In the desert, an old man sat in the dark. There was nothing between your eyes and the universe, not in the desert, nothing blocking the sun or blotting the stars, and the horizon was without towns and highways, so nighttime was still a motherfucker, out here in the desert, out here in the Low Desert in a modernist house slung low around a pool and cut off from a street called Pinyon Way by a ten-foot wall made of expensive cinderblock and topped with fan-tail palms that spread their fronds like photosynthetic jazz hands. Nothing to see here.
Two washingtonia robusta trees shared a root system, all twined into one another. Each was a hundred feet tall with seams every eight feet and a great green crown atop, and each leant away from the other in the acute angle of a set-top teevee antenna.
And the cameras were there, he was in the studio, he was in Studio City, the guard on the gate was named Terry, he was sure of that, Terry. He drove himself in those days. The microphones weighed hundreds of pounds. Dressing room over here–the walls were temporary, but the couch was swanky–and the band was over there. Control room was beyond the lights which got so hot. The air conditioner rumbled between takes. Had to cake on the makeup in those days, this grey-bluish chalk that took three washings to get off.
The Tommy Amici Show was a half-hour, or sometimes the full hour; once it was 45 minutes long. Television hadn’t gotten its shit together in ’52; the world was much less professional. 8 o’clock on Tuesday nights, live and in two colors, to almost a million sets across America. Tommy had been a bust in movies, and so they gave him a television show.
Jews ran the movie industry, but television was still based out of New York, and so Wasps were in charge. Colonel Lumley ran the Network. It was 1952 and the bastard hadn’t taken his uniform off yet. Closest he got to the fighting was negotiating with the Musicans’ Union over the late show at the Stage Door Canteen on 44th Street. The colonel didn’t care for Tommy, but he had a slot to fill and Tommy had a sponsor, Arrow beer, and so Tommy had a show.
It was what they called a variety show–they don’t truly exist any longer–and they were vehicles for celebrated personalities, usually singers. As many songs as they could get away with, plus a skit or two and some light banter; Tommy was supremely capable of the first, but the second and third requirements were well beyond his grasp. He could sing, and women wanted to fuck him; neither skill lent itself to sketch comedy, especially because Tommy was not funny. Which is not to say people did not laugh at his jokes: they did, and loudly. But Tommy was not funny, and so the audience would not laugh. This would confuse him. At rehearsal, all the guys had laughed their asses off at that line! It was funny! Ah, what do these hayseeds know? And then Tommy would try giving the crowd the shpritz, but all of his jokes were stolen from his buddy, the insult comic Herbie Slott (formerly Herschel Slotnick), but ethnic insults are different coming from a tiny, bald, spherical man than they are from a clearly enraged nightclub singer who arrived to the taping surrounded by goons.
The audience had cooled on Tommy Amici. America had cooled. The last string of movies were all flops. The Modern Man’s Guide To Dames was supposed to be a Cary Grant-style comedy, but Tommy fought with the director and fucked his costar (and also fought with her) and couldn’t do comedy no matter whose style it was. Southwinds! was a musical, which should have worked, but the music was treacle and, instead of letting him sing, the director had Tommy dance, which Tommy could not do. He played a doctor who falls in love with his nurse in Heart Surgery; this is often regarded as one of the worst casting mistakes of all time because Tommy: A, did not know how to pronounce any of the medical words, and B, refused to read his script, rehearse, or do more than one take.
And there were character issues. This was 1952: there were different rules for celebrities. Certain things they could get away with as long as they maintained a proper sense of decorum. Drunkenness, fucking around on your wife, that sort of thing. Don’t bring your hooker to Chasen’s, basically. Other hobbies, such as homosexuality and hopheadedness, were completely inexcusable. Ixnay on the Communism, obviously.
But Tommy didn’t give a fuck about the rules, except for the ones about Commies, homos, and drugs. Tommy hated Commies, homos, and drugs. (“Drugs,” of course, meaning marijuana and dope, and not the pills his doctors prescribed.) And he also followed the rule about not getting too drunk in public, but that was due to his constitution.
It was the fucking around that got him.
He’d met Cara Thorn at the Borderline Casino & Lodge in Lake Tahoe; she was waiting out a Nevada divorce, and he was singing and checking out an investment opportunity. Headliners make a lot of money, but not as much as the guy who pays them, and Tommy wanted to be the boss, but he didn’t have the cash to be the boss, so he called a friend, who was called The Friend.
“It’s the perfect business.”
“A casino? Yeah, I know,” The Friend said. “I own several.”
“So let’s buy this one. It’s for sale.”
