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The Video Star or "OOOh, Baby, OOOh, Baby, I'm In Love!": A Short Story
"You got a good face, you know it?" The slick dude said that to him eight months ago in Lucy's Diner.
The him in question was having steak and eggs. Wearing shades to keep the glare of the morning sunlight out of his eyes. Hadn't bothered to pull down the window blinds.
"I guess you noticed me staring at you," the slick dude said, "from the other side of the counter over there." He gestured to the other side of the counter over there.
"I guess I did," the man with the shades on said, taking a sip of his black coffee.
"The thing is," the slick dude said, "I was fairly blatant about it."
Shades nodded. "I did notice you noticing me."
"There's something I don't get."
"Why didn't you confront me on it?"
"Why should I do that?"
"No man likes to be stared at by someone he don't know."
"Only if you consider appraisal as assault," Shades said, "which I don't."
The Slick Dude was thinking: Appraisal as assault. Fancy wordplay for a man wearing a bolo tie and southwestern cowboy attire.
Shades was saying: "Anyway, I figured you were staring at me cause you had something on your mind. I decided to let it come at its own pace, in its own time. Let it unfold as it would. When the time was right. And here you are, finally, at my table telling me I got a good face. That's why you were staring at me, right?"
"Right but don't get the wrong idea."
"I don't have any wrong ideas."
"I'm not trying to pick you up."
"I didn't think so."
"I'm not gay."
"Alright," the Slick Dude said.
The Slick Dude said, "How'd you know I wasn't trying to pick you up?"
"You didn't look like a man on the make. Even if you were, I don't think you would have made your move like this, at a diner, at eight o'clock in the morning."
"What's wrong with diners?" the Slick Dude said with a smile.
"You ever see that movie, 'Pulp Fiction'?"
"The Quentin Tarantino picture with the three interconnected stories? Really four."
"Remember the scene, the opening scene with this man and woman couple in the diner? They're petty crooks, small-time stick up artists. They're trying to figure out what their next score's gonna be. Anything to get out of the misery of day jobs."
"Yeah," Shades said, "and they talk about the guys that successfully robbed a bank with a telephone--"
"That's right but what they finally decide is that the very diner they're sitting in is the perfect score."
"Nobody ever robs diners," Shades said in a lowered voice, quoting the line. "Why not?"
"That's the key to progress, my man," the Slick Dude said. "Asking the question: Why or Why Not?"
"Then they talk about the advantages of robbing diners as opposed to gas stations, convenience stores or liquor stores, like that," Shades said.
The Slick Dude spread his arms. "Yep. So what about diners for putting the moves on someone that looks good to you?"
"The continuing cultural reverberations of 'Pulp Ficton.'"
The Slick Dude thinking: continuing cultural reverberations... Dress like a cattle rancher, talk like a professor: Okay. The Slick Dude was saying: "People are always talking about not having time to meet people cause they're working so hard. Well, if you go somewhere for coffee every morning or something---guess what?---you got time."
"Why not diners, then?" Shades said.
"Why not diners?"
They paused a minute, catching their breath. Communing in companionable silence.
"You haven't asked me what I want yet."
"It'll come in its own time. It has something to do with me having 'a good face,' right?"
"You had your breakfast yet?" Shades said.
"I still insist you have coffee with me." Shades indicated the big carafe. "I can't finish all of that by myself." He waved at one of the waitresses. "Hey, Lucy?"
"Is that the Lucy who owns the place?" the Slick Dude said.
"No, the name's just a coincidence. I don't even think there is a 'Lucy' anymore. Maybe there was a long time ago when the place was started. But its part of some corporate conglomerate chain now. 'Lucy's' long gone, I bet, if she ever was."
The waitress arrived. Shades said, "Lucy, another coffee cup for my friend please; and can you bring us a couple of those giant blueberry muffins? Toasted with butter."
"Sure thing, hon," she said.
The muffins and extra cup arrived. The Slick Dude helped himself to more java after all. "You know, this is very pleasant. Instead of threatening to punch me in the mouth for staring at you so hard, here we are sitting, drinking coffee like we're friends."
"I like to think we are friends by now," Shades said.
"Friends know each other's names."
Shades leaned forward and dropped his voice. "I'll tell you a secret. I've been sitting here thinking of you as the Slick Dude."
