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Working the Arc Light


I introduced myself to the waiter, Carlos. His eyes were not dangerous, just hostile. I had been looking at the ladies. “Where’s Marks?” I asked.
“Ah, Marks,” Carlos murmured. “I’d better get paid tonight. The tips better be good.”
“Are you handling the entire room yourself?” I asked.
“Marks has lost his contact lenses. Marks has gone down town to see if he can get another set before tonight. Do you realize that he’s blind without lenses. Can you see him up there, stumbling around, or worse, with his glasses on trying to pretend to be Mark Twain?”
“Still no piano player?”
“I’m supposed to have help with the room. Duke promised that there would at least be two of us doing the tables,” Carlos said. I didn’t like talking to him. He sounded like a psychology major. Narcissistic other inward worldly indirection seems common to those lately drawn to the cause of self discovery.
I was about to head for the door when the Duke appeared with a lady in a long dress, the hostess as it turned out, by his side. “Going?” he piped zestfully, “but you haven’t had lunch yet,” he said taking me in a gentlemanly fashion by the arm and leading me to a table by the window. “Back in ten minutes,” he promised. The hostess sat down beside me and when alone said, “He’s very talented you know.” I nodded loyally. “Did he get the contact lenses? I mean, Duke’s looking a little disheveled and needs a shower. His haircut’s not the best. Did some optometrist really jump through the flaming circus loop and immediately present Marks what he needed more than anything else, even more than a piano player, in the whole world?”

“Oh, we found a piano player.  He’s fantastic.  A wizard,” my hostess informed me.  “Star pupil of the music school.”

“Where did this piano player come from?”

“He walked in while you and Bill were away,” she beamed.  The woman had had previous experience with unbelievers.  It was time to compliment my hostess on her dress.  The Duke returned balancing three platefuls of beef stroganoff and dangling a bottle of red wine.  He gave a look for a little help please’ and we helped him put the things down.  Carlos came over and dropped some silverware on the table and walked quickly back to where his two girlfriends were waiting.

“You’ve heard about the piano player, I trust,” Duke said gleefully.  “No more trying to revise the script?” he said lightly.  “We don’t need beats,” he said pretending to be one beating on a pair of invisible bongo drums.  “You’ll like working the arc light.  I can see you’re someone who likes standing behind the light, watching what’s being illuminated, and not someone who likes standing in the light, being examined.  Well,” he moaned, “I don’t mind parading myself.  That’s the way to make the dough.  You’ve got to be able to strut it!  Look at what Mick Jagger did!  They like it.  It’s what they pay for, what they buy.  I don’t want to have to pay though.  Dietrich’s still in good shape…  Mick’s eighty years old.  You have to know how to pace it.  That’s what takes real intelligence,” Duke said pointing an accusing fork at me.  The prongs were slightly twisted.  Marks noticed too.  “Gahh,” he cried throwing the fork away from him as though it had just turned into a snake.  “My teeth, my tongue, my lips,” the Duke shuddered.

And now we’re back to the beginning though Marks is quivering more than shuddering.  Boint has flubbed the dinner.  The audience Marks predicted would show, has.  They’ve paid twenty five dollars a plate and have waited through an hour and a half delay, no alcohol and not enough coffee to eat tiny portions of salad, chicken or beef and a thimbleful of rice.  I’ve been very busy, serving dinner in place of eating any (there wasn’t enough left for the staff).  People have run out of jokes to tell.  The doctors and their chiffon dressed wives are more than edgy.  The piano player, missing for an hour, has arrived.  He has the most dangerous eyes I have ever seen.

Duke is calming down.  The stage fright and nerves are necessary.  His lover has gone through this before.  Marks needs to be pushed to perform, encouraged that he’ll be great, astounding.  A few hits of dope and he’s relaxed.  Carlos has to be asked to leave the dressing room.  He’s swearing up and down at Duke about the humiliation he feels, how bad the tips are going to be.  “How do you ever expect anyone to ever come up here again after what you’ve done to them tonight?” Carlos says as the hostess leads the unbeliever to the door.  Marks meets the challenge.  A Cheshire smile hits his face in place of the panic and he tells Carlos and all of us that, “They won’t remember anything but the show.  They’re here to see the show.”  I have been exchanging knowing nods with the madman pianist.  He’s an undergrounder, spaced to the gills.

When Marks attempted to demonstrate the arc light to me earlier that afternoon, he blew every fuse in the building.  The arc light man had become a waiter.  Bill, thankful that anything had come off at all, motioned for me to follow him to a back table.  He had a bottle of vodka waiting as a reward for my decent enough services.  “What the hell,” Boint blustered, happy to be out of the fray, “Marks’ ass will be gone out of this town by tomorrow morning.  We may as well drink his liquor and put hands on the hockable stuff before the creditors arrive.”  “Do you really think it’s that bad?” I asked.  Bill drew a line across his throat and poured.

Actually, Duke did fairly well for a while.  The Coward imitation was well acted out.  He had a voice.  The monologue was professionally written.  The British accent was perfect.  But the piano player didn’t think Coward’s music was any too great and he’d taken a disliking to the Duke.  Jazz riffs were interlaced with music hall.  Well trained ears in the audience started to wonder.  Next it was jazz and Bartok and speed interspersed with Coward.  Marks walked off the stage still doing the song and maintaining a veneer.  Strolling to the piano as though it was part of the act, Duke tried to slow the Coward hating pianist down.  Duke smiled at the chap.  The chap leered back.  Duke kept on singing.  The pianist returned to playing the written score.  Duke turned round and reassumed his pose of elegance on the stage.  The pianist looked over at the audience and grinned mischievously.  Marks was on his string, he’d like to let them know.

“Ahh, he’s really pretty good,” Bill said with thoughtfully drunken sincerity.  “He needs to project a little more, but all in all, he may save it yet.  We may not have to close after a single night of fiasco.”

“How do you like the pianist?” I asked him.  (He was beginning to misbehave again.)

“Well, I would have done the Mark Twain, wouldn’t you?” Bill coughed, still sincerely keeping his eye on the stage to appreciate the contorted efforts Marks was making to try to save himself.  “Just heard an Ellington.  That kid can really beat those keys.  Duke will have to come off the stage again.”

“It’s too bad.  This could have been a good thing, even if the theatre flopped, it would have made a restaurant,” I said complimenting the soused cook, who was indeed looking koala like, hand gripped around the bottle. BACK

Written by: Will Schmitz

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