Photo of

Jonathan Ferrini is a published author of over seventy fiction stories and poems. A partial collection of his stories have been published within “Hearts Without Sleeves. Twenty-Two Stories” and is available at Amazon.

Jonathan received his MFA from UCLA in motion picture and television production. He resides in San Diego, California.


Trigger Warning

Part I

“I’m all washed up!”

This is a story about a story.

I’m not seeking sympathy. I’ve lived a good life following my dream to become a working writer in Hollywood.

I found my first job from a 4×6 card off the job board in film school seeking “Usher Wanted” with only an address leading me to a major television network production center in Hollywood. I was hired as an usher to “herd” the fans who’d make up the studio audience for a popular game show.

Lesson to the reader: Don’t underestimate “Help Wanted” ads.

After graduating from film school, I wrote screenplays and television episodes on “spec” submitting them directly to producers while my job as an usher enabled me to live modestly.

I’d arrive early to the show and walk about the expansive television center which was host to many of the top television series of the time. I shook as many hands as possible in hopes of getting hired as a writer.

One afternoon, I heard a scream coming from the hallway just outside the set where I worked,

“I need a gag, damn it. Somebody, please give me a political gag!”

It was the nineties and like now, rife with politics. I was a political “junky” and was ruminating about the President’s gaffs and without thinking about it, scribbled a “bit” onto a scrap piece of paper and shouted,

“Here’s something!”

“It’s good, really good. Who the hell are ya’?”

“Nathan, the usher over at the game show.”

“Tell them you’ve been hired away by the Executive Producer of the number one rated late-night talk show and get your ass into the Writer’s Room.”

I had a well-paying writing gig on that late-night show ever since. I was a single man and enjoyed living in a condo near the beach, a foreign sportscar, fashionable clothes, eating out nightly, and the company of beautiful women.

Time is a “cruel mistress” and with each passing year, my fellow writers were getting younger and younger.

Then came the writer’s strike.

The strike was longer and costlier than expected, and I lived off my savings with the belief I’d replenish it after the strike.

When the strike was settled, the writers’ union agreed to require fewer writers on each production which created cost savings for the producers and led to my firing,

“Sorry, Nathan. We need ‘fresh blood’. You had a long run in this gig. Good luck!”

I was too old for the “Writer’s Room” and too young to receive my writer’s union pension benefits. I had to scale back my standard of living which would include the sale of my condo and return of the leased sportscar.

It wasn’t long before my “twenty something” girlfriend moved out with all of her expensive gifted jewelry and Italian designer clothing except for a note,

“Sorry, baby. I’m accustomed to an upscale standard of living. I’ll drive the car you leased for me until the repo guys come for it. Call me when your ‘star rises again’. I’ll be dancing at the same club you met me.”

I was a writer and couldn’t do anything else. My agent stopped returning my calls. I didn’t have the time or interest to reinvent myself as a real estate agent or car salesman. The specter of doing rideshare or food delivery led me to consider suicide.

I pawned my gold watch to raise the funds to hire a lawyer to file a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy case to buy me time and stall the eventual foreclosure of my condo and repossession of my car.

I need a writing gig!

I phoned every old “friend” in the “business” trying to “network” myself into a writing job. I considered everything which would have been previously below me including commercials, jingles, “ghost writing,” and script re-writes. Either my calls weren’t returned or I was told, “I’ve got nothing, Nathan! I hear there’s a vacancy at the ‘Hard-luck Hotel.’ You’ll find plenty of company.”

The days and nights become long. I was battling anxiety and insomnia. I was turning to booze with a Valium chaser. I hit “bottom.”

I was filtering the online job posting websites with keywords including “Writer,” “Writing,” and “Teacher” within Los Angeles but was coming up “snake eyes.” Out of sheer desperation and trepidation, I expanded my search area to include the counties east of Los Angeles where I suspected washed up writers like myself go to die and came up with the following posting, “Writer Wanted.”

There was no mention of where the gig was located. I suspected it was a “BS” posting likely leading nowhere but replied by email, “Seasoned Hollywood comedy show writer with a handful of screenplays written with some optioned. Write me back if you’re interested with more details including location of the ‘gig.’”

I didn’t receive a reply and assumed they were inundated with resumes from out of work writers.

After several weeks, I was surprised to receive a reply, “I’m very interested in talking with you, Sir. “Please phone me at 661-555-1212.”

I did an internet search of the phone number and found the “Shady Palms Motor Hotel” wasn’t located in the “shade.” In fact, it was located inside one of the hottest places on Earth, the Mojave Desert!

I didn’t want to respond, but staring back at me was a pile of unpaid bills reminding me, I needed cash, fast! I reluctantly phoned and heard an old-fashioned answering machine with a tape retrieve my call, “Thank you for phoning the Shady Palms Moter Hotel. Please leave a message and I’ll phone you back. Contessa.”

I left a brief message which was returned in the wee hours of Monday morning during a self-induced alcohol and Valium stupor shattered by the ringing of the phone. I answered, “If you’re a bill collector, my attorney advised me there are laws against you calling this early, so go screw yourself!”

“You must be Nathan. Only a Hollywood comedy writer would answer the phone the way you did. I can’t believe I’m talking to a Hollywood writer, Sir.”

“Stop calling me ‘sir’ and tell me what you want.”

“You answered my ad seeking a writer. I want my life’s story told for the movies.”

“To whom am I speaking?”

“All my friends call me ‘Contessa.’”

“Ah, royalty phoning. I’m taking a bow as we speak.”

“Comedy writers don’t miss a beat, do you?”

“I’ve been missing more than a ‘beat’ lately. My mind is ‘foggy,’ so don’t take this question the wrong way. Why would Hollywood be interested in your story?”