"Slick? Like a used car salesman?"
"No, not at all." Shades shook his head. "You have more class than that, I can tell. What I mean is that you're young, good looking, well-spoken, personable. You're a snappy dresser. A bit flash but not outrageously so."
"Don't mention it."
"I've been sitting here thinking of you as Shades because you're inside wearing those sunglasses. If the sun is bothering you, why don't you pull down the window blinds?"
"I like the sun. Best of both worlds. I get to dine Al fresco without actually going outside."
"That's me. I'm always looking for ways to have my cake and eat it too."
"You're not in a hurry this morning," Slick Dude said.
"Eat your muffin while its hot." Shades took a bite out of his own, as if in demonstration. "Lucy's blueberry muffins are the best."
"What do you do, if you don't mind my asking?" Slick Dude said.
"I'm a writer."
"Fiction or nonfiction?"
"Literary or genre?"
"Straddles the fence."
"Good. Anything I might've seen?"
"Mind you," Shades said, "I'm not in anyway big-time famous as a writer. I'm no Stephen King or Dean Koontz or James Patterson or Elmore Leonard or Mario Puzo or Phillip Roth or anything like that. I"m several rungs down in fame and fortune---maybe several ladders down. Agents have told me my stuff is too violent, too ambiguous, too hard to categorize for really big mainstream success. I tend to write dark and complex melodramas where everybody dies at the end."
"Like Cormac McCarthy: The Road, No Place for Old Men?" Slick Dude said.
"Sometimes," Shades said. "Really more like a mashup between him and Patricia Highsmith. You know who that is?"
"You ever see the old movie, Strangers on a Train?"
"I think so," Slick Dude said, "about the guys who meet on a train and one guys says they should swap murders?"
Shades nodded. "That's the one. Highsmith wrote the novel, in the fifties, that that movie was based on. You know The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon playing Ripley?"
"Well, she also wrote that novel, in the fifties, that movie was based on. In fact, she wrote five novels featuring the Tom Ripley character. See, that's the kind of stuff she wrote---literary crime novels, you might say."
"Oh. You say you do a mash up of McCarthy and Highsmith?"
"That's one way of conceiving it."
Shades named a few of his titles; and, as he had thought, Slick Dude said he never heard of them.
Shades yawned, cracked his knuckles, stretched his arms, and leaned back. "Well, Slick Dude..."
"Well, Shades. Down to business now, hunh?"
"All good things, Slick Dude. All good things..."
"That's what they say," Slick Dude said.
They got down to business. What Slick Dude, whose name turned out to be Daniel Hollernzorn, wanted was this: for Shades, whose name turned out to be Hiram Hitkep (try saying that three times fast), to appear, make recurring appearances in some of the music videos of an up and coming, twenty-six-year-old singer called Arianella Macabe.
Hollernzorn labeled the young woman's music as alternative pop and retro funk-soul.
Hiram mulled that over without interrupting. Okay, he knew what the term retro means. Ditto for funk, soul, and pop. What does the term alternative means as it pertains to music? 'Alternative' to what?
He would have liked to have asked; but that would have taken them off on a tangent. To ask would have been a violation of his own rule. Hiram had declared this the time to stop jawboning to no purpose and get down to business, whatever that might be.
He figured that alternative was like that senator had said about pornography that time: You know it when you see it.
Daniel Hollernzorn said, yet again, that Hiram Hitkep had a good face. "Not handsome or anything like that. You're no pretty boy," he said.
Hiram Hitkep---The Artist Formerly Known As 'Shades'---arched an eyebrow in reaction to this.
"No offense," Daniel Hollernzorn---The Artist Formerly Known As 'Slick Dude'---said.
What Daniel meant by Hiram's 'good face,' was that it was a real face, a solid face, a face full of strength and character. It was a striking face---yes, that's the word he wanted, striking. Hiram looked like James Dean would have looked, if he had survived into his mature years. Hiram had that almost indefinable.... something, a presence.
