Fiction from Dennis Barone

Photo: Immo Wegmann

Quartet

Gianni walked down the street to see if his car had been sold. To his chagrin, there it sat, apparently unmoved as well as unsold, the large banner price still affixed to the front windshield. He had tried to convince the owner of the lot to affix not a price but a name—his—Gianni—in the belief that association with the realm of stardom would assure a quick sale. But the salesman recognized neither the name nor its namesake’s face. He told Gianni he would have a large sum for him if he waited until he sold it otherwise he would have to settle for a sum remarkably lower than its worth if he opted for immediate cash.

He walked up the street, packed his bags, and left for the airport. He observed that several long gray hairs curled out of the opening in his V-neck sweater. He would have to pull them before boarding the plane. In New York he’d want to look nineteen again.

On the plane the man next to him listened to a familiar song. Gianni could make out the melody when his neighbor took a plug from an ear to request some water as a flight attendant passed. Gianni recognized it so quickly for it was one of his, one he had recorded—was it that long ago?

He turned to his neighbor, smiled, and said, “Good song.”

And his neighbor for the coast to coast flight said, “I’ve heard better ones.”

“Well,” Gianni started to reply but the other fellow inserted the earpiece, turned toward the window, and closed his eyes.

In New York he went through security and no eye brow raised either thinking Gianni a threat to national security or recalling those songs of yesteryear.

When he stepped outside Fred and Alice were there to greet him. They wore shoulder pads and football helmets and held high a large sign that said GO Gianni GO.

“Oh, Gianni,” Fred said, “we’re so glad to see you.”

“What’s with the sporting attire?” He asked.

“Oh, Gianni,” Alice said. “We wanted to be sure you recognized us. It’s been so long.”

“Good thing you left your chin strap unbuttoned. Otherwise I may not have recognized your distinguished chin,” Gianni joked.

And Fred and Alice both exclaimed, “Oh, Gianni.”

“Hey, how do you get a cab around here?” he asked.

“We have an Uber waiting for us over there,” and Fred pointed across the access road to a red Buick Enclave.

Once seated in their ride Alice asked Gianni what he would like to do first and rattled off a rapid-fire list of possibilities.

Gianni said, “Gee, guys. I think I’d like to check in and then go for a walk by myself to get acclimated, to get readjusted. It’s been so long.”

On his walk he saw the Brill Building where so many years before he had watched several rough-cut screenings of his films. In those days he kept his home close to his origins and had not made the move west, had not made that near permanent move.

He had returned to New York to perform in a non-musical production of Turandot. This drama would feature a new ending something neither Puccini, Alfano, nor Berio had ever imagined, something new and different and startling from the mind of Broadway’s newest genius: Max Stern. No “Nessun Dorma” in this version, no soccer match music for Max. No music.

—§—

The lights faded. A moment later the title receded from the screen, he saw his name spread across it: Gianni Onderdonck, even before the director’s.

He saw the young Swanson couple board the bus. He knew that he would be found seated by the aisle near the front when they entered. Gianni did not care for the Mrs. Swanson as a person though as a character the script-writers did intend for some attraction between them. As a person he recalled that he found the husband much more interesting, though as a character he had been constructed very much as a dunce and a minor character, though one with a college letterman’s appeal.

He saw that the bride made eye contact as she walked past. An exterior showed the bus climbing a hill on a winding road and then descending. The weather had turned frightful. Off to the side some rocks broke free and tumbled down. The bus driver slammed the brakes, but it was no good. The bus rolled once and then again. It stopped as steam rose from it. The driver’s wide-eyes indicated death. But the Swansons and their companion stranger miraculously survived. They crawled out of the bus. They stood and wiped themselves free of debris.

Gianni heard himself say (as he knew he would), “Come. I know somewhere nearby. We may rest there. Come. I know.”

The Swansons exchanged doubtful glances, but what alternatives did the newlyweds have on that wretched night of cold mist and fog?

“Well, alright,” the young husband replied. “I suppose it’s a plan at any rate. Best to keep moving,” he said.

The Mrs. shook once and then twice and turned from one man to the other.

They started to walk. Then Gianni saw them walking away. Then he saw a large house, a dark house. Then they walked. Then they had arrived at the door.

Gianni heard the chimes. After a pause that allowed the three to offer their skill at quizzical expression, the latches came undone and the door opened. There stood Gianni’s co-star.

The sallow faced man offered his greetings and apologized. He noted that his servant had the evening off. When he ushered the three impromptu guests into his house he looked deeply into Gianni’s eyes and nodded at him and Gianni returned the gesture, but added the words, “And so I have returned my dear Elgar.”

At this point the music became more pronounced. It carried a certain familiarity but also a sentimentality that for fans of the two—and yes they were legion—would bring on tears and an accelerated heartbeat.

Elgar said in a pronounced slow monotone, “Please, enter. I will show you to your rooms. This is a horrid night. One of misfortune, I presume?”

At the word “horrid” the camera caught Gianni in a distressed expression, exaggerated for an extra beat to be sure the expression and all it expressed could not be missed.

