[EDITOR’S NOTE — This is Chapter One of the Fungasm Press title, THE LAST GODDAM HOLLYWOOD MOVIE. Reprinted here as part of the Indiegogo campaign, now entering its second and final week! https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/fungasm-press-official-pre-sale-launch-party]
The first red rays of dawn wring blood from the clouds over Santa Catalina Island. Our hero and sole survivor, PETER KORNBERG, strolls through the ruins of the town of Avalon to sit at the head of Green Pier with his camera in one hand, and an hourglass containing the island’s last ounce of unirradiated cocaine in the other.
The black bay still burns in patches where fuel leaked out of the island’s sunken yacht armada. None of the villas and shops facing the harbor stand tall enough to feed a fire, but the gutted casino off to his left burns merrily on, a huge gray-black tower of smoke leaning to curl an accusing finger at the rising sun, and the blasted wasteland of North America.
I can’t direct myself, let alone act, for shit. My name is Peter Kornberg, and I am a recovering liar. I am writing this to tell the truth.
The prevailing ocean wind kept the worst of the fallout from reaching us for six blessed months. It’s a miracle we survived as long as we did. There were refugees and pirates, but Avalon was not merciless, nor defenseless. The big 70mm artillery on the headland never fired a shot at the ones who burned us to the ground until it was too late.
I check my hat––the peak of the brittle white straw Stetson is chopped open where a piece of shrapnel narrowly missed my brains. Lucky hat, stained by red rain and the darker dapples of someone else’s blood.
The black sticks scattered around the dead bonfires along Casino Way are not wood. I shot enough footage of the barbecue, got close enough that the stink will never come out of my hair and clothes.
They took all the women. They cooked and ate all the men, the living and the dead. As thorough as if they drilled for it, they left nothing for the gulls.
I should bury them. I should erect a shrine, a monument, and compose a noble epitaph. They didn’t fall like the Spartans, and nobody would go to heaven following in their footsteps. If they had anything worth passing on to the future, it was their good fucking luck, while it lasted.
But once, they made movies and sang songs and wrote books, and they tried to keep the torch lit.
A younger Kornberg would have carved something, if only an angry THEY DESERVED BETTER on the pedestal of the statue overlooking the bay. But Kornberg at 45 has no words, and can not even cry.
* * *
I quit writing poetry in college, and built an enviable career writing scripts for movies I sincerely believed in. Nice work if you can get it. Many came, but few were chosen.
I was holed up in Zane Gray’s cabin on Paramount’s tab – strapped for a second act to a serious Oscar-bait melodrama – when L.A. detonated, and the radios went crazy, and the superheated pyroclastic clouds rolled over the island like a magic wand.
When the dust settled, the streets of Avalon were littered with roasted corpses, haunted by shrieking survivors who wasted away in days. I helped with the dying, listened to the garbled bits of news from the mainland, and went to a party that lasted a week. Then I went home and burned my script.
I’d avoided the news while I was writing, but it didn’t matter how it happened, any more than it mattered all the times it almost happened. The men in power had fallen down on the job, and now there were no more countries, because some assholes believed lies some other assholes told them, that they could do it and survive, that they could win. And the world had let them make such awful weapons and whip them around the global stage like big prosthetic dicks, because the world was drunk on the hail Mary happy ending lies Hollywood told them.
No more lies.
I haven’t seen another survivor since I came out of my hole in the hills. The war hit at high season, but there were fewer than a thousand residents, and three hundred visitors. Another fifty or so came along after, in lonely sailboats, yachts, the Coast Guard cutter… and the Chinese freighter, but never mind that.
Most of the island’s defenders were sitting shivva at Masada, Avi Sobel’s compound above Cabrillo Mole, when the attack came. Sobel’s reformed Jewish grief cult was a huge drag, but they fought like tigers with the arsenal he’d built up from his cheap action movies. A salvo of missiles erased his fortress. Sobel let his pretensions go to his head, and passed out cyanide.
Most of the island had come down to the harbor to greet them. The news spread like a case of crabs, and everyone who wasn’t dead drunk or praying to an Israeli film producer gathered on Casino Way. The harbormaster had received and acknowledged a hail and request to enter port with serial numbers and spit and polish on it.
The raiders searched the island and rooted out everything with a heat profile, then came back to feast and flatten the town. And like that first lethal heatwave, they left with the wind.
I was there with my camera. I have it all on tape.
Not that it matters anymore…
At least that’s what I’m thinking when something solid and shiny winks in the ruddy sunlight, out beyond the mouth of the bay.
* * *
I stand and strain to see what slides out of the smoke into the harbor against the smoking tide. No masts or pilothouse break the haze, but a low, long profile plows the water in dirty New York snow waves. For a moment, I believe I see a whale.
Sergei the sound guy, who used to carry his Oscar around as a club, took over the marine biology gear on the backside of the island. He recorded the nightmare-choirs of whole pods of gray whales dying in the first week, then nothing.
I fire up my camera and zoom in on it.
The last whale coming here to die would almost ruin the mood––too on the nose––but the viewfinder shows me a sleek, overgrown dorsal fin with men standing in it. Déjà vu, post-trauma flashback tremors. They’re looking at me through binoculars and a camera. One of them zooms in on me taping them. None of them points a gun.