Hiram---"May I call you 'Hiram'?": permission asked and granted---had the most amazing cheekbones. You could cut fabric with those things. Clean-shaven. Vital gray-green eyes: as though the majority of the man's life force was concentrated around them. Slicked-back dirty blond hair not showing any gray yet. Sun-bathed, weathered complexion of a man whose held his own against the elements all his life. Pretty good physique for a man of his years: takes care of himself; impending senior citizenship not used as an excuse for withering away on the bone without protest. Straight-backed posture. Dress him up in a nice three-piece suit or white pants, deck shoes, a jacket, sailor's cap; put him at the wheel of a big boat; put Arianella on his arm and he looks like a wealthy man and his much younger mistress/wife.
A mover and shaker in the business/political world. "Power is an aphrodisiac," as Henry Kissinger use to say.
Dress him up in a white jumpsuit with red, white, and blue stripes and stars and/or sequins. He could be Elvis well into his Vegas years---without the weight gain and drug abuse. He could be Evel Knievel on Social Security. Or Lee Majors as The Fall Guy, "the unknown stuntman... that makes Redford such a star."
He could be Tarzan The Lord of the Jungle, The Ape-Man swinging on vines with an AARP card tucked in his loincloth. His Jane looking like an ever-young Wonder Woman.
He could be Mr. Fantastic, the incredible, unforgettable, unendingly stretchable, Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four. His young wife, Sue Storm: pretty and blond in an uncomplicated Midwestern way. Miss Cornhusk Nebraska; Miss Silver Ladle Utah; Miss Sweet Cream Ohio; Miss Butter Churn Idaho; Miss Sweet Potato Arkansas; Miss Wildflower Oregon.
What he is really like---he's more like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Seasoned, veteran lawman left to his own devices---no help from anybody in that town---in fighting off a gang of lowdown desperadoes coming to bust up the town; bust him up; bust a cap in his ass; kill him; kill him dead.
Only ones step forward to help: 1) An old man, blind in one eye---That's okay, Pops. Go home, I got this; and 2) A kid who barely started wearing long pants. The Sheriff patted him on the head and told him to go back to his momma.
His wife played by blond bombshell and future royalty, Grace Kelly. Shot a couple of bad guys herself with a shotgun from hayloft of a barn.
He could be the distinguished Blake Carrington of Dynasty, twirling around his trophy wife, Crystal, the marble floor of the great gathering room of his mansion. Hosting the rich, powerful, and beautiful.
This was the artistic idea that Daniel had about Hiram. This was the way Hiram's presence impacted Daniel from the standpoint of creative inspiration. This was the way that Hiram's charisma inspired... well, inspiration. That is to say, it had become Daniel's intuitive conviction that Hiram's energy would fit well with what Arianella Macabe was doing as an artist.
Believe it or not, Daniel managed to convey all of that without any obvious obsequiousness. Without sickening sycophancy. Without crawling on his belly and kissing the man's feet and licking his toe jam. Without presenting as a shamelessly flattering brownnoser. Dignity and reasonableness, as ever, his watchwords.
That had always been his strength: persuasion. Specifically, the persuasion as to the reasonableness of the bizarre and the outrageous and the inconceivable and the fantastic. You would never know it to look at him but Daniel Hollerzorn had once harbored dreams of becoming a writer. Of creating an enduring body of work. Of making a significant contribution to American and world letters. Of establishing an unshakable legacy of words and ideas.
All throughout high school and college he had written for and later edited literary magazines. The Mightier Pen and BloodStone, respectively. Daniel would write stories with the most wacked-out premises and put them across convincingly in that deadpan style he had perfected.
He had written stories about frogs, who were all exiled shoemakers from other dimensions. Stories about the trees and plant-life of the Earth developing sentience and threatening the go on strike---ceasing photosynthesis and carbon dioxide transforming activities needed for human survival---until people stop polluting the world's environment. He wrote another long story called Conspiracy of Reflections about the secret life of beings contained within all mirrors and any reflective surfaces, beings who plotted to take over the world, supplanting those they called the 'three-dimensionals.' He wrote about androids that wanted to be human and humans that wanted to be androids. He wrote about vampires and werewolves, of course; as well as vampire-werewolf hybrids; and beings who were vampires for part of the year and werewolves for part of the year and human for yet another part of the year. He wrote contemporary fantasy: stories, for example, with magical systems based on: 1950s Doo Wop; 1970s Disco; Chinese restaurant fortune cookie sayings; root beer; 1980s sitcoms; Twitter; television commercial jingles from all eras; and so on.
