Montreux. Right now.

Part I

—even I / Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.

There was a time when everything the man did made news. Years ago, he gave an enthusiastic “Yes!” to a crowd-muffled question and, as a result, found himself pilloried in the press: as a heretic, as a racist, as a womanizer, as a number of (un)flattering things. Every shirt he wore or mustache he grew became cause for celebration and imitation. If the public only knew how random most of these “decisions” had been -- little more than snatching a jacket from a dark hall closet, really -- he wondered if the aura surrounding them would have been as strong, the effect on his personal capital quite as robust.

Such things were in the past, though, and he intended his final decades to be something else entirely. Far from the market-driven hurly-burly, insulated by money and the luxury it purchased, and anonymous for the first time in decades -- the man now lived only to consume, observe, reflect, and stroll.

Since arriving at this lakeside resort weeks ago, a standard morning routine had served him well. He rose under a warm sun, lingered over coffee service and a paper, and ignored whatever residual phone calls arrived. They still flattered him, of course. Agents and producers and professional acquaintances left messages filled with effluent praise, begging him back to the coast with promises of aesthetic brilliance, of power, of gargantuan sums of money. But these calls flattered him even more now that he could ignore such practicalities and just enjoy the saccharine bootlicking of it all. Many such indulgences had begun creeping into his life, and he made no attempt to resist them. Instead, he toyed with decadence, coquettishly encouraging its daily advance and savoring its ingress as a sublime violation.

This particular morning, the man left his room at ten sharp and breakfasted in the hotel’s café. The time varied slightly, but he’d done this every day since arriving, venturing beyond his residence only for lunch and supper. Breakfast, he felt, was best consumed in proximity to the bedchamber. The head still pounding and the stomach’s flora still roiling from the previous night’s extravagance, he left open the possibility of a late-morning nap before commencing the stroll that would, invariably, consume the bulk of his day.

Eating his breakfast leisurely, the man didn’t really notice the smell of his breakfast pastry or the taste of the jam or the sound of the lunch preparations in the kitchen. He didn’t particularly savor the earthy taste of the strong coffee or give undue attention to the shapeliness of the serving woman. Instead, he focused his attention on the still exotic peace, the bliss of anonymity or -- since the maître d' had asked him to sign yet another autograph for his wife -- the comparable sense of non-celebrity.

Is this what they feel, he wondered, looking over the other patrons and hotel staff and imagining the world-wide billions of others like them?

Is this what he’d felt, all those years ago, before his star rose? Is this what he’d feel again when the phone calls stopped and his marketability evaporated?

Living in the great glare had already isolated him -- he had no woman, few real friends, and no children -- so he felt reasonably well prepared for solitude. But for most of his life, he’d enjoyed the abstract adoration of the hollow-faced, fame-drunk shadow people who huddled for warmth on the dark side of those endless flashes. He’d thrived on a vague sense that he was, however tenuously, connected to the crepuscular Sheol-world beyond velvet ropes and that there, in the long shadow of the paparazzi, stood his friends. True friends, mind you, not those compromised by consanguinity or experience or by any of the other dirty aspects of life, but those formed by the varieties of narrative experience and forged in the white-hot light and steady, clicking flicker of a thousand movie palaces the world over.

Solitude aside, the man was quite sure he’d miss this.

The cooler, more rational parts of his mind were all too aware that the flashes obfuscated much more than they illuminated. Infernal and deceptive, they didn’t facilitate short moments of clarity or connect anyone. They lit no paths and served only as indirect projections of his fans’ desires eagerly generated by the twitchy fingers of mercenary cameramen. And no matter how they warmed him or fed his fantasies of connection, in the end, the flashes had isolated him and driven him away. Even after fleeing the epicenter of commercial madness -- crossing a gigantic continent-country and the broad Atlantic to escape -- he still felt the flashes all around him like war trauma, like thousands of tiny suns in a clattering orrery, each burning out in milliseconds only to be replaced by an infinite number of equally ephemeral others. Just thinking about the flashes made his eyes burn and dilate (counterintuitively, the result of hyperarousal). They made his pulse quicken and his skin register rises in pH as if to fight off infection. They were so maddeningly quick, so maddeningly intense, so maddeningly numerous, those incessant flash, flash, flashes!

Life within the glare required image management and gossip steering. But once the man decided to flee, he effectively courted what he’d resisted for years and allowed rumors of his retirement to circulate unfettered. He made no official announcement and employed no press agents to manage reports or field questions. And since what would become known as his final film had already left theatres, no producer used the turn of events to box office advantage. the man merely settled his finances, packed a bag, locked his front door, and drove off to a regional airport. For all he knew, local police officers had impounded and were currently joy-driving that Italian monstrosity he’d bought on a whim and driven for years. He had no idea what would become of his house or any of the other things he’d filled his life with, and he didn’t care. He had enough money to replace them all several times over. And he would too, if necessary, in the interest of freedom and seclusion.

Today, though, he was happy just to finish breakfast and, thanks to a cooperative stomach, immediately commence his walk.

Exiting the hotel, the man slipped the doorman some of the polyglot, market-zone tender the locals passed about as currency here, and after politely returning a grateful nod, he once again found himself facing the great, grey lake.

