Small Sums

by Michael Ryerson

When Sculley died, Ribisi called me up to help clean out the apartment. They had these four little rooms above the restaurant which, I guess, years ago were apartments but being so small they had become storerooms until Sculley found out about them and talked Ribisi into letting him take one. He lived up there maybe ten years, coming down to the restaurant for most meals and generally holding court for anyone who’d listen. Sometimes he’d sit at the bar ‘til closing but mostly he’d sit in the dining room for a couple of hours sharing a table with strangers. Wherever he set up people would be laughing. He was pretty amusing. Said he’d been a writer at one time and in the movie business and since this was a working class joint nobody really cared if he was telling the truth or not. He was a fat guy and he made Mama Ribisi nervous for her chairs but he was jovial and kind and most everyone liked him. Said, ‘You know why fat guys are always jolly? ‘Cause they can’t fight and they can’t run.’ Anyway, he dropped dead one morning in his room. One of the busboys heard him go down from in the kitchen. Made a hell of a thump. So we spent Saturday morning moving his stuff out. Ribisi said he didn’t have any relatives so if I saw anything I wanted I should keep it. There wasn’t anything. We were nearly finished when I picked up an empty cardboard box. In the bottom of the box was a letter addressed to Dennis Sculley at Columbia Pictures up on Gower. It was from Jack Hughes. The return address was in the 500 block of Larchmont, which put it around Beverly, I think. It was one of those old, nearly transparent air-mail envelopes with the red border. But this one didn’t go air-mail, it was postmarked Los Angeles, 28, an old postal code. It carried a four cent stamp. Inside was a single sheet of blue onionskin, typed, single-spaced without paragraph breaks: 

Dear Den,

I’d like to say that running into you yesterday was a pleasure and for me it was, at least initially, but your discomfort was apparent. In future, you must be more careful where you wander. This town ain’t safe. It’s full of needy people. Believe me, I know. I frequently replay my cruelty towards Pan and Georgie all those years ago when I had that nice little run over at Paramount. Of course, my good fortune didn’t last, nothing in this town ever lasts, but you can never see that, can never see how much time you are going to have. We always play it as though the world has finally recognized our genius, that we’ve found our rightful place and we’ll be there forever. But you’ve still got to play it for all it’s worth. And I did. And now you’re embarrassed to run into old friends. Ironic, huh? I saw you last week at the Formosa with Riskin, I thought we made eye contact but you looked away just as I was raising my hand. Ever have that feeling, a word or a nod left hanging and you wonder who sees you talking to yourself? Sort of a cosmic joke. But you should know I wasn’t going to put the bite on you, wasn’t going to hit you up for anything. I’m good. Francine’s got a nice gig over at Don’s and I’m peddling some of my old stuff finally, nothing big, just here and there, but steady. Enough to pay my union dues. I have to admit I was hoping you’d notice my new shoes and relax a little, goddam Florsheims, sixty bucks. Anyway, next time you run into an old chum, relax. If he wants something, he’ll ask but he probably just wants to say hello. And don’t feel guilty, fer chrissakes, you worked hard for what you’ve got, you deserve it. And yeah, if you need a script doctor or a treatment or maybe just some additional dialogue, throw me a bone. I ain’t proud. 


I wondered if Sculley ever called him. Who was Jack Hughes? Riskin? I wondered what Sculley did at Columbia. There was no title, no department on the envelope. I think that could mean he had some juice, you know, with stuff coming into the mail room with just his name and them knowing who he was, where his stuff belonged. I showed the envelope to Ribisi. He just shrugged and said there was more old mail on the table in the kitchenette and to put it in there. 

Michael Ryerson