“I won’t take anything the ‘wrong way’ if you agree to do the same. I’ve lived a colorful life as a bullied kid, sideshow freak, and sex worker.”

“You have my attention. Did you say ‘sideshow freak’ and ‘sex worker’?”

“In my former life, Nathan. I own and manage a cute little motor lodge out in the desert, now.”

“I can write anybody’s story but not promote it. You’ll need an agent and Hollywood is full of unread scripts, Contessa. I don’t want to take your money and leave you disappointed.”

“I don’t care if the script is made into a movie but I want my story told before it’s too late!”

“I don’t understand ‘too late.’”

“You impress me as being honest with an irreverent sense of humor. I’ve been around ‘show people’ my entire life and have a sense of who you are. I hear pain in your voice, and maybe we can help each other.”

“Trust me, I’m the last person to help you with any emotional issues. I’m a writer not a therapist. I don’t think it will work out for us.”

“Please don’t hang up, Nathan! Give me the opportunity to audition for you over a video call. I think you’ll understand me and the writing opportunity much more clearly.”

“I’ll agree to a fifteen-minute video call, Contessa. Email me the link and time. Goodnight.”

I tossed and turned in bed wondering if the conversation was a bad dream.

I was awoken later that morning by a knock at my door.

“We’re here to repossess your car! Let’s save ourselves the aggravation of towing it by you giving us the key.”

It was a “sucker punch” to the gut before my first cup of instant coffee.

“You’re at the wrong residence looking for the wrong car, schmuck. Here’s the bankruptcy filing clearly stating I’ve agreed to surrender my former girlfriend’s car at the address listed. Hands off my car parked in the driveway!”

“We’ll head over to the girl’s house and pick it up, but don’t go callin’ names, buddy. I’ll be back for your car sooner rather than later, big shot. I’ve seen this ‘movie’ before, putz!”

“Ah, a repo man with a movie metaphor! What are you an out of work writer? Do me a favor, friend. Ask the girl for a lap dance when you show up to repo her car.”

I sat down to the computer with a weak cup of coffee having taking the remnants from the empty jar resembling a real metaphor! I was overcome with a perverse sense of pleasure knowing my former ever-loving girlfriend would awake to seeing her precious car being towed. I envisioned her screaming and pleading in full view of the neighbors clad only in her French lingerie.

My email inbox indicated I was scheduled for a video chat in one hour with the “sideshow freak” and “sex worker” chick from the desert. I hurried to the shower with the belief I owed her the courtesy of looking presentable as a formerly employed Hollywood writer.

By the way, if you’re thinking William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard,” forget it and keep reading!

What did I get myself into?

I made the connection to the video chat, but something was happening on her end as the connection was made, but she wasn’t on camera. Just what I needed was a prospect who wasn’t computer or smartphone savvy!

“I’m sorry for the botched connection, Nathan. I was adjusting the camera lens, so you could see me properly.”

Contessa was a brunette with a chiseled face, suggesting an eating disorder. She was likely pushing forty, attractive, but looked like she’d lived a tough life.

“Are you standing, Contessa?”

“Yes, Nathan. It’s more comfortable than sitting for me.”


“That’s part of my story, Nathan.”

She was nervous but styled her long hair, applied makeup, and was dressed as if going to a casting call which I admired. After all, she was interviewing me, not vice versa.

I wasn’t going to waste my time and decided to “qualify her” by forcing the issue about money.

“What’s your budget for the script, Contessa?”

“My life savings is ten thousand dollars.”

“What’s your completion schedule?”

“I don’t want to rush you, but I’m running out of time.”

It was likely a simple story with an “edge,” and I could complete the screenplay in a couple of weeks, but I needed money, now.

“I agree to accept ten thousand and deliver the finished script within two weeks of an in-person interview with you. I’ll need three grand to get started with the balance upon delivery of the finished screenplay.”

“I agree, Nathan. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world! When can you meet me at the Shady Palms?”

Contessa made me feel like an important writer again, and my ravaged ego needed what she provided like a junkie needs a fix.

Contessa struck me as a good soul with perhaps, an interesting story she wanted to share. Although she touched my heart with flattery, and despite my financial predicament, a wave of guilt swept over me about demanding so much money up front.  Yeah, I could use the three grand but decided to settle on a five-hundred-dollar visitation fee to go out and interview her before agreeing to take the assignment.

If I learned anything as a Hollywood writer, bad Karma is a bitch!

It took me five hours to drive from the beach to the Mojave Desert where I found a horseshoe shaped motel including a heart shaped pool and a dive bar named, “The Desert Ratz.” Out behind it was a broken-down children’s playground with rocking horses and swing set.

A neon sign out front was flickering “Shady Palms Motor Hotel” on the lonely state highway and was likely the “last stop” for a hundred miles in any direction.

The Shady Palms was definitely retro-kitsch and a Location Manager’s dream!

I walked inside the “Desert Ratz” and took a barstool. It was pleasantly cool inside. The bar stool and counter had seen better days but could have spoken “volumes” about the asses and elbows preceding me over the many decades. Besides an old man and woman at a booth in the corner, I was the only guy in the joint.

A Ray Charles favorite was playing on the vintage jukebox.

(Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more.)
Woah Woman, oh woman, don’t treat me so mean,
You’re the meanest old woman that I’ve ever seen.
I guess if you said so
I’d have to pack my things and go. (That’s right)

There were framed photos on the wall of infamous biker gangs and even a few celebs of Hollywood glory days who stopped by on their way out to Vegas or the mineral hot springs.

“What will it be, Mister?”

“Give me a ‘Blueberry Pomegranate Hard Seltzer’ with some nuts and chips.”

I heard the elderly couple chuckle.