It obsessed him now as it had for years, and he’d deliberately come back here to be near it, to spend his final years swimming in it, watching the sun set in it, passing it through his body, and walking beside it. After years of working with cinematographers, the man felt he’d internalized their sensibility and developed, what he considered, an acute understanding of light and color. It was this peculiar interest in the twin elements of visual expression, in fact, that explained his enduring fascination with the lake and accounted for the original seduction itself.

Years ago, he’d come here to shoot a costume drama that blended the poet Byron’s experiences on the lake with those of the patriot-monk François Bonivard. Prisoner of the Lake had not been commercially successful, but it was grand theatre expertly rendered by everyone involved, and the praise his performance received raised him into an even higher professional orbit. Today, once again standing on the lake’s shores, he thought about Florian Goldbach: the German cinematographer he’d worked with on that picture, the great master who’d made him shine.

Looking south toward the sturdy, understated castle -- with its red roof tiles and blanched walls -- the man remembered standing beside the old cameraman one morning during the shoot, in costume and in character, trying to absorb a sense of the place as the poet might have experienced it. He remembered watching Florian take light readings and listening as the German mumbled lines from Byron’s poem about Bonivard to himself.

Eventually, Florian had mused, in Bavarian-blurred English, “The challenge of shooting the lake in this weather, you see, isn’t enlivening its prevailing greyness. That’s what I originally thought, but it seems I was mistaken. Instead, it’s understanding the peculiarity of its prevailing greyness. I’ve just now realized that the dun we see isn’t an absence of color. Instead, it’s the result of millions of colors coming together and neutralizing each other.”

As the German saw it, his job was isolating each of these colors and blending them back together so they didn’t fade to grey when he captured the scene on film:

“I must hold each strand of light with the camera and braid them to the point of greyness but take them no further. The eye will take that last step all on its own and, I can only hope, maintain a sense of the residual color the camera, film, and I will give it.”

Today, under similarly cloudy skies, looking far out to where the lake met the horizon, the man once again saw what he’d suddenly seen then: a stratified set of hues feeding a heaving mass of liquid nickel. His legs held strong today, but years ago, he remembered the sight had almost knocked him over.

“Florian, you must be God, revealing such rainbows,” he’d remarked, dumbfounded, suddenly out of character.

“No,” the German replied, smiling wickedly. “Anyone who sacrifices his only child for the sake of a project is almost certainly a producer.”

They filmed a sailing scene later that day, and the dailies confirmed Florian had done his work. Invited to review film with the director -- a bombastic Frenchman named Marius Naveau -- the man saw himself sailing toward the castle across water that seemed grey and colorful all at once. Even today, with dozens of pictures under his belt, he considered it the most amazing thing he’d ever seen on celluloid.

“And that’s why Florian’s the best,” Naveau had said. “I can’t wait to see what he does in the dungeon. I bet he makes that medieval stonework shine like Monte Carlo on a Saturday night.”

And the German had, over and over again: in both time periods, in various locations around and inside the castle, in a rain storm, when Byron sat in a dark hotel writing, when Bonivard despaired in his shackles. Isolation, strength of will, martyrdom, patriotism and the cause of liberty -- these were the film’s themes as written, directed, and marketed. But the German stealthily remade the movie into his own expression, into an homage to Byron in which light served as both main character and arresting metaphor for nature’s sublimity.

the man remembered one other scene especially vividly. (Not one of his, surprisingly enough.)

Just before Bonivard’s release, at the apex of the film’s emotional arc, a rich beam of light makes its way into the dungeon through a high window, piercing the prison’s ominous darkness. With a good deal of effort, Bonivard looks up -- pulling himself out of a deep despair, his mind suddenly purged of starvation madness -- and drags himself and his chains across the rough slab. Following the trough years of pacing created, the monk eventually pulls himself into the shaft of light, curls up like a fetus, and receives some unarticulated power that helps him accept his fate. By this point in the film, Bonivard has rejected the beyond, trading it for a more modern, Byronic world-view. As such, the shaft of light represents material, pagan nature itself: the only god-with-us mankind will ever know. Florian’s genius was making so lofty a conceit experiential, first with the expertly rendered light -- the work of man’s mechanics, too perfect for God to have created -- and then again when, at his editing-suggestion, the scene fades to white and burns the audience with a sudden, unexpected intensity, creating in them an actual physiological response.

This was the film’s major achievement, and it was much marveled over.

“Not since Caravaggio,” one critic had gushed, “has chiaroscuro been used to such effect. And the Italian, we must remember, was hobbled by the immobility of his medium. Prisoner of the Lake gives the technique true life: something only the Kubrick and Alcott of Barry Lyndon came close to replicating. And like that film, Prisoner of the Lake furthers what people in my profession have long known: in the hands of masters, the seventh art always has the potential to best its sister six.”

Returning to this place, awash with memories, fetishizing the lake as he’d long done, the man drew an exhilarating heathen power from what he’d experienced decades before and, like Bonivard, comforted himself with the salve of natural atheism. Unlike Florian, though, the man had no power to hold the lake’s light -- not now, not years ago -- so the individual colors eventually faded back to grey in his eyes. the man had no greater control over his mind, and when the wind picked up and the whitecaps increased, he felt, for a moment, as if he were looking at the ocean and back toward the all-consuming bustle of mercantile America.