I figure they can see my middle finger well enough.
Maybe these assholes got lost on their way to our Pirates of the Caribbean reenactment, or maybe they’re just some whole other assholes. For all I care, they could be the real Navy, hot on the trail of the fuckers who raped and pillaged Avalon. This would be a perfect ending, better than the anticlimactic starvation death scripted for me. They could shoot me down and cook me, but someone, someday, would find the camera and the disks in the bag on my hip, and they would know the truth.
But nobody shoots. A Zodiac raft with three men in it pops out of the submarine and buzzes across the bay to idle alongside the half-submerged wreckage of the pier.
“Top of the morning, Pete!” A short man draped in a billowing poncho hails me through a bullhorn. The flat metallic slap of his bright, cheery voice echoes off the ruins at my back.
I can’t see the man’s face, but the dripping red beard under his billed captain’s hat gives him away. In the world before the Day, only a handful of people could truly seem worth the karmic damage of hoping for their death, but producer Julian Harvey was one of them.
“Of all the people I hoped I might find alive, you were on top of my list!” Harvey squawks as one of the pair of able-bodied seamen climbs out onto the charred pier and lashes the raft to a concrete piling. “I told Shahmir this morning, if anyone’s got the wits to see this through, it’ll be Kornberg.”
The sailor comes up to me and stops with his hands in the pockets of his peacoat. I zoom in on his studiously blank face. The hourglass will make a shitty weapon. Too bad I never won an Oscar, like Sergei. “I don’t have any food, Harvey. And I probably have AIDS, so raping or eating me would be stupid.”
Harvey cracks up, overloading the bullhorn. He puts it down and shouts, “Fantastic, that’s hilarious. You can joke, so you’re probably still sane. Good, great. Come onboard, man. I want to talk to you.”
The raiders sank every boat that they didn’t take with them. I was planning to go up in the hills to snort the coke, gibber and tweak until I had a heart attack or got morose enough to jump in the sea with my pockets full of rocks. Catalina is a dead island. And God is a hack, if he let Julian Harvey escape.
“What do you want from me?”
“I was hoping we could have lunch and talk on the sub, but if you’re going to be a dick about it, I wonder if you might be looking for work.”
“I worked in the bakery and took my turns on harbor patrol. You find a new island with a live town, and I’ll bake their bread.”
“There’s nowhere else to go, Pete. This… it’s sad, but you survived it. You’re double-lucky, and if your work meant anything, it matters now, more than ever.”
If there was any other living soul to take up with, insane, cannibal or otherwise, I would walk. But Julian’s talking like the raid never happened, like the bombs never dropped. Some of the craziest people on the island talked like that, in deluded loops, like this was all just a grueling shoot, like the world was still out there.
I repeat myself. “What do you want from me, Julian?”
“I want you to come with us. We’re going back to America to make a movie.”
My laughter is like a bloodied animal escaping from a trap. “You’re fucking insane.”
Harvey shrugs, but his lackey clenches up, about to strike. “No, I’m doing what I do, Pete. So long as I live, I’ll make movies. What are you going to do, with however many hours or days you have left? Come with us. Live a little longer, and do one more picture. America needs it.”
“America is dead, Harvey!”
“Not a bit of it! She’s down, and she’s bleeding, but she’ll rise up. Never dead, Pete. Don’t say that.”
Harvey stands awkwardly in the raft. Behind his pretentious hornrim glasses, his eyes look like they’re tearing up. “I have actors and a crew. I have equipment, and I have supplies. I even have a decent caterer. All I need is a genius to make it happen.”
“I meant what I said, Harvey. Whatever happened to the rest of the world, so long as I’m alive, I’m never working with you again.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, get in the boat! I’m trying to be a better me, when it’s never been easier to be worse.”
“You’d kidnap me?”
“Kidnapping? Pete, they ate our friends and neighbors!”
“So that makes whatever you do kosher?”
“You’re still mad about the Indian Giver deal. That’s kind of mental, but I understand pride. You think yours is bigger than the whole world, but I’m big enough to swallow mine, to show you that you’re wrong. Tell you what, I saved the best for last.”
“If it gets any better, just kill me now.”
“I want you to direct.”
I swallow my next words. This calls for reevaluation. I didn’t survive, and this is Rod Serling’s hell.
“Get in the goddamned boat, already!”
The sailor helps me down the ladder of debris and into the raft. Harvey points at my backpack. “Is that your only luggage?”
“Just the camera and my disks. I shot the island the entire time. I’ve got hours of raw footage, interviews with everyone…“
“That’s wonderful, really. No, I mean… Is that what I think it is?” He points at the hourglass.
It came from Avi Sobel’s bunker. Avi saved the last ounce from the marathon orgy that gripped the island in the first month, and recast it as a totem of their lost lives. I never had much of a taste for the stuff, but figured it’d serve as currency, or a last, stupid fling, if there’s enough of it to kill me.
Harvey signals a sailor, who takes it from me. “You’re a godsend, Pete, and this from a devout atheist. I was starting to worry about how I was going to keep my crew happy, once the vodka ran out.”