“Beer, bourbon, or tequila, Mister. We don’t serve none of those panzy drinks ‘round here.”

“Excuse me?”

“You might find some of that swill on the Vegas strip about two hundred miles northeast from here.”

“If you adjusted your attitude, this dive might have more customers, lady!”

“You see that baton hanging from the wall above the register? I busted smartass skulls like yours for a livin’ out at the State pen for thirty years as a Corrections Officer and will do the same to you. Now get your skinny ass back into that foreign car and get the hell out of my establishment!”

“Gladly and as a favor to you, I’ll let some casting directors know where to find a buxom, brutal, and sadistic actress for some salacious woman on woman sadomasochism prison films.”

The elderly couple laughed.

“Well, then, allow me to pull my baton named ‘Brunhilda’ off the wall and audition for you. I know where to hit you so it won’t show.”

“Cool it, Zondra! He’s the writer who came out to see me.”

I turned on my barstool to find a woman appearing to be a giant wearing a pretty cotton red polka dot dress and flat shoes. Her long brunette hair was braided and tied with red ribbons.

“I’m Contessa. Thank you for making the long drive out to meet me. Please join me at the booth with my friends Maurice and Moana. Zondra, please bring us a pitcher of your famous sweet tea and some bar food. Nathan must be hungry and thirsty.”

“I trust Zondra won’t ‘spike’ my tea out in the woman’s toilet.”

“You writers are always on point. I love it!”

“What is this place?”

“Allow me to answer, young man. I’m Maurice, and you can tell by my accent I’m Parisian. I stumbled upon this oasis called The Shady Palms when I retired as an Assistant Director back in the nineties. It’s a historic relic of motoring before the advent of the interstate highway system Eisenhower put into place back in the fifties. It’s essential to the small population of eccentric folks choosing to live out here with sweltering summer heat and freezing night time winter temperatures.”

“What did you direct, Maurice?”

“He’s too modest, Nathan. My name is Moana. Maurice was a member of the ‘French New Wave’ and worked alongside the greats of French cinema.”

“Are you referring to…”

“Please, Moana, you’re embarrassing me. My beloved friend, Moana, prefers to keep the ‘key light’ off her own accomplishments as an assistant editor to many of America’s emerging film talent of the sixties and seventies.”

“Maurice is too kind, Nathan. We both had wonderful careers in Hollywood, Paris, and Italy but like most, our time in the ‘spotlight’ has come and gone.”

“I’m in very distinguished company. I share your sentiments about the passage of time. I’m afraid my writing career has come to an abrupt end.”

“Don’t be silly, Nathan. There’s always paper and pencil but not always a camera or editing room available to those ‘exiled.’”

“Oh, Maurice, there you go drowning in self-pity, again. It’s over for us, Moana, and we have only our memories.”

“I’m eager to hear about all of the film greats you’ve worked with after I conclude my interview with Contessa.”

“We’re eager to hear about the Hollywood of today, Nathan.”

“You’re better off remembering the Hollywood of yesteryear, Moana.”

Zondra brought an iced-cold pitcher of tea and assortment of finger sandwiches of a type eloquently prepared in the top restaurants of Beverly Hills. Under that gruff exterior, I suspect was one hell of a cook. She took a seat at the booth and gave me a menacing stare.

“Where should we begin, Contessa?”

“Here, Nathan.”

“Don’t you prefer privacy?”

“Moana, Maurice, and Zondra are my friends and permanent guests at the Shady Palms. They already know my story. The playground out back in disrepair brings back the bad memories of childhood which is why I never fixed it up. It’s a perfect preamble to my story. Imagine living your life inside a doll house. Most of my life, I’ve slept on the floor because there isn’t a bed long enough for me. Imagine not fitting into a car and having to sit in the back of a pick-up truck like an animal. I have back pain from a life of bending over to clear doorways. My parents were ranchers harvesting fruit trees in the San Joaquin Valley. I was an only child. As I reached puberty, I had a growth spurt which thwarted my relationship with mom who couldn’t relate to my height. I believe she was frustrated by not shopping for normal sized clothing with her daughter and likely embarrassed by my height. I couldn’t find girls clothes which fit, so I resorted to wearing dad’s clothing. My father related to me as more of a son than daughter. Dad tried to coach me in basketball. He was often cruel with his humor particularly when he got drunk saying, ‘I got a kid who could earn us a fat paycheck playin’ pro basketball, but I’m stuck with a girl!’ He put me to work in the orchids picking fruit on the weekends, holidays, and during the sweltering summertime.”

“Why did he put you to work?”

“With my height, Nathan, he didn’t require a ladder to reach the tall hanging fruit, and we could harvest more fruit in a shorter period of time. I didn’t form any friendships as a child due to my height. The kids and their parents simply couldn’t relate to me. It wasn’t until high school that I found a place where I could fit in, and that was with the boys’ basketball team.

“The school didn’t have a girls’ team. The coach had me practice with the team where I towered over even the tallest members of the squad. My game really improved when I played against the boys.”

“Didn’t that cause resentment amongst the male team members?”

“You catch on, quickly, Nathan. I emasculated the boys who couldn’t block my shots or get around my defensive abilities. I heard every fowl innuendo and mocking phrase you can imagine.”

“Why didn’t you quit?” I was approached by the coach who asked me to cut my hair, hide my breasts, suit up as a boy, and play for the team! Despite the ethical implications of the masquerade, the coach revealed a creepy fascination with me playing as a boy with female ‘parts’, so to speak, and invited me to ‘suit up’ in the boy’s locker room before the team arrived. I was going to quit. As luck had it, I was summoned to the principal’s office and introduced to a recruiting coach who was on campus scouting for a nationally recognized men’s college basketball team. I was offered a full ride scholarship to play ladies basketball in college!”

