THE MIND GAME
Getting into Benson Allen's office proved to be easier than Weller had anticipated. He got by the desk by asking to see Rohrer, the life counselor, and Rohrer quickly got him in to see Allen once Weller made it clear that the problem concerned his inability to pay for any more processing. Perhaps his disheveled state and the confused bewilderment he was more or less projecting had something to do with it too. Bureaucrats like to get rid of messy-looking maniacs as quickly as possible, he thought, as he entered Allen's office, and if they can't pass the buck down, they do their best to pass it up.
But whatever the reason, here he was, and he knew that he had to keep himself under tight control and do the best and most important piece of acting of his life.
Allen was sitting on one of the white plush couches, eating some concoction of nuts, fruits, and yoghurt with a spoon. In his white shirt and pressed blue jeans he looked strangely out of place in the Hollywood-elegant office, as if he were the hippie houseboy of the absent owner.
Weller found his perception of the man strangely altered. Sitting there surrounded by the Persian rug, the big paintings, the garishly lavish furniture, Allen didn't seem like the all-powerful head of the Los Angeles Transformation Center but like some blond beachboy type who had lucked into something way beyond his depth. I can handle this guy, Weller thought. I really think I can handle this guy. From the pit of his current hopeless position, he round himself drawing energy, an irrational sense of his own power and competence. He had hit the bottom, there was nothing left to lose, and now he was going to turn the corner, because the only way out was up.
"Sit down, man," Allen said. "Have some of this stuff. Give you energy." Without waiting for an answer, he filled another bowl from the tureen on the teak table in front of the couch and handed it to Weller as he sat down.
Allen watched Weller silently until he had tasted the goop and nodded a pro forma approval. Let us break bread together? Weller thought. Is this another gambit?
"So you've got a problem," Allen said. 'Tell me about it. I'll do what I can."
"It's pretty simple," Weller said. "I've lost my job and don't have the money to pay for any more processing. So you've got to let me see Annie now. I don't have the money to go on, and I don't imagine you're giving any scholarships."
Allen nodded, ate another mouthful. "That's right," he said, "no free rides. Too bad, because you would've completed your meditative deconditioning in another couple of weeks. They tell me you've been really cooking lately."
"Well then, why can't you bend a little and let me see Annie now?" Weller said cautiously, not wanting to fracture what seemed like the down-home atmosphere at this point.
Allen studied Weller speculatively. "You really want to go on with your processing, Jack?" he said slowly. "I mean, other things being equal?"
It seemed like a non sequitur, but Weller could sense the question's importance, as if Allen were on the edge of relenting, as if all he needed now was to see into Weller and be satisfied that what processing he had already had had taken hold. This was proving much easier than Weller had anticipated. But don't overplay it now, he told himself. Don't overact. Stay convincing.
"I guess so ... ," Weller said with deliberate uncertainty. Then more firmly, "Sure. I've got to admit that I'm learning things about myself. Sure I was forced into it, but, well, maybe it was the right thing for me...." He frowned sadly. "But what's the point?" he said. ''I'm tapped out. I'm broke. And frankly I don't have any immediate prospects. So...."
Allen gazed unblinkingly into his eyes, the old Transformationalist Stare. Weller stared back, focusing his eyes on a point in front of Allen's nose, so that Allen's face became a featureless blur, psychologically neutralizing the power of his unwavering gaze, giving Weller more than an even hand in the staring contest. Whatever was going on, it certainly wasn't the confrontation that Weller had anticipated.
It was Allen who finally looked away, shrugged, and then spoke. "Shit man, if it were my decision, I'd say okay, you can see your wife. I just don't get those hostile vibes off you now and you've had some bad karma, so what the hell..."
Weller went up, then down. "But ... ?" he said. "There is a but ...", Allen was saying no softly, he was being friendly about it. What turn was the game taking now?
Allen grimaced. He shrugged. He nodded. He seemed genuinely embarrassed, even nervous. "Thing is, it's now up to the Monitors," he said.
