Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When It's All Over

Johnny Russo’s hotel room overlooked a small, run-down Spanish grocery store where a man spent several hours every morning announcing: “Flowers!” and “Fresh produce!” to the passerby, Johnny looked out the window anticipating the man taking his place in a few short hours. “You sure you want me to leave?” the girl asked, pulling the sheets up to her chest. “Yeah, I’m sure,” Johnny answered punching out a cigarette on the coffee table. He continued to gaze out the window, where the regular routine had yet to begin in earnest. Stragglers in paper top hats with noise makers still clung to their dates and stumbled down the sidewalk. The girl slunk through her pink-glittery dress and grabbed her spiked heels in her hand. She grabbed a wad of crumbled up bills off the nightstand and stuffed them into her purse. “Well, Happy New Year,” she croaked through a groggy voice. Johnny nodded back shortly and she exited through the door. He sighed deeply now that he was alone and rose from his chair and entered the bathroom. His hair was long and greasy, his beard long and wiry. Bluish circles formed under his eyes. He splashed some water on his face hoping it would wash away some of the evidence of having been up for the last 36 hours. He re-tied the belt across his coffee beige bathrobe. He pulled a gold watch out from the robe’s pocket, it had been a gift from the record company after his first Gold Record. It had been only three hours since 1972 had dissolved into 1973 and he had a slight, unexplained feeling of optimism. After tonight he was going to get his act together. He had run into Fred Bannister earlier in the night and explained that he was looking to get back in the game. Fred didn’t make him any promises but Johnny knew, he knew that if he just applied himself, if he really focused this time, he could get back to the top. “Johnny you were never on top,” he recalled Lisa had told him when he broke what he thought was exciting news. “Besides, Fred Bannister? You know what he does these days? He books those oldies shows, they get a few acts who had hits like 10 years ago. They come out, play their hits with the house band and collect their check until the next time Fred calls.” This deflated him so much that he left the bar, infuriated at his wife for popping the first bubble of good news his career had had in the last 5 years. Convinced this was the last straw in a marriage that was already fractured he returned to home and grabbed a large portion of his wardrobe, including some of his stage costumes in the pockets of which he hid money from his wife mostly for when a dealer would come by, but also in case he ever needed to leave for a few days. That was two days ago and he had yet to call Lisa. He’d burned through most of the money, though he was sure he forgot a patent red leather blazer that he wore during his last appearance on American Bandstand and a white cotton sports coat that he wore on his first television appearance, (The Clay Cole Show in 1961) both of which had a small fortune in them. The room was dark except for the street lights glow leaking in through the paper thin curtains. He turned on the television and rolled the dial across the channels but they’d all signed off. Abandoning the television he slid a dime off the nightstand, rolling it around in his fingers for a moment he finally sprung off the bed, his hand clenched tightly around the coin, he left the room and headed down the hallway to the pay phone. “Hello?” a voice answered sleepily after nearly a dozen rings. “Hey,” he said nervously. “Johnny? No, we’re not doing this now,” Lisa said, anger slowly awakening her voice. “But, I want to come home,” he said sweetly. “You mean my home? I am the only one who pays for anything around here Johnny you do know that don’t you? That while you’re out there chasing whatever fame you think you’re entitled to I’m the one who is paying the bills, you do realize that don’t you?” “You have to throw that in my fucking face every time, Lisa?” Johnny barked. “I’m not doing this with you now, it’s almost four-o’clock in the morning.” “Fine, I’ll just twist out here in the wind while her holiness decides she’s ready to talk to me about it,” he screamed. “Keep it down out there,” a voice yelled through the door of the room in front of the phone. “Shut up!” Johnny yelled back. “Save your voice Johnny, remember you’re gonna be back on top,” Lisa said coldly and hung up the phone. Johnny hung the receiver up calmly and slowly walked back to his room. He sat on the bed, tears welling up in his eyes. The door closet still opened, half full with clothes he’d worn in better times. “Those clothes were on t.v.” he thought. “I was on t.v.” In his closet at home he’d taken the time to arrange them chronologically, and the fraction he’d snatched from home maintained their order when he hung them in them at the motel. Noticeably standing out from the elegant jackets was a brown, suede jacket with tassels. Johnny rolled his eyes when his eyes came to it. “That’s what did me in,” he said. “Fucking hippie bullshit.” In 1966 his manager decided since Johnny’s records weren’t selling like they used to that he was going to do a whole album of more contemporary music. Johnny grew his hair out to an acceptable shaggy-length and let his moustache come in. He started wearing peace-beads and bell bottoms. He was 29, only slightly older than some of his rock-n-roll peers. Stylistically however, they were miles apart and Johnny managed to alienate both his core audience who were accustomed to his carefully managed clean-cut persona, and the younger audience who recognized the record as attempt to cash in and save his fledgling career. He didn’t make another record for almost 4 years when he abandoned the counter-culture look and adopted a more laid-back style. His new manager told him “you’re not singing to kids anymore, you’re singing to mothers” he released an album of standards arranged with a contemporary pop sound. The American Bandstand performance aired the night before the album was released and Johnny was sure that this would restore his career. Unfortunately the sales were week and he spent the next two years touring as a supporting act, before ultimately accepting a 3 month stint in the lounge at the Sands in Las Vegas, however only a month and a half into the engagement he performed so drunk the manager was forced to fire him on the spot after a heated verbal exchange with a heckler. Since then he’d been plotting a career resurrection with no success. All these memories flushed through him right up until watching the ball drop in Times Square just a few short hours ago, in the arms of a hired woman. He kicked the empty, scotch bottle across the room and swung the closet door, bear-hugging his wardrobe and carrying them into the bathroom where he threw the pile into the tub. He flicked his cigarette lighter and held the sleeve of the light-blue, butterfly-collared shirt he wore on the Ed Sullivan show under the flame until it finally started to burn. He released the sleeve and watched the flame engulfed more of the shirt and blackened one of the crisp, ivory jackets beneath it. He stared at the flame feeling no sense of liberation. A wave of panic hit him in the chest as black smoke began to arise out of the mound of clothes. He quickly turned on the shower faucet and the flame was quickly extinguished. He shut the water and scooped the wet pile out of the tub and gently placed them on the bed, carefully drying the red-leather blazer with a towel. “You never know,” he said out loud to no one in particular, “I may get hot again.”