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Chapter 5: Howard (Excerpt from Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn)

Alan drove by Howard’s house every couple of days; and in between he had someone from his office drive by and make sure Howard was still in town. He didn’t want to keep calling him. Alan’s plans for Howard were up in the air. He’s had clients who claim to make decisions to leave the business; or have been driven out of the business—only to have circumstances change overnight. So he never counted anyone out until they were actually out of the picture. He did not think Howard would actually follow through—especially with the extended stay in the Malibu home. The only thing different this time was that Howard didn’t seclude himself or exile himself to a vacation destination such as his private island. He was just being Howard, but without the entourage. Alan had no idea what to do next.

Howard spent three weeks holed up in his cavernous house, piled with boxes, nothing on the walls, half the furniture gone. He lived on the couch in front of the 60” flat screen mounted on the wall, adjacent to the 14 foot glass windows overlooking the Pacific.  Shirtless and wearing Adidas athletic pants, his aging body was toned and tanned well—a Hollywood torso. He kept active and ran up and down the beach for miles each day. He didn’t read books. He went out each day to pick up the Daily Racing Form and kept up with the races, but didn’t place many bets. By all accounts, Howard wasn’t depressed; just disconnected.

He kept busy and didn’t let himself become bored. He was not relaxed, but he rarely ever is. Howard felt edgy. He was waiting for something and he didn’t know what. His ability to mask his thoughts and feelings was worthy of the Golden Globes he won. He dodges emotional probes with his abrasive reproach, so he has never been able to achieve a truly healthy relationship with a woman, or even with close friends, unless they can read him—a rare skill. Alan read him. Nancy didn’t read him, but she didn’t care. The only people in his life who could read him were the old gang and his mother.

Mrs. Rebecca Kessler passed away before Howard really touched stardom. He had been in a few small films and had done some stage work, but in 1975 Howard wasn’t exactly a household name. His breakout film was in 1977 when he received national attention for the Oscar-winning Kiss & Tell. Howard’s mother couldn’t understand Howard’s move to Hollywood. She recognized there were movies and actors and a whole industry, but it was absolutely inconceivable to her that her son would be a part of it. And since his films and his work never made it to Brooklyn by the time she died, she never actually believed he was at work to achieve the greatness that he did. He flew her out to Los Angeles in 1974 for a premiere of one of his films; but she wouldn’t leave the motel. She took the bus back to New York after three days on the West Coast. They never saw each other again.

Howard was a no-bullshit guy, but he had Hollywood wrapped around his finger for a good stretch throughout his career. Whether he played the Brooklyn tough-guy for the accolades, or if he actually was the Brooklyn tough-guy was unimportant, because in this town you are what you appear to be, and that’s that.

One morning on the way back from picking up the DRF, he stopped in at a Starbucks and sat down to read through the picks for the day. With dark glasses on and a baseball cap, Howard was still quite recognizable; but this time, he wasn’t looking to be recognized. Losing focus on the horses and wondering what the hell he was doing with himself, his eyes drifted toward a couple of very young kids with their mother and grandfather, sitting in one of the cozy seats by the window. Howard caught the older gentleman’s eye for a brief moment. In the man’s face, Howard saw contentment that he himself felt that had never experienced. He watched as the family left the coffee place, with the kids holding on to their special drinks with large straws and colorful cups. Mom hoisted each kid into their car seat, and Gramps helped to buckle each one in. He kissed each kid on the forehead and handed a little toy to each from his pocket before shutting each door. He walked back around the car to Mom’s side and kissed her and spoke for a few moments. Laughing and holding hands, he stepped back while Mom backed the car out of the spot slowly. As the wheels slowly turned and the car straightened out of the spot, Gramps waved and made faces at the kids who made silly faces and waved back at him.