Even at this distance -- some six thousand miles from the far coast -- the impulse to move away hit him again, and he turned his back to the castle and began moving north along the lake’s shore.

the man was unable to shake the presence of America, though, and his mind alternated fiercely between the day’s foreign actuality and his memories of fan-stalked beach walks back home. Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice, Huntington, Newport -- wherever he’d put foot to shore along the radioactive coast, he found himself pacing restlessly in a fleshy cell walled by other human beings. There, he thought only of the lake, turning the terribly large western ocean into something more intimate, escaping through transmogrification, telling himself, “Someday, someday, someday” over and over again. Here, though, on this shore, walking beside the lake, the man couldn’t help but salinate and augment the water to his left and think back to everything he’d fled. Cursed by a cosmopolitan doom, he found himself all places at once, and unable to escape the past or flashes of memory -- or effectively separate the “here” from the “there” -- he could do little but slouch along his own Bonivardian rut.

Such were his strolls, and he enjoyed them and grew weary of them in nearly equal measure.

As it often did, the rut eventually brought the man to Sedlecká’s statue of Freddie Mercury. While filming Prisoner years ago, he’d visited this statue in costume, in character, limping exaggeratedly to better represent all of Byron’s fantastic flaws. He’d come late at night, not to be discovered and unduly embarrassed, and remembered thinking how important it felt to bring the world’s first and most compleat celebrities into perigee. Back then, the man knew little about stratospheric fame and even as Byron felt more like an impostor than a facilitator. Now, though, in this moment, imagining Byron’s ghost floating off the lake to stand beside him and Freddie, it seemed proper that the three should come together. This time, he felt he belonged and that the great celebrities of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries were at last rendezvousing as compatriots, as a triumvirate, as free citizens of an elite nation state.

He and Freddie might have rightfully been Byron’s inheritors, but it was the singer who seemed first among equals, able to teach even Byron a thing or two about fame, about shining an indelible light on the world and making people so delirious with desire for your élan that they wanted nothing more than to immolate themselves against its buzzing incandescence.

When he first visited the statue as Byron, Freddie hadn’t been dead long, and the statue was brand new. Back then, the bronze radiated a heat reminiscent of Freddie’s own. But now, after decades of stoically receiving wind and rain and sun and ice, it looked quite weathered, darker. And when the man placed his hand flat on Freddie’s leg, he felt nothing but cold and had to take a step back to find a trace of the warmth he’d once seen firsthand.

Complementing Freddie’s defiant, regal pose, the mic stand looked more like a scepter than a stage prop, but it made the man’s memory explode with hot stage lights and sweating, humid bodies. He’d seen Queen perform just that once, in his 20s, right before he landed his first film role. Until then, he’d had a vague sense of what he wanted from the profession -- something about “method” and “affective memory” -- but it was Freddie who taught him about raw fame, how to crave it, how to cultivate its various mechanisms, how to manipulate it, and how to burn with and exude it. De Laurentiis’ Flash Gordon had just come out, and the man had seen it and laughed at it, like everyone else. But when Freddie opened the show dressed as Flash -- descending from the roof of the Forum riding an airbike, screaming, “Flash! A-ah!” over and over again -- the man couldn’t help but submit. He’d been stoned on a dozen chemicals that night, but the spectacle rendered him sober in an instant. He’d come as a recreational spectator but spent the rest of the show as an earnest student learning how to manage an audience’s organic wildness and release it into the world exhausted but unsatiated.

Those lyrics about the great Flash Gordon -- polo player; Yale man; blonde, all-American, heteronormative lad -- acquired a certain irony when sung by the fanged, queer, Anglo-Asian Freddie, but they captured the way the audience saw the singer and the way the world has seen every celebrity since Byron.

That night, the man remembered hearing religious epithets (Savior of the Universe. King of the Impossible), intonations and affirmations (He’s a miracle. He’ll save every one of us. He can never fail), and references to Arthuriana (No one but the pure at heart may find the Golden Grail). Today, standing beside Freddie’s likeness, thinking of the mortuary figure he’d recently commissioned and of Byron’s cenotaph and statute a thousand miles southeast, the man felt these lyrics confirmed the modern world had proactively chosen its gods, not to fill a vacuum left by the sudden flight of ancient voodoo but rather to give immortals like Freddie, George Gordon, and himself their rightful place in an ancient, albeit mutable, pantheon.

Fingering the floral offerings encircling the statue’s base, the man couldn’t help but consider Freddie’s temple lot ill-placed. Yes, he was triumphant and defiant; yes, he was memorialized in his beautiful prime; yes, he was remembered. But here still was a cold bronze likeness looking out on a gelid glob of eponymous quicksilver. Here was Phoebus Apollo assigned Zeus Chthonios’ post.

In warm Messolonghi a thousand miles away, a marble Byron watches over a tangle of palm, pine, and anemone. I know. I’ve been there too. And someday, my likeness will watch over another temperate, well-lit climate half a world away.