“For the first time in my life, I fit into a group who understood me and shared the challenges of being a tall woman. We played together, ate together, studied, laughed, and could be just a bunch of girls in a dorm room designed for tall people. I had never been away from home and relished the campus. Studying while playing competitive basketball was grueling, but I loved traveling to the different campuses inside the Conference. I met my first love, Marcus in college.”

I glanced about the table and noticed hard-nosed Zondra and Moana begin to tear up. I readied myself for “meaty content” which might make the story “sizzle.”

“Marcus was a star basketball player. He was taller than me, hailed from a farming community, and was very sweet, considerate, and inexperienced in the ways of romance like myself. We studied and practiced together. I felt complete as a woman when we decided to become intimate. Our relationship blossomed, and we began speaking about a future together. It was certain Marcus was going to play professional basketball, and there was talk of a women’s professional league forming.”

“You haven’t mentioned your parents again, Contessa.”

“When I told dad and mom I was in love, they expressed disbelief, but when I told them Marcus was Black, our relationship was fractured. I never heard nor spoke with them since.”

“What happened to Marcus?”

“During one of our last practices of senior year, I went in for a layup, came down, and broke my ankle. It was a bad break and I was told a ‘career ender’ by the sports medicine docs. Unfortunately, it was also a ‘relationship ender’ because my rehabilitation was lengthy and interfered with my relationship with Marcus.”

“Doesn’t ‘love conquer all’?”

“I don’t blame Marcus, Nathan. With my broken ankle, I couldn’t be there for him the way he needed, and he didn’t have the time to play nurse to my ankle. Marcus was on a fast-track to the pros, and I couldn’t stand in his way. I ended the relationship. He had a successful run as a pro player, married, raised a family, and is a college coach somewhere.”

“Did you finish college?”

“Due to my injury, I was cut from the team and my scholarship was terminated. I couldn’t afford to finish my degree in Kinesiology and left school.”

Zondra was visibly shaken and abruptly got up from the table saying, “Let me bring some more tea with a ‘punch.’ We’ll all need it.”

When she returned with a fresh pitcher of tea, I poured a glass, took a sip, and was overwhelmed by a strong dose of Rum. I knew we were heading down a “rocky road.”

“What did you do next, Contessa?”

“My coach tried to find me a coaching position somewhere. Nobody wanted me. As a last resort, she made an introduction to the owner and manager of a travelling woman’s semi-professional basketball team named ‘The Amazonian’s.’ We travelled the country playing ball at county fairs, low rent sports arenas, and anywhere the public would pay to see a women’s team whoop a team of men. It wasn’t basketball. It was showbiz. We travelled on a beat-up bus from town to town and stayed in mangy motels. We played terrible men’s college teams, high school teams, groups of frat boys, and even retired professional basketball players as a gag.”

“Give me some names of the old pro’s.”

“I won’t reveal any names, but we girls were capable of embarrassing the former elite players long past their prime so all of the games were ‘ringers’ where we’d lose in the final seconds of the game. It was fun playing against those old pros and there was mutual respect amongst the teams. Like anything good, it didn’t last forever. We suited up and waited for the bus to pick us up outside the motel. It never came. We found out the owner skipped town with the ticket receipts, our pay, and the bus.”

“I’d kill that prick if I could find him for you, Contessa.”

“That’s all right, Zondra. I heard he got drunk and took a dive into a freezing river inside that old bus. He was frozen solid like a Thanksgiving turkey when they fished him out.”

“I think Zondra would like to ‘stuff that turkey’ for you, Contessa.”

“Let Contessa tell her story, writer!”

“I followed a girlfriend on the team out to see her parents in Vegas. I never left Vegas until I decided to move here.”

I readied my pen and turned the page on my legal pad. I sensed pain and suffering under the bright lights of “Sin City” and began to see the screenplay unfold. What did you do in Vegas?”

“I got a job wearing freakshow and Giraffe costumes while taking pictures with the tourists on Las Vegas Boulevard. Mostly drunks wanting to stand next to a woman towering over them or anybody seeking to capture a moment with a ‘freak’ in Vegas.”

“Now, darling, don’t be unkind to yourself!”

“I’m not, Moana. I was paying the rent with what nature provided me. Sometimes I’d be a ‘superhero’ or I’d wave an advertising placard at vehicles for slip ‘n fall attorneys or Vegas shows. I was spotted by the producer of a casino dance revue who wanted a tall woman to accentuate the show girls by wearing a specific costume or perform tall girl fetes of agility. I worked alongside very talented troupes of singing and dancing ‘little people.’ It was fun, and I made friends with the performers not turned off by my height. I remember those times fondly. I felt at home amongst the degenerate gamblers, drunks, and perverts who flocked to Vegas because they were ‘freaks’ like me.”

Contessa’s journey was becoming more interesting by the minute. What writer wouldn’t seize upon a line like “degenerate gamblers, drunks, and perverts flocking to Vegas?”

“Tell me about the ‘degenerate gamblers?”

“Here’s another prick I’d like to stomp on for you, Contessa.”

“Thank you, Zondra. I was backstage at the end of the show, and I was presented with a bouquet of red roses with a note, “You were extraordinary, elegant, graceful, and beautiful all at the same time. Please meet me for champagne at the bar. I’m wearing a red blazer, white slacks, and white loafers. Yours truly, Barry.”

“I was warned by the girls that Barry was a bookie who’d take ‘action’ from anybody with very exotic bets. Barry smelled of cheap cologne but didn’t try to ‘snow’ me with a ‘low rent’ proposition. I admired his directness, ‘We can score big together by me staging matches between you and anybody dumb enough to think they can beat you in a one-on-one game. If you think ‘ya still have game, I’ll take money from anybody willing to bet they can beat a tall girl. Fifty-fifty split of the sucker’s wager’!”