—§—

Ken found the box in the back of the old Gloria Hill Studio. Clean out day, he supposed, and he made out like gold.

He took it home and there ran a few of the reels through an old Moviola. He recognized the performer: a young Gianni Onderdonck wearing a kilt and a t-shirt with a palm tree on it and hamming-up for the camera. Ken knew right away what he would do. He would edit this material in ways that might surprise Sergei Eisenstein. He would add a contemporary heavy metal soundtrack and Gianni himself would record a voice-over narration.

—§—

Crane shots and crane shots of crane shots.  Tracking shots and tracking shots of tracking shots. Gianni yells something and then the man exits the subway again. The other man crosses the street. We see the gun. Then one man falls while the other drops the gun and keeps walking. Gianni says, “Okay. That’s better.”

He sleeps and dreams and there on the screen are the images he dreams. There is a warehouse full of a life’s possessions. There is a curl of smoke stretching skyward. He wakes and dresses for his meeting with the insurance representative.

—§—

We see Gianni curled tight into a ball as Max Stern describes the project. Fred and Alice get more and more excited. Fred begins to jump up and down in joy. Gianni winds himself into a tighter ball. Fred stumbles, grabs his ankle, sits down, and moans.

Max senses Gianni’s doubt. He comes over to Gianni and pulls him from the sofa.

“Look, Gianni,” he says. “This is now and no longer then. This is the bell that will ring and the light that will shine and your hand will be the hand to flip the switch into the on position. The on position, Gianni. Now, now let us begin!”

Alice came over to where they stood. She looked at Gianni and said, “Oh, isn’t he wonderful” and then she turned to Max and repeated, “Isn’t he wonderful?” She embraced them and then Fred cried out, “Now come on you guys. That’s my wife!”

—§—

The Swanson girl looked frightened when she caught Elgar staring at her.

Elgar turned toward Gianni. Then the Swanson girl shivered as if she had seen a ghost.

Elgar reminded his guests to make themselves at home. He reached for Gianni’s elbow and gently led him to the side of the room, far from its fire and deep in the shadows where they could not be overheard.

“So, Olaf. We meet again,” Elgar said.

Gianni glanced toward the Swansons. They looked into each other’s eyes, held hands, and seemed oblivious to their host and their fellow guest.

Gianni turned back to Elgar as he spoke again. He had become noticeably agitated, anxious.

“I see you are interested in the girl,” Elgar said.

“Not in that way,” Gianni replied.

The music had started again as Elgar shook his head.

“Oh, Olaf. There can be no escape. We will always have Tisbury.”

“No, no,” Gianni replied, uncertain.

“Always, yes,” Elgar continued. “Not only the living, but also the dead.”

Lightning struck outside the windows. It was not distant. The music became more pronounced. A shadow figure could be seen in the hall.

—§—

Ken found out how to contact Gianni. By luck, they connected on the first try.

“Hello. Gianni Onderdonck?”

“Yes.”

“This is Ken Matthews.”

“Yes.”

“Is this a good time?”

“Well, I honestly don’t know. Is it? You tell me.”

“Can we talk for a few minutes?”

“It seems we are talking.  Aren’t we?”

“Look, Gianni. I appreciate this. I appreciate you taking the time out of your day…”

“Take it. Please, take it. Save me from Max Stern. Save me from the New York stage.”

“Well, I just might be able to help. I am a filmmaker.”

“I haven’t worked in years.”

“I know. I mean that’s a shame, an injustice, our loss.”

“Perhaps.”

“Look, I got this footage of you.”

“So.”

“I found it at the dump. I went to drop off old stereo equipment and out of a box I could see some strands. I bent down and pulled and there were a couple of reels. Are you still there?”

“I’m listening.”

“I took it home. Looked at it. It’s you, all of you—hamming it up.”

“Ah, the Follies.”

“What’s that?”

“The Follies. Something we did for fun back then. Something to loosen up before the serious work that’d follow.”

“Can I use it?”

“Be my guest.”

“What I want to do is to record you, a voice-over. To begin it as an interview. Then let the questions fade out as you start to sing.”

—§—

Fred and Alice as Ping and Pong. The ever so wonderful, so versatile Fred and Alice. Imagine!

Exactly, Gianni worried.

“But …” he began.

Max would have none of it and waved-off Gianni’s concern with an extended hand and the rapid counter fire of “Tut. Tut. Tut.”

—§—

“Tut. Tut. Tut.”

Max took a lamp and held it under his chin and growled, “Vincero!”

 —§—

“A voice-over.”

“No script?”

“No script. You ad-lib.”

“Mama mia! What are you, nuts?”

—§—

As per November 1, 1939 addendum:

No approval shall be given to the use of words and phrases in motion pictures including but not limited to, the following:
.

.

Dennis Barone‘s most recent writings include Frame Narrative, a book of poetry from Blaze Vox (2018), and “Praying Toward Acceptance: Aspects of African, Anglo, and Italian American Cooperation,” an essay published in Italian Americana (2019).

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