But when the moment turned honest, the man couldn’t help but see these other ends as the misleading comforts that they were, as masks on an unavoidable truth:

Here, in this place, absent the dead cinematographer’s talent for making rainbows out of gunmetal, noble Freddie stands alone in the cold, stygian air. He reaches toward, but will never again touch, the cloud-covered heights from which he fell. Here, the flashes cease and disease and age creep in. Here, people form their crossroads bazaar and exchange old gods for new. And here, as they will one day at his own Hollywood Forever plot, people likely already ask, “Who, may I ask, is this man?”

Leaving Freddie to the elements, the man continued north along the lake shore.

Thought continued in great, torturous waves: back across the years to other roles and other productions, to lovers, to locations. He realized he’d had too few independent adventures, and he judged himself harshly for this. He could have made time. There had certainly been enough money.

Such largesse! And for what? Only entertaining! Hand claps and simian dancing. Chirping verbal bric-à-brac and reading the words of others. Elegant and inelegant motions. Sexual innuendo and tangos with whores.

Now, there would always be enough money, but the tyranny of age would likely prevent him from seeing Everest’s summit and walking in the steps of Alexander. He’d probably never see the Serengeti or Antarctica or Tierra del Fuego.

But no matter, he thought, waiving off regret like a swarm of biting flies.

He’d had a life filled with all sorts of riches, and he knew that if someone had approached his younger self -- that beaming boy of 18 who’d stepped from cornfield nowhere into the sonic boom of Los Angeles -- and told him what to expect in perfect prophecy, he couldn’t have faced it. The life ahead would have sublimated him like a clean, nuclear light. Instead, he’d walked into the unforgiving, filterless burn ignorantly, and perhaps that was the only way to have lived it and survived.

But finding himself now at the end of it all, living like Freddie and the ghost of George Gordon beside a cool, dim lake under heavy clouds, seemed a grand irony indeed. Sun gods and fire thieves trapped in a cimmerian climate, seduced and extinguished by water, the man knew this wasn’t retirement or escape or anything he’d wanted it to be.

No, he thought.

This is exile.

Part II

Dust in the air suspended
 / Marks the place where a story ended.

Several months after checking in, the man entered the hotel café for breakfast and found the maître d' quite uninterested in his signature. After signing some hundred things for his "wife," the man naturally began to suspect the maître d' of selling the autographs. Now, though, seating himself this morning without so much as a nod, the man had to entertain a new, rather unpleasant conclusion: in due course, buyer interest had either been completely satisfied or had wained to the point that selling even freely-acquired inventory wasn’t worth the effort. Compounded by the fact that the front desk hadn’t taken any messages for him in a week, the man couldn’t help but feel as if his slide toward obsolescence had finally begun.

He was rather surprised at how much this turn of events, which he’d actively courted, saddened him. Pouting slightly, he picked at a pleasureless breakfast of dried fruits and hot cereal and dawdled over a foreign-language newspaper and cups of coffee. He’d just started on a second pot when a deep instinct replaced his listless melancholy with an all too familiar anxiety.

Following the apprehensive tingle, the man turned to gaze out a nearby window. Eyes already burning in expectation, he watched a group of photographers materialize on the sidewalk outside. At first, he assumed they’d come for him, that after all these months of virtual silence, they’d finally found him. For a moment, he was thrilled, drunk with a customary narcissism, and wondered if perhaps his concerns about obsolescence hadn’t been inflated. But after watching the photographers for a few moments more, he noticed they weren’t peering into the hotel or rushing the door. Instead, they were clustering around the curb and positioning themselves for some imminent arrival. Eventually, any suspicion the man had about the photographers’ intentions disappeared as a gaudy limousine pulled in front of the hotel and their cameras began exploding.

the man immediately pulled back in his chair away from the flashes as if he’d been struck by invisible lighting. Whoever was inside the car had more presence of mind, though, and knew how to play the game. He or she waited until the inevitable cloud of flashes was well underway before allowing anyone inside to exit. As if on queue, the driver exited first, fought his way through the chattering mob, and opened the back door of the limousine. Some anonymous handler exited second, followed by three others and the requisite throng of clownish, intoxicated women. And just as anyone watching might have thought the paparazzi had melted their cameras and ruptured the very shell of existence with their damnable flashes, the star finally stepped forth.

As if all the world’s beautiful ones hail from the same gene stock, the man couldn’t help but think how similar the young fellow exiting the limo looked to his own younger self. And he couldn’t help but feel a certain jealousy-tinged empathy as he watched that terrible photon cloud envelop his doppelgänger. Brave Adonis certainly seemed to enjoy himself, though, and grinning through a full deck of engineered teeth -- loud enough for everyone on the block to hear every word clearly -- he shouted, “My name is Johnny Blazon, and I have arrived!”

Johnny grinned and vamped, and even as the impossibly beautiful women he copulated with three at a time pulled him toward the hotel entrance, he made a good show of resisting. Watching inside, the man remembered how long it’d taken him to learn these Kabuki motions and assumed that, with the obvious mastery he displayed, Johnny must have been born to a throng of camera-wielding OB/GYNs. Despite some sort of leg or foot injury hobbling his progress, Johnny’s movements were flawless and his timing perfect. He didn’t so much move among the cameramen and flashes as float. And in his mastery, Johnny knew exactly when he’d given his audience enough to tide them over and finally allowed his harem of bedmates to pull him inside the hotel.