Howard thought about what this whole scene would look like on screen—his character is seized with enormous thoughts of regret, dread, mortality. It was trite. Confused and with no patience for it, he tried to focus back on the racing picks for the day. He couldn’t. He felt compelled to return to Brooklyn to recapture the connection and the identity he felt he’d lost all these years spent in Hollywood, in a life he never he expected he could have. The questions he felt he was avoiding for the past several weeks he was in this funk flooded his mind.

So was that it, identity? All he had to go on was his acting career, since he had nothing else to look back and judge his life. He broke it down: the successful roles he’s played have been those characters he knows well. The unsuccessful ones were characters he didn’t know and had never encountered. What does that say about his life experience? Is he limited? Is he not as worldly as he thought he was? Is he still the Brooklyn schlub he’s been trying to escape his whole life?

Sitting in the coffee shop, Howard refused to be a captive of his own depressing questions. As always, when he is faced with questions or at a crossroads, he makes a decision and sees it through.

He drove back to the house with resolve, aiming to pack up some things and just drive back to New York. As he pulled into the circular driveway, his phone rang.

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Chapter 2 – Clear the Noise and Find Some Truth – from Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn

Ralphie and Howard went out after the tattoo and had dinner in a trendy fusion spot and then on to a club with velvet ropes and no signs outdoors. They were whisked inside through an unmarked door, and shown to Howard’s table, segregated away from everyone else. Howard sat there unimpressed with the scene, and felt out of place in the place he came on a weekly basis. He said his hellos, had a few drinks, tried to enjoy himself. Ralphie sent over so many women that Howard couldn’t keep track and it didn’t do a thing to distract him from the fact that Nancy left him just hours earlier, and he came to the realization that his career as he knew it was most likely coming to an end.

Howard left early and returned home. Of all the things, he couldn’t stop thinking about Punch. He called Ralphie to have him get in touch with the kid at the tattoo studio to see about getting Punch’s phone number.

*                     *                    *                    *

Alan made a personal visit to Howard’s home; quite a schlep from Beverly/Fairfax in West Hollywood to Malibu, but he was worried about his friend. He hadn’t seen him in weeks and though he knew that Howard wasn’t angry with him personally, just wanted reassurances that they were ok. He brought rugelah from a great Jewish bakery in L.A. hoping to warm Howard up and make him feel better. Howard answered the door with his usual greeting, a great hug and handshake.

“What the hell took you so long to come see me? I’m not a fucking leper.”

“Howie you know I love you. You said you wanted some time. Or some space. Whatever the hell you said you wanted I gave it to you. I always give you what you want,” Alan gratefully replied.

“I’m glad you’re here. We gotta talk.”

“No word from Nancy?”

“Nah, the slut. You know it’s not really a big deal she’s not here anymore. I don’t miss her. I don’t miss the company. I don’t mind having the quiet around here.”

“So what are you getting at?” Alan inquired cautiously.

“Nothing, I’m just…I’ve been thinking a lot. I think I’m going home.”

“What, home? Which one? The Island? Yacht in Amalfi? You wanna stay at my place in Maui for a while?”

“Alan I’m going back to Brooklyn.” Howard stood up and made the pronouncement resolutely.

“What the fuck is in Brooklyn? Of all the places, Howard…Are you going through some kind of crisis?”

They both laughed at the dramatic effect.

“You sound like a bad screenplay,” Howard joked. “I just thought I’d get the hell out of this town for a while. Get back to—“

“What? Get back to what? There’s nothing there. No one’s left. You know that,” Alan said, knowing that a trip home for all his clients and friends never meant anything good. They hadn’t even made good movies about the subject of going back home. It was trite. Going back home was a contrived context to too many bad stories. It was unlike Howard to fall for such sentimentality.

Howard sat back and basked in the imaginary sun in the enormous living room, soaking in every detail that his interior designer carefully planned, as if to look at it for the first and last time.

“I can’t say I have strong attachments here anymore,” Howard declared.

Alan stood up and appeared to take offense. He paced around a little bit. Howard didn’t look in his direction, but saw him from the corner of his eye and he knew his friend was planning a counterattack.