"Look, Jack, what I can tell you is that your old lady is now working for us, in a position with a security lid on it, which means all her life directives now come directly from the Monitors. Out of my hands. All I can do is present your case. But you'd have to pass a Monitor life analysis to see her, and without even completing your meditative deconditioning...." Allen threw up his hands.
"Who the hell are the Monitors?" Weller snapped, losing some of his control. This was like trying to pick up a mound of jello with your fingers.
"I can't get into that," Allen said, and now he really did seem nervous, perhaps even a little frightened.
I've had just about enough of this shit, Weller thought. Enough cute little games. I can't take much more.
"So what you're telling me," he said coldly, "is that I can't see Annie now because I can't pass something called a Monitor life analysis. And you can't even tell me who or what the Monitors are."
Allen nodded. He seemed unwilling to meet Weller's eyes. He seemed really put down, somehow. And he was suddenly looking like much smaller potatoes inside Transformationalism. Who the hell were the Monitors? Why did the head of the Transformation Center himself seem to be afraid to even talk about them? Weller studied Allen for a moment, and it seemed to him that Allen's altitude toward the Monitors might be some kind of hole card.
"So what am I supposed to do now?" Weller said plaintively, reaching for Allen's sympathy, setting him up. ''I'm broke, I've got no job. I can't continue my processing...." He put a slight edge into his voice. "And now the head of the Los Angeles Transformation Center tells me he'd like to help, but it's all in the hands of the mysterious Monitors, and he's powerless.
"I didn't say I was powerless, man," Allen said, with a slight whine in his voice.
"Didn't you?" Weller said with open contempt.
Allen looked up with what seemed like a genuine defensive expression on his face. He put down his bowl. His face creased with thought. "Look," he said, "maybe I can help you. Yeah...."
Allen seemed to recover some of his energy and authority. "How would you like to work for us?" he said.
"Huh? First you tell me I can't even see my wife, now you tell me you want to make me a processor?"
Allen laughed. "Not as a processor," he said. "In your own line of work."
"As a director?" Weller asked incredulously.
"Like that," Allen said. He got up, walked across the room, and stood behind his enormous sweep of paisley-painted desk. The geometry of the situation was abruptly transformed from whatever it had been into some kind of crazy job interview, and Allen had suddenly seized a more powerful persona -- the producer barricaded behind his impress-the- peasants furniture. Intentional or not, Weller had to admire at least the blocking, on a technical level.
"Transformationalism is into a lot of things that I never even thought about when I started it," Allen said. He shook his head somewhat ruefully, or so it seemed. "Getting like some damn conglomerate; we own a lot of things that don't seem to have anything to do with anything. Harry Lazlo, our secretary-treasurer runs all that shit. He used to be a literary agent, and now he wants to play Hollywood wheeler-dealer."
Allen sat down behind his desk. He shrugged. "Not my scene at all," he said. "But Harry's always been on this show- business trip. He likes hanging out with show people, and he's moving us heavily into media. We're doing commercials, and we're producing internal training and educational films, and if I know Harry, his wet dream is to get into movies and TV. We sure have the bread to let him do it. He's hiring a lot of people -- crew, directors, who knows -- and I don't think many of them are really pros like you. Think you might be interested?"
Weller got up and took a seat immediately in front of the desk. "Are you serious?" he said.
"Sure. I could call him this afternoon and make an appointment for you. Harry would probably dig you." Allen leaned back in his chair, steepled his hands. "Not only that, but full-time paid employees of Transformationalism get free unlimited processing," he said. "Like a fringe benefit. And to get beyond the lowest levels in the media end, you'll have to go through Monitor life analysis anyway."
Weller stared at Allen, trying to let the whole thing sink in. Transformational production companies? Commercials? Even feature films? "Let me get this straight," he said. "If I go to work for Transformationalism, I get free processing, and you let me see Annie?"
Allen nodded. "Once the Monitors have approved you for a permanent position," he said. "I mean, if you're both working for the movement, why should we keep you apart?"
Weller sat there quietly, trying to be logical, trying to evaluate, while everything inside of him told him that he had no choice, that in his present circumstances this was a god send. A job with what sounded like a bunch of well-heeled amateurs, where he could rise swiftly to a position of creative control. Free processing -- no more money down the rathole. A clear path to Annie guaranteed. It sounded to good to be true.