The doormen must have held the paparazzi at bay because when Johnny and his stampeding entourage passed the café, the man didn’t see any cameramen trailing them. Sitting at his table, he tried to make a show of displeasure to the maître d', but the traitor was too enthralled with the passersby to notice. He even went so far as to ask Johnny for an autograph! The young man obliged, of course, lifting his arm off a courtesan’s shoulder and languidly running a pen across the maître d's pad. This gesture was nothing like the careful, scribe-like lettering the man had faithfully delivered time after time, but neither the maître d’ nor anyone else cared. No one concerned themselves with anything, it seemed, except watching Johnny for as long as he let them.

Surly, displaced, and ignored, the man had no choice but to sit back in his chair and, like everyone else on the hotel’s ground floor, watch the new arrivals cross the lobby, mount the stairs, and disappear. And in the time it took his cup of coffee to cool, the scene was over.

Nothing was the same after Johnny’s arrival, though.

The photographers surrounded the hotel at all hours like a siege party, making entrance and exit extremely difficult, and the level of service slumped precipitously as the staff tended to the Blazon party’s exotic demands. Obscure films and illicit entertainments, rare foods and wines, call girls and boys, a buffet of pharmaceuticals -- wherever he went in the hotel, the man overheard gossip about the party’s unusual, deliciously deviant requests. For all this presence, though, the actual lord of misrule was hardly ever seen. But like any holy visitation, Johnny’s visit produced relics. Maids scurried home with grimy bedsheets on the off-chance they’d been soiled by Blazon’s sweat and seed. The kitchen staff saved glasses with lip prints thought to be his, and even the trash removed from Blazon’s room was picked clean for toenails, hair, bloody tissues, and anything else that might have come from the divine body itself.

Fearing he’d be discovered by the photographers surrounding the hotel -- and what he assumed were spies lurking within it -- the man began disguising himself when he took his walks. Hats, glasses, flipped collars -- these casual tricks were meant more to flirt with the photographers than to deceive them. But for whatever reason, as the man made his way in and out of the hotel each day, the paparazzi never paid him more attention than any other passerby.

Late one afternoon, a week or so after Johnny’s arrival, the man grew weary during his usual stroll and decided to forgo his standard evening out. Instead, he decided to eat a light meal at the hotel and retire early. But as he turned from the lake shore and approached the hotel, he realized he wouldn’t find any peace there. Johnny had the paparazzi in a lather.

With camera flashes illuminating his pratfalls like stage lights, Johnny entrained from his balcony suite wearing nothing but a brightly-colored pair of women’s panties and an ermine-collared fur duster. the man approached the hotel cautiously, and blinded by the ground-level light, he eventually covered his eyes against the intensity of the photon storm. Wandering the crowd blindly, above the light and noise, he heard Johnny cry out, “I’m going down to eat now, and anyone who wants to watch should stand by those windows.”

Unable to see Johnny pointing toward the windows immediately beside him, the man felt a sudden, collective shift in the crowd and heard the dull rustle of dozens of people turning on queue. Unsure of his position within the multitude or of his proximity to the hotel, the man froze in the eerie, sudden stillness and slowly dropped his hands from his eyes. When he looked up, the camerapeople’s collective zombie-gaze bore down on him with a vacant intensity. Terrified of being recognized, and of the assault of flashing light that would follow, he turned too, hoping the press would think he was a fellow paparazzo. And the ruse seemed to work because the phalanx began shifting past him toward the windows, apparently unaware of his presence.

Safely anonymous, the man skulked to the dark edge of the group and darted toward the hotel entrance. He had to fold down his collar and remove his hat and glasses before the doorman recognized him and opened the front door.

As he entered, the doorman said, “Can any of us remember such a scene, monsieur?”

Irritated by the crowd, the man snapped back.

“Remember? What’s that supposed to mean? Who do you think these people came to see anyway?"

The doorman stood at attention and corrected himself.

“Of course, monsieur. Of course. Mr. Blazon as well as yourself.”

Suspecting the doorman of mocking him, the man began sputtering frustrated assertions about his celebrity, about people he knew and roles he’d started in, and, eventually, half-truths and outright falsehoods about his relationship with Johnny Blazon. This agitated litany ended with a suggestion that seemed like an inevitable culmination of the others.

“In fact, Mr. Blazon and I are to have dinner together tonight. I’m just on my way in to meet him.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the man worried he’d committed to more than he could deliver. But watching the doorman’s eyes light up with vicarious anticipation and star-struck wonder, he also knew he’d wedded himself to the claim.

“Is that right, monsieur?” asked the attendant. “How wonderful. For both of you, I mean.”

Staring into the doorman’s celebrity-drunk eyes, the man knew he had to make his lie a truth or else lose whatever standing he still possessed with the staff.

“Well, you musn’t keep him waiting,” the doorman said with soft, childlike eyes.

“Nor he I,” the man offered sternly.

The doorman nodded and bowed as the man shuffled off toward the hotel café, cursing himself for his bravado and stupidity. He was still quite gruff when he approached the maître d’ but attempted politeness.

“Don’t you ever have a night off?” the man asked.

“If management saw fit to give me one,” replied the maître d’, smiling elegantly. ”I wouldn’t have the opportunity to serve you.”

