it give you the creeps?"
"It's not always very nice," I conceded.
"Well, I'm certainly very glad to meet you."
"Me too," I said.
We shook hands and I almost had an out-of-body experience myself.