As a writer, I knew most of the “games of chance” but none equaled what I was hearing. You can’t make this stuff up!

“I agreed, and Barry allowed me sufficient time to get back into shape. He advanced my rent, living expenses, and generally took good care of his ‘golden goose.’ I don’t know how or where he’d come up with these gamblers. Some were good, others not so good. Barry always staged the games on a public court because there’s nothing worse than a bruised male ego who just lost a bundle. I also think he was ‘packing heat.’ The ‘buy-in’ was five hundred dollars which would escalate as the loser would double-down and triple-down on the losing bet. I took a lot of ‘cheap shots’ playing against these creeps, but the money was too good to pass up. I put a downpayment on my first little house off the strip with the money I earned. I was playing every day and sometimes multiple games. I came to learn Barry was ‘snorting’ multiple times a day. He was getting careless with the money and lax in sizing up the legitimacy of the gamblers. The police knocked on my door one morning, ‘Barry was murdered when collecting on loser’s bets. We suggest you get out of the racquet or you might end up like him, sister.”

Maurice got up from the table,

“This ‘ol soul will excuse himself for a smoke while the lurid tail unfolds. Afterall, some truth isn’t stranger than fiction. It’s obscene!”

“My body was breaking down from the weekly play and my ankle was finished. I needed to self-medicate to quash the pain radiating from every joint in this tall skeleton. I was accustomed to big money and was snorting myself through the week and excruciating pain. Some of my showgirl friends did ‘sessions’ with customers and showed me how to set myself up in business as a prostitute. I’ve heard enough, darling. You don’t have to tell this writer anything you don’t want to, baby girl. If he’s a hot shot writer, he can make it up!”

“It’s alright, Zondra. I made peace with myself years ago when I arrived here. I sold my body to any freak, perv, or deviant wanting to have sex with a tall girl.”

“Be specific, Contessa.”

“Watch it, writer. I expect you to tread lightly when speaking to Contessa about this filth.”

“I get it, Zondra. Please allude to the activity anyway you feel comfortable, Contessa.”

“You’re about five feet ten inches tall, Nathan?”


“Imagine being intimate with a woman standing six foot and five inches tall. You can imagine the positions, contortions, and maneuvers associated. Now, include the kinky fetishes of being intimate with a tall woman and the darker sides of sex including ‘BDSM’ and ‘fetish’ play. I’m not ashamed. With all of these gigs, I paid off the mortgage on my house. Like my ankle, my soul was fractured. I needed rest and rehabilitation. I left Vegas and traveled through the desert while kicking my cocaine addiction. The heat, endless highways, and solitude is very therapeutic. I drove past The Shady Palms Motor Hotel, turned around, and checked in. I’ve been here ever since. I sold my Vegas home and bought this place. That’s my story. You have a long drive home. Please spend the night and have breakfast on me in the morning. If you decide not to write my story, I’ll understand and no hard feelings, dear.”

I returned to a motel room right out of the forties. It was cozy. I laid in bed, and the chorus of crickets and desert insects was relaxing. For the first time in weeks, I fell into a deep sleep without the assistance of booze and pills.

I awoke rested but came to the conclusion I couldn’t take Contessa’s money. It was a story too personal and should not be placed within the “public domain.” I’d have breakfast at the bar and leave word with Zondra for Contessa I wouldn’t write the story.

“You writer’s sleep late! You better not be a Hollywood hustler and give that poor girl the story she paid for. I’ll take that baton off the wall, crack your skull like this egg, and bury your skinny ass in an abandoned well out in the desert!”

“Whoa, back down Officer! I’m not taking the job. I came in here to have breakfast and let you know my decision. I’ve lost my appetite, and I’ll take off! You’ve inspired me to write ‘Devil Dames in Detention,’ and a character resembling you will be the sadistic protagonist!”

“Don’t you disappoint that poor girl! She’s not well and having the script written is the only thing keeping her going.”

“So, that’s the reference she made to ‘running out of time.’ What’s ailing her?”

“Her pituitary gland is very sick. It’s responsible for her excessive height. They call it ‘Gigantism.’ There’s a tumor, and they can’t operate to remove it. The chemo and radiation therapy recommended will only buy her some time but with terrible side effects. She decided not put herself through the pain and misery.”

The hardened former “CO” was teary eyed. I thought that I had it rough, but I didn’t have a “death sentence” hanging over me.

“How can a script alleviate her pain and suffering? She should save the money and use it for hospice care.”

“I want to see happiness in that girl’s eyes, and the script you’ll write will make her happy. I’ve always held the believe that when you do a ‘good turn,’ the ‘good turn’ boomerangs back. You’re an out of work writer with no prospects and need a boomerang to hit you in your thick Hollywood head with some good fortune. If you take the job, I’ll feed you three squares a day at no charge, and I know Contessa would like to have you stay on here while you write the story. The motel room won’t cost you a dime. The more time you spend with Contessa, the better you’ll understand her and come to appreciate her story. Follow her on the journeys she’ll take you throughout the desert. There’s more to see than sand out here, Nathan. I think you’ll rediscover your creative spirit which has been beaten down, and you’ll come out like a freshly charged battery ready to take on Hollywood! A star-filled desert sky and sound of the wind whipping through the dunes works wonders on all of us beaten down by life. What the hell is waiting for you back home?”

Zondra was correct. I had nothing but misery waiting for me. I need a “jump start” and had nothing to lose. At the very least, I looked forward to hearing the stories of Maurice and Moana and the heavy weight talents they worked amongst. You look like a medium rare type of guy. Over easy, writer?”