Wooed by the flattery, the man smiled and thanked the maître d’ who turned to address a nearby waiter.

“It so happens,” the man offered, commanding the maître d’s attention. “I’ll be dining with Mr. Blazon this evening.”

The maître d’s eyes sparked with the same innocent wonder he’d seen moments before in the doorman’s.

“Is that right? Well ... ”

“Yes, and we’ll need a private table. Away from the windows and those damnable flashes.”

“Of course. We have just such a table.”

The maître d’ instructed the waiter to seat the man in the far corner of the café, away from the other patrons and the windows.

Crossing the café floor, the man couldn’t help but notice that none of the other patrons looked his way. This refueled his anger, especially when he glanced down at the hat and glasses in his hands and realized he was exposed. Once they reached the table, the waiter took the disguise items and the man’s coat, handed them to a nearby attendant, and pulled one of the two chairs out.

the man fell in to it heavily.

“Will you be having wine this evening?” the waiter asked.

“Yes, we will. What do you have in the way of ... "

Interrupting, the waiter offered, “I happen to know for a fact that Monsieur Blazon likes ... "

“Then that’s what we’ll have, isn’t it?”

The waiter smiled, bowed, and scurried off to fetch the wine.

Just as the man finished arranging himself at the table and began looking forward to the wine and the meal, flashes appeared in his peripheral vision, and he heard a sudden, collective gasp. Without looking, he knew Johnny had arrived, but he turned anyway and saw a dozen photographers fighting for space in the café window. He even gasped a bit himself when he saw Johnny standing at the host stand wearing the same outfit he’d worn moments before on the balcony. But the man suspected the staff and other patrons would have overlooked their god’s attire even if it had included a garland of freshly-harvested infant heads strung ear-to-ear like gruesome pearls. As such, what were bulging, lace panties, an exposed torso, and a gaudy, floor-length fur to those in ecstasy witnessing an apparition?

One of Johnny’s handlers approached the host stand from the shadows and chatted authoritatively with the maître d. the man tapped his foot nervously as the maître d’ seemed to inform Johnny and the handler that the former’s dinner companion had already arrived. Johnny mouthed something clumsily and turned to his handler for explanation. The handler asked the maître d’ for clarification, looked across the café, and considered the situation. After an excruciating pause, the handler finally nodded and explained something to Johnny which he shrugged off nonchalantly.

As the maître d’ led him into the café, Johnny waived the handler off and tacked toward the front-facing window. Taking the long way to the back table, Johnny’s imperial tour allowed him to sample cocktails from tables, twirl women’s curls, shake men’s hands, and pose for picture after picture, basking in the camera light.

After an indulgent eternity, slowed by his injured leg, Johnny finally turned and shuffled toward his table. As he approached, the man sprung up a bit too quickly, losing all his dignity in the process. He could tell Johnny had seen him -- through intoxicant-blurred eyes -- and assessed him as just another enchanted fan. Confirming these suspicions, once he reached the table, Johnny extended a limp-wristed right hand, as if inviting the man to kiss an invisible ring.

the man took Johnny’s hand and shook it lightly as the star fell heavily into his seat.

“Is there anything else you require?” asked the maître d’, pushing Johnny’s chair in for him.

“Wine, as quickly as possible,” Johnny replied, rubbing his leg.

“Actually,” the man offered with a smile. “I’ve already ordered a bottle of your favorite.”

“How kind,” Johnny responded distantly.

The maître d’ smiled and turned to leave, but the man stopped him.

“I have a request,” he said. “Please close the curtains so Mr. Blazon and I can eat in peace.”

The maître d’ nodded and left the two men alone.

“You know,” Johnny said. “They print their own currency with those cameras. Money doesn’t flow quite so fluidly here as it does where we come from.”

“Would that make us dead presidents on a de facto currency, Mr. Blazon?”

Johnny smiled.

“Us? No. But you’re welcome to call me ‘Johnny,’ if you wish.”

Across the room, two waiters began closing the curtains. However, just as they were about to seal the cameras out, Johnny called to them and asked them to wait. The waiters obeyed, and he rose, mumbling, “One more press run for tonight. For the poor children of modern socialism.”

Even though the cameras hadn’t stopped since Johnny entered the café, they exploded even more fervently when he turned and re-acknowledged their presence. Like Caesar rising over conquered lands, Johnny lifted a hand to the photographers and made sure they captured the scene before he nodded to the waiters who closed the curtains for good.

As Johnny fell back into his seat, he asked, “So the arrangement between stars and their fans: you resent it?”

“You’ll understand, in time. When you’ve lived with it as long as I have.”

Johnny flashed a wry, drug dulled smile.

“Paranoia’s the wage of fantasy and delusion, I suppose.”

Johnny leaned in dramatically, hovering over the table so the candlelight cast angular, malevolent shadows on his face.

“But you know, my man,” he whispered, grinning coyly. “I myself often wonder who’s crazier? Us or those who tell and obsess over our stories?”

the man couldn’t help but be struck by Johnny’s articulate nature. When he’d first approached the table, and they’d stood eye to bleary eye, he assumed Johnny’s words, if he even offered any, would be incomprehensible, both from intoxication and general fatuousness. But even as he slurred and drooled, Johnny wore his narcotic fog well and expressed himself amazingly clearly.