And that, of course, was the kicker. I walked in here canned, broke, and desperate, and now they hit me with an offer I really can't refuse. The alternative is no Annie, no processing, no job, and no hope. Jesus Christ, I wish I could talk to Bailor right now. What's going on here?
"Well, what do you say?" Allen asked, moving his right hand over the top of the desk toward the telephone. "You don't have anything to lose by rapping with Harry, do you?"
I don't have anything left to lose at all, Weller thought. And you know it. What would Bailor --?
Screw that! he thought. I'm sick of being told what to do as if 1 were a brain-damage case, and maybe I've been trusting Bailor too much anyway. If I can't make a decision like this without that bastard holding my hand, I might as well hang it up.
"How can I say no?" he said.
Allen smiled. "Yeah, you'd be crazy if you did," he said. "It would be heavily regressive, even without the processing you've had. I'll call you tonight and confirm the appointment." Had there been a subtle edge of threat in Allen's voice? Or was that just more paranoia?
Weller left Allen's office wondering if he had been conned again, if this whole thing had been a setup, even down to Allen's uneasiness at the mention of the Monitors, whatever they were. Or was what he had so far experienced just the tip of the Transformationalist iceberg?
The address that Benson Allen had given Weller turned out to be one of the sleek glass towers on the western end of Sunset Strip. Weller parked his car in the underground garage, picked up a parking validation ticket, and walked around front to the lobby. Allen had told him to look for Lazlo's office under "Utopia Industries, Inc." According to the building directory Utopia Industries, Inc. had three full floors. In addition to Lazlo's office the sublistings included about a dozen companies -- Colby Publications, radio station KRUR, the Narcon Foundation, Sunrise Books, the Delta Agency, Changes Productions, Carmel Properties, the Regency Corporation, United Data Control, Farside Group, Inc.
Weller stared at the directory in amazement for long moments. He recognized several of the companies apparently controlled by Utopia Industries: a magazine chain, a publishing house, a radio station, a narcotics-rehabilitation outfit, a PR agency. None of them was a flagship company in its field, but all of them were solid second-line outfits, and together they made up quite a corporate empire. Not to mention the companies with which he was not familiar. If all this were really owned by Transformationalism, its tentacles were really pervasive. and its net worth must be well in excess of one hundred million dollars! In that league producing feature films was no idle fantasy.
Lazlo's office was on the fifteenth floor, within the overall headquarters of Utopia Industries, and the elevator deposited Weller in a large and lavish -- if neutrally bland -- reception area. Walnut veneer paneling, matching modern furniture, deep-pile blue carpeting, half a dozen huge but unobstrusive abstract oil paintings, a big salt-water fish tank, and a sleek Hollywood receptionist shining with well-varnished asexual handsomeness.
Weller gave his name to the receptionist and waited while she buzzed Lazlo's secretary, soaking up the sense of corporate power, all very Hollywood establishment, impressively anonymous in its eradication of personality with expensive showroom decor. It looked like a movie set of a plush corporate headquarters- - like most such corporate country in Los Angeles, it mimicked the cinematic version of itself.
Another woman appeared through a door in the paneled inner wall, this one older and wearing a tweed pants suit. "Mr. Weller? Mr. Lazlo win see you now."
Weller followed her through the door and down a long hall. She opened a door at the end of the hall for him and closed it softly behind him as he stepped inside.
Harry Lazlo's office occupied a corner of the building, and. two big picture windows overlooked the Hollywood Hills and the grand smoggy sweep of lowland Los Angeles. There were brown leather couches and chairs, a wall lined with expensivel. bound books that looked as if they were glued in place, and about half a dozen large signed photographs of minor celebrities, none of whom was John B. Steinhardt. The desk was a great stark cube of mahogany, and the man behind it wore a powder-blue suit with a white shirt and a wide black tie. He was balding, with short gray hair above his ears, an Acapulco tan, and lightly tinted Italian glasses. He was even smoking a trim dark brown cigar -- the perfect image of the successful Hollywood entrepreneur.