Part Two

“Taller than Most”

Zondra knew how to cook a steak to perfection. She used a converted oil drum with a grate out back of the bar. No sooner than I was taking my final shot of fresh squeezed orange juice with a tequila chaser, I was startled by what sounded like an Indy car racing its motor outside the bar.

“What the hell is that roar, Zondra?”

“Go outside and see for yourself, writer. I’ll see you back here for dinner. I cook up some bad ass Fajitas!”

“Good morning, Nathan. Jump in and let’s take a ride.”

“Is this street legal, Contessa?”

“So long as you buckle in, dear.”

“This heap resembles a post-apocalyptic death machine from a bad genre film.”

I was buckled into some type of former military, haphazardly retrofitted, dune buggy with a canvas roof, no doors, and large wheels providing enough clearance to scale a skyscraper. Contessa revved the engine, grabbed the stick, and put the evil machine into gear as we tore up the highway heading somewhere into the desert. I bought this rig off a failed carny show which limped into town a few years ago. We’re fortunate to have a retired master mechanic who worked the racecar circuit living out here. He retrofitted this so I can sit comfortably. I got an extra jacket packed away along with our lunch Zondra made up. It’s equipped with a CB radio, extra gasoline, and emergency rations with water. I thought I’d show you some of the magnificent Mojave Desert.”

“The only sand I’m accustomed to is on the beach, Contessa.”

“This rig really is suited for the desert. The townsfolk don’t have much to look forward to as a community so I’ll dress this up with lights for the holidays and put on a parade. Everybody turns out, and it’s a magnificent holiday dinner, potluck style. A couple times a year, I’ll invite a school bus with kids from the inner-city who’ve never seen the desert. I enjoy loading them up and showing them around. I can see the positive effect open space, sun, wind, and blue sky can have upon the kids. When do you prefer to write, Nathan?”

“I’m a ‘night owl’ and do my best work late and into the wee hours of the morning.”

“I’m just the opposite. It gets too hot in the desert by afternoon so I like to take my journeys in the morning. Try a few morning adventures with me. You’ll find the sights and sounds to be fertile material for any story. Let’s take a drive, and let me show you.”

In the days which followed, Contessa and I would ride out into the desert. The story I contemplated became less about “freak shows” and “sex workers” and more about Contessa’s observations concerning life.

We’d return from a day of driving about the desert dusty, sweaty, and cooled off in the pool. We’d meet in the early evening, sit around the pool under the stars, enjoy Sangria and tasty meals whipped up by Zondra who, in my opinion, was capable of opening a joint in Los Angeles with a line around the block!

Maurice and Moana would recount stories about working in the glory days of film alongside film maestros and the makings of a curriculum no film school could provide revealed itself.

I’m going to share entries from the journal I was keeping while embarking upon my journeys with Contessa which provided the “fertile material” Contessa suggested.

“Dried-up Wash”

A flood of water poured through this stretch of desert taking out the highway. It was hard to believe such a force of water could pour through a desert scattering boulders and so much sand in mere minutes leaving behind it’s “signature” the size of an interstate highway.

Contessa remarked, “You can’t tame nature so how can you tame life? Always be prepared for the unexpected, Nathan.”


“Empty Well”

We were deep into the desert and came upon a well in the middle of nowhere which once provided sustenance to thirsty travelers.

It looked like a well from an old western with a circular stone wall and a crank handle with a wooden bucket attached to a rope.

It was incomprehensible to me that a deep black hole once filled with water could exist within a desert. I dropped a rock into the blackness and couldn’t hear it hit. It was deep. 

I felt ‘light-headed.’ Contessa feared I was dehydrated, reached into her well-stocked kit of provisions, and applied a medical grade, tear open, cool compress to my forehead and around my neck.

She placed one arm around me and with the other arm held a bottle with a straw to my mouth saying, “Sip, not gulp. Its water infused with electrolytes. The athletic trainers in college insisted we drink it after games.”  

I felt ‘love and compassion’ which had been absent in the vacuous relationships I had with women and like a missile striking a dam, the pent-up emotional trauma of losing my career came flooding out of me. I hadn’t wept so hard since losing a beloved pet as a kid. 

Contessa remarked, “I know you’re suffering. I sensed it in your voice when we first talked and saw it in your eyes and clenched jaw during the video call.

“On my first visit to this well, I was alone and the deep, dark well also invoked an emotional release within me. Let it all go, Nathan. Cast your disappointments, self-doubts, and worries about the future into the well.  That’s why we’re here. The empty well teaches us everything, including our tears, dries up sooner or later.”

I sensed she was reflecting upon her one and only love, Maurice. Just a writer’s gut level feeling.


“Ghost Town”

I gave up attempting to gauge our location and trusted Contessa’s knowledge of the desert resembling a nomad from the movies.

She drove into a small town with boarded up stores once a vibrant center of commerce to the miners and ranchers calling this home.

The town attracted tourists. Contessa brought a trash bag and began collecting discarded water bottles, beer cans, and food wrappers left behind by inconsiderate visitors.

Contessa said, “Every town can be a ghost town without friends and loved ones.”

I thought about the lonely days and nights spent inside my glorious condo just blocks from the beach. 

I don’t feel lonely sitting around a heart-shaped pool outside an old motel in the middle of the desert with Contessa, Zondra, Moana, and Maurice!

This writer despises hackneyed sayings but “Home is where the heart is…” rings true.



We came upon a wooden shack at the end of a trail. The door was unlocked. I saw discarded newspapers and magazines from decades past. Glass milk bottles and vintage soft drink glass bottles provided memories of my childhood.

It was tiny and about the size of my half bath back home but somebody made due with very little except the sky filled stars, sound of the desert wind whipping about, and solitude provoking thought and reflection. 