The waiter eventually arrived with the wine, and Johnny watched intently as he poured the first round. After the pair ordered and the waiter departed, Johnny sat back in his seat, took a long sip, and exhaled deeply.

Making a face, nodding at his glass, Johnny said, “Odd that they give us this here.”

“The waiter told me it was your favorite,” the man replied defensively.

“No, it’s not that.”

Johnny paused for a moment and did his best to think through the haze.

“I just probably shouldn’t be drinking it, not on top of all this,” Johnny continued, tapping his forehead. “There’s so much floating around up here. But I suppose they know what they’re doing. And we do pay to be here and that buys us some service.”

“What about the people outside?” the man asked. “What service do they offer?”

Johnny chuckled and slurred, “They contribute the combustible agent, I suppose. We’re rather inert without them and those they stand in for. Our lives aren’t really our own. We have a number of responsibilities and attachments.”

Johnny smiled, and a viscous string of drool trickled from the corner of his mouth.

"‘And thus I am absorbed, and this is life ... ’"

The words tumbled out of Johnny’s mouth heavily, and the final fricative spurted bits of spittle onto the table. As the moisture settled into the tablecloth, Johnny’s eyes slowly rolled back in his head, and he slumped deeper into his chair.

For a moment, the man thought Johnny had fallen asleep, or worse, so he reached across the table to jostle him. As he made contact, Johnny sat up and jerked his head forward as if he’d been plugged into a socket. He blinked for a moment, smiled drunkenly, and continued, as if he’d never broken conversation.

“Imagine us colliding here. Like cosmic dust, our friction causing brilliant arrays. Two men at the opposite ends of their life cycles. Neutron toi and supernova moi. It lends the whole lifestyle a nice circularity, don’t you think?”

“I’ve always thought of it in linear terms,” the man replied.

Before Johnny could collect his thoughts and respond, the waiter arrived and served the meal. Johnny tucked in to it clumsily and ravenously, as if he hadn’t eaten for days. He scraped his knife and fork together like a butcher preparing to slaughter, and when he opened his mouth to take a piece of steak, the man watched Johnny’s spit-wet incisors glint demonically in the soft light.

“Too bad about everything,” Johnny continued with a carnivorous glint in his eyes. “About your landing here, I mean.”

“You’re here too, Mr. Blazon. At least I had a full career first.”

Johnny smiled as he chewed. The mouthful of rare meat turned the stream of saliva running from the corner of his mouth pale red.

“Something like that. But no one here really cares about the how’s or why’s, do they? As long as your credit card isn’t declined, or your people keep paying the bills, a stay here could go on forever.”

Johnny spun his knife in the air to illustrate.

“Mine won’t, though,” he continued, smacking and drooling his way through his thoughts. “I’m hobbled here temporarily. My steeplechase with those rowdy equines outside must continue. And anyway, I couldn’t stay here forever. These foreigners: they don’t know anything about the pressures of America or of the various ways we abuse ourselves, do they? Our anxieties and taboos are our own. They’re entirely local, and what’s shocking back home hardly matters here.”

Johnny’s head bobbed absently as he continued.

“And we must be allowed to shake people out of their complacency. Isn’t that what they say? That’s what we do, as artists.”

the man nodded absently.

“As you say.”

“It could be worse, though,” Johnny continued.

Johnny put his utensils on the table, wiped his mouth, and dug in his pocket for something.

“Here I am feeling sorry for myself -- and for you, of course, poor fellow -- but things could most certainly be worse.”

After a few moments of searching, Johnny placed a blown antique flashbulb on the table. Its stained, shattered bulb formed toothy v’s around the base like the rim of a dormant volcano.

“Imagine that exploding in your face,” Johnny continued, smirking. “Like golden age glamor folk. Glass exploding. Gas escaping. Real fire. Can you imagine that?”

the man shuddered and picked up the shattered bulb.

“Where did you get this, Johnny?”

“I stepped on it the other night, and it burst underfoot. One of my friends,” Johnny said, essentializing that train of attendants with so familiar and humble a term, “thought a gunshot had gone off. One of the poorer children of the welfare state, I suppose. Using some hand-me-down technology he found in an attic, more appropriate to your generation than to mine.”

the man glowered.

“But it’s not what your driver’s license says, right?” Johnny offered. “It’s what the men of means pay you to play.”

Johnny laughed a beautiful, effortless laugh, and his glassy eyes shimmered dully in the dim light.

“Who knew they still made these?” the man said, considering the bulb.

“Who indeed,” Johnny replied. “Some Belarusian factory in some oligarch's industrial empire. Christ, they’re always about three decades behind us over here, aren’t they? But once California’s had its way with you, where else are you going to go? You follow the sap back to the root.”

the man was too preoccupied with the flashbulb to notice Johnny rising from the table, but when the young man tossed his utensils onto his plate, the clatter made everyone sitting nearby look up. the man looked up just in time to see Johnny’s napkin slip off his lap and fall to the floor, and he noticed Johnny had wet himself. Without enough fabric to absorb it, a thick trickle of urine ran down his leg, but whether out of ignorance of shamelessness, Johnny seemed unconcerned.