"Ah, yes, Mr. Weller, do sit down, Benson's told me all about you," Lazlo said in a throaty New York voice but lightly overlaid with Los Angeles smoothie.
He rose as Weller approached the desk and offered him a pudgy hand, with a massive gold signet ring on the third finger, which Weller was constrained to shake as he sat down. The smell of Canoe wafted across the desk, mingled with a rich Havana aroma.
"Uh ... pleased to meet you," Weller said.
''I've had your credits checked out," Lazlo said. "Not a hell of a lot, really, except for Monkey Business, which I understand has just been canceled."
Weller's reaction must have shown on his face, for Lazlo laughed, and waved his cigar grandly. "Don't worry," he said. "I know the whole story. And I also have had some acquaintance with that schmuck-and-a-half, Morris Fender. Forget about it. We don't want our creative people wasting their time with drek like that, not when there's real work they can be doing for us."
Weller found himself warming to Lazlo, despite the heavy veneer of Hollywood phoniness, or perhaps because of it. He didn't seem like some Transformationalist creep; at worst he was a Hollywood creep, a type Weller felt more or less at home with.
"Tell me, Jack, can you handle a camera?" Lazlo asked.
"A camera?" Weller said dubiously. He had done some camera work years ago, but he had supposed that Allen had made it clear that he was a director, not a cameraman. "Yeah, I can handle a camera, but I'm a director, Mr. Lazlo."
"Sure, sure," Lazlo said. "All things in time." He puffed explosively on his cigar. "Look, maybe I should first tell you something about our operation," he said. "What Transformationalism has got coming out of its ears is money. One of the things I want to do with that money is move us into major league TV-films, commercials, the whole schmear. What we've got in that area right now is Changes Productions, which mainly makes TV commercials, which are mainly local station stuff fed to us by Delta, which is our advertising agency. Now what you are thinking right now is, hey, this guy is insulting me, talking about hiring me to work on lousy commercials when I've got network TV credits, right?"
"Well ... yeah, right," Weller said. Lazlo had indeed been reading his mind. Even from a Saturday-morning kiddie show, local commercials were a long step down.
Lazlo laughed. "Now, do I look like a guy who's mainly interested in making commercials?" he said. "Of course not! We're also making some internal films and some contract industrial stuff, but that's not where I'm mainly interested in going either. No, in a few years, I see Changes Productions getting into series television production, feature films, firstline stuff. We could be the next Universal. Why not? We've got the capital, and we've got the connections." He frowned. "But you want me to tell you what we don't got? What we don't got is the talent."
"I don't understand," Weller said. "If you've got the money, this town is full of film people who are looking for work. All you have to do is go down to the Beverly Hills unemployment office and take your pick."
Lazlo sighed. He chewed on the end of his cigar. "If only it were that simple," he said. "But it's not. You see, I can't hire anyone who hasn't at least gone through meditative deconditioning, and I can't give anyone a permanent appointment until they've passed a Monitor life analysis. Which narrows things down considerably. I've got to hire Transformational talent. Now there are millions of people who are into Transformationalism, but how many of them do you think are screen writers, actors, cameramen, or directors?"
"Not many," Weller ventured.
"Not many," Lazlo said. "So I end up hiring just about anyone the Monitors will pass who can do anything around film production. Loxes you wouldn't believe. It's a son of a bitch getting together a pool of people who could handle anything more than what we're doing now, and that's what's been holding us back. Which is why a guy like you, with real network credits, even if it is a monkey show, I was ready to hire sight unseen before you walked in the door."
"I see," Weller said. "Or do I? Why do you make it so hard for yourself?"
"Me?" Lazlo exclaimed. '"You think this mishigass is my idea?"
'"You'rethe secretary-treasurer of Transfurmalionalism, aren't you? You're the head honcho of Utopia Industries ..."
''That I am," LazIo said. "But I'll tell you what I'm not, and that is John Steinhardt or Fred Torrez."
"I don't understand."