This beat-up old place is a writer’s remedy for inspiration and pesky creative blocks.

Contessa pointed out the cupboards were filled with provisions stocked by the visitors to the old shack. It shocked me the visitors would be considerate of those seeking shelter or a rest stop from hiking.

Contessa retrieved a new emergency medical kit and case of water from the rig and placed it inside the shack, saying, “It’s best to leave behind a soft footprint and a hand-up.”


“The Tunnel People”

We’re heading to Vegas!

Oh, how I need the “action, lights, sites, and sound.”

I’ll treat us to a night in a five-star casino, and I suspect Contessa will appreciate a spa treatment.

Contessa had a different standard when visiting Vegas and checked us into adjoining rooms in one of those low budget motel and casinos I’d race by after crossing the Nevada state line.

The casino floor was empty except for a couple of cross-country truckers playing the slots.

The retail stores and restaurants were shuttered having died after enjoying a short-lived celebrity in the seventies.

Contessa insisted we dine at the “Goldbricker” which was the only dining establishment in this bleak dive.

We were greeted by an old waitress who proudly claimed she has been working here since it opened.

Contessa and “Connie” were acquaintances. They hugged.

“What’s the special, tonight, Connie?”

“Country Fried steak, choice of potato and veggie with house salad or my favorite sauteed liver and onions.”

“Bring us one of each, doll. We’ll share.”

I was surprised by the sumptuous taste of the food. The portions were beyond generous and Contessa insisted Connie include the leftovers in a “Doggy Bag.”

I insisted on picking up the tab and remarked, “This must be a mistake! The total is less than twenty bucks!”

I confirmed with Connie the bill was correct. I left her a twenty-dollar cash tip. I couldn’t eat alone for less than twenty dollars back home!

We drove into the “heart” of the Vegas strip. About a block west or east, and we came to an entrance to a storm drain. It was a large storm drain tall enough to just bend over and walk inside.

Somebody had torn away the metal grate screening off the entrance.

Contessa brought the “Doggy Bag” and a box of ready to eat canned food with plastic spoons. Being so tall, she had to crawl inside the dark tunnel.

“Stay outside, Nathan! You’ll frighten them.”

I could hear muffled speaking, crying, and a heartfelt connection between those living inside the storm drain and Contessa.

I was worried for Contessa’s safety. What should I do if she doesn’t come out? I’m not going inside. I’ll call “911.”

I can read the headlines now, “Hollywood writer found living inside storm drain reports death of Mojave woman!”

Contessa emerged and dusted herself off.

“When rain floods the strip, the storm drains fills, and many of those poor souls drown! Under every bright, shiny, diamond embedded in the ground, you’ll find life worthy of respect and reverence.”

I saw an analogy to the Hollywood “pipeline” filling with unemployed writers drowning without work. At least I had hope unlike these unfortunate people living inside the bowels of Vegas with so much abundance being thrown about while so much misery existed under their feet.

Part III

Closing Credits.

I found Contessa sitting on a broken-down swing inside the playground rocking gently back and forth turning the final pages to my screenplay. The rusting chains of the swing provided a sound similar to a bow gliding across the strings of a violin out of tune which abruptly stopped when Contessa finished the last page.

The sun had set, and we only had the moon to light our faces like a key light on a soundstage covered by twinkling stars and some orchestra out in the wilderness providing a symphony only the desert can muster. I summoned the courage to approach Contessa like I did as a young writer turning in my script to the producer.

“This isn’t what I bargained for, Nathan.”

“I wrote the screenplay to serve as a ‘Cinema verité’ portrayal of a courageous woman. It portrays a real-life superhero motivated to make it despite the odds against her. Despite a life of bad luck, the ‘Contessa’ of this story always found a way of re-inventing herself and most importantly, leaving behind a ‘soft footprint.’”

“It’s much, much more, dear. What I ‘bargained for’ when I hired you was an objective portrayal of my life, and you provided me a beautiful epitaph to accompany my photo album. Please accept this check representing payment in full for the completed script.”

“Thank you, Contessa. It’s time to head back home.”

“To what, Nathan? It’s getting chilly, so why don’t we go inside the bar and celebrate the completion of the script.”

Flames leapt about the old stone fireplace as if joining our celebration and gifting us with glowing red and yellow wrapping paper warming us as we sipped Hot Toddies.

Maurice thumbed through the script like he had so many times in his career. He remained stone-faced and handed it to Moana who did the same. I knew my words were being consumed by professionals capable of being the harshest of critics.

“Let’s have Contessa read from the script.”

“I’ll feel nervous reading these beautiful words aloud, Maurice.”

“Then read them to yourself, Contessa. I recommend you record the reading, darling. I have a vintage reel to reel tape recorder with a professional grade microphone stashed away. It’s very easy to use, and you can stop and start again, but I suggest not rewinding.”

“Moana is correct. Speak from your heart, Contessa.”

“The recording can be edited, darling. I’ll complete the editing with you.”

“Thank you, Moana.”

It was wonderful to see Maurice stepping into the shoes of a director and Moana back working as an editor. I saw happiness radiate from their faces. They both had in common a work ethic, love for their craft, but for one reason or another, never made it to the ‘big time.’ “Taller than Most” would be their reprise and the beneficiary of their brilliant careers.

“I knew somehow, somewhere, my story would be told. My life’s journey led me here and to all of you. We did it, together. A family production.”

During the evenings, we all sat around the pool listening to the recordings. It wasn’t lost on me that I was sitting with giants of cinema. Contessa was speaking about her life without hesitation, regret, or even a single retake. Her words flowed naturally.

Contessa was slowing down and became fatigued earlier and earlier in the day. She’d excuse herself and sleep until we saw her the next morning.