“Attachments? Howard Motherfucking Kessler, Attachments? Your whole life is here, your career, you were nothing without Hollywood and don’t pretend you would have made anything of yourself without your career in this town. You don’t attach well, if you hadn’t already noticed by now, you cold fuck,” he steamed. Alan inhaled and was about to continue the tirade but then Howard interrupted.

“I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done, or what I have. For chrissake, Alan, this is a $10 million house I’m in; you don’t think I know what I have? That’s not my point. I don’t know what the fuck my point is anymore. I just don’t—“

Alan knew exactly what Howard was getting at, even if he himself didn’t know. And nothing against Howard, Alan knew he couldn’t articulate it anyway. Here’s a guy who was shrewd enough to get where he is today, but by brute force, talent, and intensity, not book smarts.

“Fine then. Fine, how long do you want to take? I mean, you know what happens to people out here when they’re off the circuit for too long,” Alan tried to keep Howard focused.

“I don’t give a shit about the circuit. I’m 66 years old. 26 movies, countless TV shows, a fuckin musical, you think I give a shit about the circuit? What else is there for me here? Taking roles as a Grampa sitting on a porch reading stories to a snot-nosed ankle-biter in some schlocky period piece?”

He was right.

Howard was either too embarrassed or confused to admit what he was really thinking—if anything, Alan thought.

“You’re too old to have kids. They don’t even do that in Africa,” Alan said bluntly, angry that he couldn’t dissuade the headstrong Howard.

“It’s not kids. That ship left a long time ago. I don’t know, Alan, I just don’t have anything of my own. I keep playing these roles, they’re all the same, I’m tired and bored—“

“And those tired, boring roles are what’s gotten you this $10 million home,” Alan retorted.

“I have nothing of my own, is what I was going to say. I mean, I’ve made a living off of a caricature of myself, and I don’t have any identity.”

“Oh, so that’s what you think this is about? Your identity? Listen to me—I mean it, Howie—listen to every word I’m going to tell you, and not  just because I think Brooklyn is a useless piece of shit place, but because I know you better than anyone and I can see from a million miles away that you were about to hit this point—“

“I don’t want to hear it. Alan, thank you, really, I am thankful for your friendship. But I have to do this. I have to get out of here, and I just have to go back home and see what’s there for me.”

He stood up and looked out at the ocean, then turned back around and stretched his arms out to his side, clasping them behind his neck—pulling rather than hanging his arms.

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Howard said, almost in a whisper, trying to convince himself that it was true.

“Fine. I have strong opinions about this, Howard, I’m just telling you then. Just one last question though. Are you in trouble? I mean, you know, the numbers? I don’t wanna get another fucking knock on the door at 3am by a bunch of animals,” Alan asked, referring to the time a few years back when Howard owed every bookie west of the Hudson.

“No, I’m good.”

And with that, they bid goodbye.

*                     *                    *                    *

Alan left the house and sulked back to his car up the steep driveway. He was losing his friend. Even if he came back, which he doubted he would, things wouldn’t be the same. Once you’ve turned on L.A., you can’t come back the same person who left. Alan couldn’t see anything good out of Howard’s decision to go back home. It had been 50 years and there was nothing for him there. A couple of altakaka’s who used to be hoodlums. Alan’s worst fear is that going back home would resuscitate the old feuds, or bring out the parasites who would suck everything out of his friend that there is to give–money, first and foremost, and the pathetic requests to be set up on dates.

A few quiet days passed. Howard’s phone rang and it was Ralphie with the phone number he wanted from Ben, the tattoo artist. Howard wrote it down on the back of last week’s copy of Variety in thick, black marker. Howard didn’t use pen and paper much for anything, so when he did, Sharpies were his choice writing tool.

He thought he should be clear with Alan, and gave him a call.

“Alan, buddy, listen, I don’t think we had a straight conversation the other day,” Howard said sheepishly.

“What the hell are you talking about now?”