"Money matters, I run," Lazlo said. "John has no head for business, and he knows it. I was his agent, you know, and even in those days it was disaster to let him get his hands on a checkbook even. Without me he'd still be broke, and Transformationalism Inc. would still be operating out of a storefront in San Francisco. So I run the business end, period. I made this company what it is."
Lazlo puffed on his cigar, shrugged his shoulders. "But the bullshit, the processing, the personnel, that's John's baby. Aside from the economic end, he keeps control of everything, and he sets policy. And he only wants dedicated Transformationalists working on what our media companies put out. I'm stuck with it. And of course, you can see his point. Media molds consciousness, and molding consciousness is to Transformalionalism as fried chicken is to Colonel Sanders, so you've got to have the right cooks in the media kitchen. The USIA doesn't hire Communists, and you won't find John Wayne working in Russian movies."
"And the'Monitors ... ?" Weller asked. "I keep hearing about these Monitors."
Lazlo waved his cigar, as if brushing away the importance of the Monitors. "Auditors," he said. "Boys from the home office. They just keep an eye out to see that everyone is doing things John's way. You know, like the guys from network continuity."
"But they have to clear everyone you hire ..."
"Yeah, yeah, it can get to be a pain in the ass sometimes," Lazlo said. "Like you, for instance. Now I know damn well you're probably a better director than anyone we've got now, but the directive is that nobody works as a director until they've completed meditative deconditioning and passed a Monitor life analysis. So all I can offer you is a provisional appointment as a cameraman at two hundred a week...
"Cameraman?" Weller exclaimed. "A lousy two hundred dollars a week? Now you are insulting me. That's not even scale." If this son of a bitch thinks he's going to hire me as a cameraman for a stinking two hundred a week....
"Take it easy, take it easy'" Lazlo said. "Believe me, once you complete your meditative deconditioning and pass the life analysis, you'll get a permanent appointment as a director. Absolutely. My word of honor. As for the salary -- when you figure in the free unlimited processing, that doesn't look so bad either."
"I don't know ..." Weller said uncertainly. But, of course, he did know. Two hundred a week was two hundred dollars a week more than nothing, and the unlimited free processing made it come out to more than he had been netting out Monkey Business at the end. But cameraman on some schlocky amateur commercial unit? Jesus....
Lazlo stuck his cigar in his mouth and looked squarely at Weller as he bit off his words around it. "Look, it depends on what you think of yourself," he said. ''I've told you what we've got, and I've told you the kind of people we've got working for us now. If you don't think you can rise to the top in a setup like this faster than hot shit through a tin horn, then I don't want you working for us either. You're not the man I thought 1 was looking for."
"When you put it that way...." Weller said. They did have money, and Lazlo did seem like a man who really was determined to have his production company move on to bigger and better things, and he certainly was right about the situation. If I can't become the main man in an operation like this, I ought to look for another line of work.
"How long will it take me to stop being a cameraman and start being a director?" he asked.
"A few weeks at most," Lazlo said. "You think I want to waste a real talent longer than I have to, things being what they are?"
"Okay." Weller said. "you've got yourself a cameraman."
Lazlo grinned. He stood up and once again shook Weller's hand. "Welcome to the family," he said. "You're not going to regret it. Couple of years, and we'll both be up there collecting our Oscars together."
Lazlo sat down. "Okay," he said, "now I've got to get back to work. My secretary will call you tomorrow and give you the details. Your producer will be Sara English, pretty okay, all things considered. Good luck."
And that was it. Weller left Lazlo's office bouncing on the balls of his feet. Hot damn! he thought. I've got a job! A job with a-future! I'll be the best damn cameraman they ever saw. And once they let me direct, I'll show them who's going to do their first feature! Energy flowed through him, he was riding the wavefront of destiny, he could hardly wait to begin.
Only when he had reached the garage and realized that the other thing he could hardly wait to do was go home and celebrate his good fortune with Annie, did he remember that there was no Annie waiting for him. That he had not even thought of her once during the whole interview with Lazlo. That even the features of her face were becoming slightly hazy in his mind's eye.
What changes I've gone through, he thought uneasily as be climbed into the familiar Triumph. And what changes are yet to come?