Moana finished editing Contessa’s audio story, and we were excited to hear it during a celebratory champagne “Wrap Party” the following night.

That morning, I didn’t hear the audacious roar of Contessa’s desert cruiser.

Without saying a word to anybody, Contessa asked Zondra to assist her in checking into a remote desert hospice run by a retired Native American doc and nurse who were husband and wife. She said her final goodbye to Zondra and asked that nobody visit with her. My gut tells me it was no clinic but an “off the grid” heavenly environment in which to pass over.

When the call came from the doc telling us Contessa had passed, he said compassionately,

“Contessa was not in pain and enjoyed the beauty of the desert surrounding her. I can tell you all, Contessa loved you all beyond measure. She referred to Nathan as ‘My angel from Hollywood.’ We scattered her ashes to the desert wind at sunrise. When the wind blows, know Contessa has come to say, ‘hello.’”

Zondra was in possession of Contessa’s Last Will and Testament which left The Shady Palms to Maurice, Moana, and Zondra with a caveat that “Nathan shall always be provided accommodations at no cost to him for life.”

There was a one hundred-thousand-dollar life insurance policy which paid out to a trust account to be administered by Zondra for completion of the script into a film.

“As trustee of Contessa’s estate, let’s make a film, folks!”

“A hundred grand won’t go far, Zondra We need a camera, film stock, a crew, and postproduction facilities.”

“With me watching every dime, we’ll make a film Contessa would be proud of, writer!”

“Actually, Nathan, we can use the beautifully edited audio as a voice over. We’ll go back to the sites you toured with Contessa, and I’ll shoot each in stunning black and white sixteen-millimeter film stock which will save money.”

“That’s beautiful, Maurice. Contessa left a photo album with Zondra. I’ll edit the still shots into your film coverage and layover Contessa’s voice.”

“Get off your ass, and call your Hollywood contacts who can provide us what we need to make a film, writer!”

“You drove the point home ‘eloquently’ as usual, Zondra. I can rent a sixteen-millimeter camera and purchase film stock from Hollywood suppliers I know. Maurice’s recorder and mic simply need a boom and an outdoor mic which is also available from this suppler. Round up a crew from around town. There’s one problem, however. I don’t know how to get back to those sites.”

“That’s my job as Producer, writer. I know all those sites, and I can drive that buggy of hers. Let’s ‘get this show on the road.’”

We visited “The Shack,” “The Ghost Town,” “Empty Well,” “Dried-up Wash” and the storm drain in Vegas. During each visit, the desert, like a protagonist, showed up with an unpredictable jaw dropping performance.

I reveled in watching Maurice and Moana apply their genius to the directing and editing of the film. It was like “riding a bicycle” for them, never missing a beat, and working together as “one.”

The “dailies” were spectacular even though we projected them onto a white motel room wall. Maurice captured the stunning beauty of the desert like the great American directors of westerns but with a “French” eye.

There was enough money in the budget to send Maurice and Moana to a Hollywood post-production facility to complete the film and sound editing. They were revered by the production staff requesting autographs.

Moana edited in beautiful photos of Contessa as a kid on a farm, college basketball star, team member of “The Amazonian’s, showgirl, partner to a bookie, and a few of her less risqué sex model pictures. Moana included a photo of young Contessa and Marcus arm in arm. It was the final photo of the film wrapping the story like a beautiful gift to the viewer.

Zondra made producers with reputations for being “tight with a dime” look like spendthrifts. She brought the film under budget and used the remaining life insurance proceeds to refurbish the broken-down playground now named, “Contessa’s Carny Land for Children.”

The completed film was a beautiful mosaic with layers of Contessa’s heartfelt words, Maurice’s beautiful photography, and Moana’s artful inclusion of the still photographs. I knew instinctively it was film festival quality. The budget had run out and although we could have submitted the sixteen-millimeter film into a local film festival, the story and production effort deserved a larger canvas.

I used Contessa’s ten-thousand-dollar writers fee to pay the post-production facility to “blow up” the print to thirty-five millimeters.

The writers’ strike, my firing, and meeting Contessa allowed me to step out of the writing grind I spent my life inside. I wrote from the heart about somebody I admired and cared for. The story wrote itself!

“Taller than Most” was accepted into the “Desert Film Festival” and received rave reviews. Maurice and Moana’s film credits didn’t go unnoticed to a new generation of filmgoers.

We were notified it was nominated as a “Finalist.”

“Taller than Most” received attention from all over the world. Interestingly, much of the interest came from budding filmmakers seeking “Master Classes” with the filmmakers. We formed “The Desert Film Academy” with courses we’d teach in motel rooms converted into classrooms with enough motel rooms left over to convert into dorm room accommodations for the students.

My bankruptcy was discharged, and I was ordered to sell the condo providing me enough equity to live off and the credit card debt was cancelled. I’ve been ordered to surrender the leased car. It was difficult filing for Bankruptcy but my attorney replied, “It’s a fresh start. Use it, move forward, and don’t look back!”

I need a “fresh start.” I’ll let go of my past and stay on here as a writing instructor. They can have all my material possessions because they can never take away the friendships I forged here.

I learned from Contessa, life is about ups and downs and how you maneuver both. In defeat, one finds hope and opportunity. Yeah, I’ve known many who couldn’t manage being “on top of the world” and crashed. It’s not really about success or failure. It’s about riding out the downturns and leaving behind a “soft footprint” as Contessa said.

My girlfriend and agent both phoned me upon hearing about my writing credit on the film. Like sharks, they smelled “fresh blood” in the water. Fortunately, I live in a desert.

“Taller than Most”

Grand Prize Winner

The Desert Film Festival

Leave a Reply