“About going home. Me, when I said I’m going back to Brooklyn—“

“Were you shittin’ me? Because if you were that’s a terrible trick, really, Howie—“

“No, I know you have problems with my decision. But honestly, the first time I thought about it was when we talked.”

There was a long silence. Alan didn’t know whether to laugh or hang up. He had to clarify, since Howie wasn’t a big talker on the phone.

“Wait, are you going back or no?”

“Yeah, I’m probably going back. The whole thing started because I just heard about a guy I knew, one of my closest friends before I left, he’s still around and I just, uh—“

“Alright, I get it, you’re curious. It happens to the best of us.”

“I don’t know if it’s just curious, you know, it’s like, I don’t know, I just want to get back to something I know,” Howard said, though wavering.

“I’m not trying to talk you out of it, but you already know my feeling about this. But I can’t help but tell you that it’s a stupid fucking idea,” Alan rebuked.

“I don’t know if it’s stupid. I have to get the hell out of here. I have to go learn something, find some new things, come up with a new project for myself.”

“Uh, Brooklyn isn’t where you go to learn stuff and find new things, you know, it’s a dead-end.”

“I’m just talking about digging up a couple of guys. Finding out what they’ve been doing.”

Alan had no response.

Losing patience, Howie said, “Forget it, forget I called, I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up. Alan couldn’t change his friend’s mind, even if he knew that Howard’s mind wasn’t exactly resolute.

Several days passed before Howard had the gumption to call Punch. He didn’t even know what he would say. He didn’t obsess over it, though. He spent a few days packing some clothing, arranging for the artwork to be sold or sent back to the galleries from which he borrowed them. He had a cleaning service come in, his decorator arranged for much of the furniture to be packed away, and the management agency to come assess the property for an extended separation. Howard didn’t even know where he was going. His phone used to ring all day—now only a few calls a day from friends or his publicist. Things were winding down on their own, which is just the way Howard likes it.

Howard wasn’t going to stick around town to hear gawkers whispering that he’s a has-been.

Ralphie, who was much less of a mensch than Alan, called Howard out on Ben’s frantic search for Punch’s phone number. “What, you going back home to be a big star there, you don’t get enough of that here?”

“I don’t really know what the fuck you’re talking about Ralphie, so you can fuck off.”

But Howard felt he had to think about Ralphie’s inartfully-said message. Was that really why he was going home? Because he knew that he would get the fawning attention of a New York audience, his home-town? He tried it once before about 25 years ago and it went over well for a while until he overstayed his welcome. He owed money, was wrapped up in a horse-fixing scandal, landed a few punches at one of New York’s 3-star restaurants, smashed a borrowed Ferrari and never repaid the owner.  He was also accosted by everyone who ever came through Brooklyn, claiming to be his best friend and in need of money. But most of all, his old friends always wanted him to hook him up with girls. Most of those guys were so desperate for women that they felt Howie was a silver bullet for dates. It was pathetic.

This time it will be different. He’s not going back as a star. He’s going back as Howie Kessler, to find his friends, clear the noise, and find some truth.

He picked up the phone and dialed Punch’s number.


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Howie Is Too Old For The Part – Chapter 1 – Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn

“Donnie, I understand what you’re saying, it’s totally clear. But what I’m trying to get you to understand is what I’m dealing with here on my end—” pleaded Alan Shiner into a tiny mobile phone, with the other hand covering his ear. His whole body motioned when he emphasized a point on the phone, because he couldn’t use his hands as in a personal conversation.

“Donnie, Donnie, you don’t even have to explain to me anymore. You think I don’t know? Of course I know. I’ve worked with this guy for 40 years. I know like you have no idea I know. You see where I’m going with this?”

And that ended his plea with the big-time director of the new film that Alan’s oldest client, Howard Kessler, was being kicked off and replaced with a younger lead actor. At least younger was the excuse they used. And in Hollywood, that’s a viable excuse. Continue reading

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