There was a story about a cult of Satanists who became convinced that the Devil was speaking to them through episodes of Wheel of Fortune. Blessed be His Apostles, Pat Sajak and Vanna White! Conversely, there was the story of the Devil who became convinced that God was talking to him through episodes of Jeopardy; and he tried to send messages to God through rock music, just as Tipper Gore had always feared!
He wrote about a serial killer who called herself 'Grandma,' who was really a twisted version of the Tooth Fairy. She cut out the tongues of liars and left them under their pillows and put tape over their mouths: Speak No Evil, bearing false witness. She usually kept the teeth, with which she made necklaces.
In Patty Cake, Patty Cake, Baker's Man, a man who owned a bakery that had been in his family for two generations goes crazy when a corporation acquires it through a leveraged buyout, and they fire his best paid workers and force the others to take drastic pay cuts; and worst of all they start using inferior ingredients and cold mass-production methods to turn out the treats that he and his people had always baked fresh, with love. Before they arrest him, the bodies of the executives responsible for that outrage are found stripped nude, un-manned, eviscerated of their internal organs, covered in sugar and cinnamon, and deep-fried. A few decorative touches of icing and they are monstrous gingerbread cookies.
In One More Season, Baby, humanity is conceived of as a sitcom created for the amusement of the gods. What keeps humanity from annihilation (by flood, fire, plague, meteor shower, alien invasion, etc.) is the efforts of The Producer to persuade The Boys Upstairs to give the show "Human and Lovin' It!" One More Season, Baby!
Daniel Hollernzorn wrote stuff like that and grew up thinking that Stephen King, Clive Barker, and John Carpenter were gods.
But... publisher after publisher after publisher after publisher and yet again---after publisher said 'no.' He wasn't bitter or anything like that. He taught English at a community college for a while; and it had been, in its way, fulfilling. Shaping young minds and all that good stuff. He took acting classes. Landed a few commercials and appearances in several well known daytime dramas---soap operas, if one has to be brutally honest.
That had been fun, being on camera. Look Ma! I'm on T.V.! He got into directing and found more latitude available for expressing his vision. More latitude but not a lot of money. Still, he made his small, independent horror pictures, monster movies, slasher flicks, exploitation films.
He became a book editor, literary agent, and movie producer. And discovered that his real gift was working with talent. Shaping it. Helping artists make money while staying true to their creative selves. Not an easy thing to do.
He bought himself some turntables. And taught himself to be a DJ by watching YouTube videos. He was good, too. Put out a handful of house, lunge, chillout, electronic, trance CDs. From there he moved into the realm of music production. And the rest, as they say, is history.
For good measure, he went back to school and got a degree in business management. And the rest is history...
"Wow," Hiram said, impressed.
Daniel shrugged. "Yeah, well, that was my journey... how I ended up in this business.... how I came to be managing Arianella."
Daniel looked out the window. The light didn't bother him that much. "Charming city here, Newark."
Hiram lowered his eyes and his voice. "It has come a long way."
"Are you a native?" Daniel said.
"No, I moved here in the eighties."
"It must have been considerably less charming back then."
"The city has come a long way since then."
"So why'd you make the move here?" Daniel said.
"Because eighties-era Pittsburg was even less charming than Newark in those days. At least to me."
"What about you?" Hiram said.
"Visiting my mother."
"That's nice. Is she well?"
"Hale and hearty at eighty-two. She still lives independently, still drives, and still makes her own cornbread."
"She's really proud of that."
"I would be too."
"About the cornbread, I mean."
Hiram cracked his knuckles. First both sets of five fingers together. Then each digit separately including his thumbs. "I really shouldn't do that. Touch of arthritis, you know. At my age cartilage is precious indeed." Still, he rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck. He put his hand under his elbows and pulled them left and right. He cracked his ankles; and with a quick scrunch, popped his toes without taking off his shoes. He flexed his back, twisting at the waist. When he finished popping everything, he closed his eyes, for a moment, with a look of pleasure. As though feel-good endorphins had been released.
Hiram was about to say something----which was interrupted by the return of the waitress asking if there was anything else they wanted.
"Better bring us some more coffee, Lucy," Hiram said. "And two more of those muffins. Same deal: toasted with butter slathered all over them."