“Well,” he said, swaying in the other patrons’ gaze. “I’m off to get high and get laid. And not necessarily in that order. And not necessarily in successive order.”

Johnny winked in the dim light, turned, and staggered across the café. While the other patrons watched him pass, no camera flashes punctuated his progress, and Johnny seemed enervated by their absence. As he passed the host stand, the handler emerged from the shadows and led his meal ticket away like a caring father.

The stink of Johnny’s urine hung in the air, and that, along with his prevailing weariness, turned the man off the rest of his dinner. He pushed his plate away and called for the check, and to his surprise, the maître d’ delivered it himself.

“Not feeling well tonight, monsieur?” the maître d’ asked, placing the bill on the table.

“No,” the man replied. “But it’s nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix.”

“Then we’ll see you in the morning for breakfast?”

“Yes,” the man said, signing the check. “As usual.”

“That reminds me,” the maître d’ exclaimed, reaching into his coat pocket. “I neglected to ask you to sign something this morning.”

the man looked up expectantly as the maître d’ placed another meal check on the table.

“From breakfast. As you know, the café sometimes gets so busy in the mornings that I forget to fulfill my most routine duties. Apologies, again.”

the man signed the second check smugly, happily assuming the maître d’ had resumed their little game.

After the maître d’ collected the checks, bowed, and left, the man rose from the table, gazed down at the flashbulb Johnny had left, and, for the first time in a long time, felt no helplessness. Asserting this triumph, he pocketed the bulb confidently and, crossing the café, even considered approaching the front-facing window, drawing back the curtains, and roaring at the flashes. Weariness ultimately trumped his new-found confidence, though, and the man collected his coat and disguise from the host stand and retired to his room quietly, just as he’d planned to do all afternoon.

After locking the door behind him, he undressed and stood on his own lakefront balcony. He could see the photographers shuffling below, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes against the cold. But Johnny’s room and balcony, two floors below, were dark. As such, no flashes punctuated the night. Intensifying the darkness, thick clouds had moved in and obscured the moon and stars. Only vaguely illuminated by sodium street lamps, the lake had little presence and the man felt he was looking out over an evaporated Martian void where water had once flowed.

Before crawling into bed, the man removed the ruined flashbulb from his pocket and placed it on the nightstand where it sat like an unearthed totem. Lying in bed with the light on, the man stared at the bulb for a good while, imagining its backstory from creation to explosion. And as he drifted to sleep, his latent mind began ascribing it magical powers.

In one dream, the bulb rose like the sun and, though it emitted no light and no heat, caused a field of crops to spring forth. In another, nude primitives carved its wrecked likeness into teak and stone and organized cults around it. In yet another, combative fellowships rose against each other to guard the bulb and to steal it. Lucid as a child’s picture book, the man dreamt he was in the midst of such a conflict, sitting at a simple table with others in a city home. Air raid sirens filled the room, but no one seemed afraid. He and his companions smiled at one another, told stories, and played cards even as everyone knew the end was near.

After many moments of laughter and play, the sirens stopped ominously, but no one seemed anxious. And the final sound, when it did come, thumped softly like a hand slapping a pillow. the man felt wind rushing around him and saw a warm light enveloping everything in a bright, nebular womb. The comforting finality of searing atomic dust filled the air, and he felt no pain, only tingling and a happy peace.

As the dream faded to a white hot nothing, the man alone spoke.

“Here it comes,” he said softly, eyes shut in ecstasy with a smile on his face.

When the man woke, a bright new dawn filled his room as did an urgency he could neither understand nor resist. Indulging it without restraint, rose and dressed spartanly, grabbed the ruined bulb from the nightstand, and darted down to the lobby. Hoping he’d come down for breakfast, the man asked for Johnny at the front desk, but the startled attendant just shook his head and pointed toward the front door.

Hoping to catch him, the man sprinted out of the hotel and onto the crowded sidewalk. There, he watched Johnny give the photographers a final wave and enter the backseat of his car. the man knew he’d never reach him before the car pulled away, but he pushed through the crowd anyway and stepped onto the street. Standing there, entranced by the taillights moving ever further away, the man eventually found he’d wandered some dozen feet in front of the paparazzi. With their hot, invasive light rising on his back like a mushroom cloud at dawn, the man realized he’d have to face the flashes if he wanted to reenter the hotel. But, to his surprise, he felt no fear, even as he heard the steady, marching patter of the photographers’ unified approach and felt the intensity of their dust-bringing light.

Steadying himself with pain, the man squeezed the bulb tightly in his hand. Filament shards and glass fragments snapped off the base and embedded themselves in his palm, and blood dripped through his knuckles and fell onto the street. When he turned to face the flashes, he felt each bolt pass through him as it screamed toward Helios speeding away. At first, he froze like Sebastian tied to the post, but as the salvo bore down on him, the individual flashes merged into a single radioactive bulb whose evaporative intensity drowned out the paparazzi bustle and the doorman’s voice crying out beyond it. The outer edge of the photographers’ tungsten blast eventually absorbed everything around him, and its edge reached the tips of his toes. His eyes open and fist clenched, the man stepped forward into the flash where he merged with the crowd, surrounded by light.

~ Quimby Melton


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