Daniel tried to protest---
"Ah come on, you'll change your mind when they get here," Hiram said. "And if you really don't want it, I'll make the supreme sacrifice and eat it for you. Or you could get it wrapped up to take with you."
Lucy left for the coffee and muffins.
Daniel was about to say something but Hiram interrupted him, raising a hand.
"Hold that thought," he said, "I got to go to the little boys'. I'll be right back."
He went to the bathroom and upon his return the coffee and muffins had already been set down.
"There, that's better," Hiram said with a smile. "Old man's bladder."
"I ought to 'shake the dew off my lilly,' as a matter of fact," said Daniel.
Daniel excused himself as Hiram re-took his seat.
He came back. They sipped their coffees. Chatted some more.
Daniel said, "So how about it? Would you like to be my next music video star?"
"You had me at 'You got a good face,'" Hiram said.
They shook on it.
"Tell me," Daniel said. "You're a writer. Are you in the middle of a book right now?"
"Further along than that. Its almost finished."
"So you have a little time?"
"Good because what I'd like to do, then," Daniel said, "is have you fly back to Chicago with me. I'll buy your ticket for you at the airport. I want to get you back to Chi-Town, meet our legal people, sign a contract, meet our creative people, give them a chance to fall in love with you like I have. Can you be available in two days to fly up there with me and then hang out for about four or five days?"
"No problem. But how do you know your people will love me?"
"Believe me, they will. I know. But the important thing, Hiram, is that I love you. You see, among all the other oars I have in the water, I am the principal director of the videos. I just have this feeling that you will be my muse, that we will make a grand team: Like Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock; Like Martin Scorcesse and Robert DeNiro; Like Danny Trejo and Robert Rodriguez; Like Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson; Like John Carpenter and Kirk Russell. And you will be a good fit with Arianella."
"This is that important to you?" Hiram said.
"Videos are the very lifeblood of the industry these days, on the creative end."
Hiram shrugged, taking his word for it.
They wrapped things up and left the diner. Hiram reached into his wallet and started pulling out bills with abandon. He left the price on the table along with a tip Lucy could retire on. She deserved it, putting up with his nonsense. He waved bye-bye to her saying, "Thanks, Lucy." She waved back.
That was on a Tuesday. On Thursday, Daniel and Hiram sat next to each other in the first class accomodations of the flight back to 'The Windy City.'
There Hiram met with legal and signed a contract. He met with the creative principals he would be working with and, as Daniel had predicted, they had all loved him. Unless they were all Academy Award-level actors.
He met with Arianella herself, and she told him that he had a nurturing aura. She said that she could tell from his aura that he had a good heart and that his spirit was true. She said that Daniel had always been a true judge of people; he was divinely driven, she said, though he was not aware of it, always denied it when she pointed this out to him. Speaking quite literally, without any subterranean suggestion, she said that it was ordained that he, Hiram, and she, Arianella, would make beautiful music together.
"What'd she say?" Daniel asked as Hiram had come out of Arianella's dressing room, their meeting over.
"She likes my aura."
"Told you. They all love you as much as I do."
Two months later, the Arianella Macabe act, including Hiram Hitkep, went to work on a music video called DreamLand.
He was back home now, in Newark, New Jersey. He was having trouble with the last chapter of his latest novel. He was pecking away on his laptop at his neighborhood Panera Bread café. Having easily transferred his allegiance from Starbucks, especially since it had moved out of the neighborhood. Panera was about one hundred feet away from Lucy's Diner, diagonally across the street, on the other side of the railroad tracks. He rarely ventured far from his comfort zone without provocation.
He was sitting at a window. Midday sunlight streaming in. Not bothering to lower the blinds because he was wearing his sunglasses. He took a break from the part of the novel that was vexing him. He minimized that screen and opened another one, going to YouTube, where he would check out---for the umpteenth time---the DreamLand video.
It had been four months now since DreamLand had hit the MTV airwaves. It had climbed all the way to twelve on the top one hundred best list. Not bad for an old guy!
He began watching the video. He looked good in it---thank you make up department! He and Arianella had chemistry. Like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall? You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? Just put your lips together and blow.
'Bogie' had been a good twenty years Bacall's senior. They had ended up striking sparks on and off the screen.
As he let himself get lost in the moody, mid-tempo groove, he thought to himself: OOOh, Baby, OOOh, Baby, I'm In Love!