“Everything’s for sale.”
The pants of Tommy’s tuxedo had creases that would slice a hummingbird in half, and they were on a cedar hanger across the dressing room. Sheer black socks reached just below his knees and stuck out from under his thick yellow robe. He sipped from a itty-bitty cup of espresso. The Friend did, too, but he was in a suit.
“Tommy, you don’t have any fucking money.”
“I’m doing okay,” he huffed.
The Friend set his itty-bitty cup on the makeup mirror in its saucer, next to his borsalino hat, which was dark-blue on dark-blue.
“Oh. Because I own ten percent of you, Tommy. And lately, that ain’t shit. So…are you telling me that you’re ripping me off?”
You could hear the orchestra warming up through the closed door.
“That’s not what I’m saying. No. That’s not–”
“Tommy, I’m fucking with you!”
“–what I’m saying…you’re funny.”
“Maybe I should write you some jokes.”
“I got Jews for that,” Tommy said, dreaming of the moment when he would be the most important person in the room again. Tommy Amici used to be Tomas Valenzuela from Little Aleppo, and then he met The Friend, and now he lived in New York and Los Angeles and wherever else he fucking wanted, and all it cost him was ten percent off the top. Amazing what a good friend could do, and The Friend had ’em all over the place. Teamster’s locals that used to throw Tommy’s rivals’ records out the back of the truck when do one was looking. Men who owned nightclubs and radio stations, and the men who hauled away their garbage; the latter could be deployed against the former in case of recalcitrance. Cops and reporters, too. It was always good to be friends with cops and reporters.
“You see that crowd out there?”
“You can surely pack ’em in, kid.”
“And it’s a class crowd. Money crowd. I hang around, do some shows every month or so, bring in some pals. We’ll make a fortune.”
The Friend picked up his itty-bitty cup, threw back the dregs of the coffee.
“Tommy, this is a legitimate place. You need a license here. All kinds of paperwork to get through, and you know how I hate that.”
“License’ll be in my name. That’s the whole selling point. It’s gonna be my place.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Places, Mr. Amici.”
Tommy stood up and slipped off his robe. The shirt had just buttons, no studs poking through the buttonholes like a groom at a middle-class wedding, and he fixed his bow-tie in the mirror. Pants on, and then The Friend helped him into the jacket with its high arm-holes and creamy silk lapels. One last look in the mirror, and The Friend had the door open for Tommy.
The hallway was full of his goons. Everyone waited in the hallways when Tommy talked to The Friend.
“Fuck ’em up, kid.”
“Always. You’ll think about it?”
“I’m thinking about it as we speak,” The Friend said, which was not true: he had already decided to buy the casino. As it related to Tommy Amici’s career, this would prove the second most disastrous decision made in the Borderline Casino & Lodge that night. The first was when the maitre d’ of the showroom sat Cara Thorn all the way up front. Especially in that yellow dress.
What’s wrong with falling in love besides everything?
If they had snuck around, maybe. Neither knew how. They stole a police car that night. Fights in nightclubs, and screaming matches on jets to Spain, and more screaming on jets out of Spain after being thrown out of the country for calling Franco a queer, and heated reconciliations in crowded restaurants. They fucked on the buffet at Archie’s one night, which the gossip pages translated into “canoodling.” Tommy still had the balls to act incredulous when Theresa slapped him with the divorce papers. It was one thing for two Hollywood nutjobs to split up after 8 months of marriage–that was precisely what Cara was doing–but to leave your family for some sexpot movie star?
Records stopped selling, and without hits you don’t get first choice of material, which led to weaker singles, and this in turn brought sales down even further. The movie studios were delighted to stop calling. No more drunken, surly Tommy wandering around the lot fucking his way through the steno pool and having his boys throw writers through windows? No more directors in tears because Tommy called his costar a whore and won’t learn his lines? No more crackly, expensive international calls with panicky details about Tommy’s latest disappearance from the set? Good riddance to Little Aleppo trash, the movie studios thought.
Tommy didn’t care. Followed her to Paris. She was shooting Begin The Baguette. She was miscast, he told her. She threw a lamp at him. The next morning, Cara told the director she had been miscast and demanded to switch roles with the blonde, Lila McTear. He refused; Tommy threw a lamp at him. She flirted with the lead, a big chesty fellow named Roy Strompers that usually played cowboys, and Tommy fucked her makeup girl and they chased each other through the 8th Arrondissement in stolen Citroens. The Friend had no friends at all in the 8th Arrondissement, and so there were pictures in the papers.
No movies, and not even a radio show. The clubs–he’d always have the clubs–but his price had dropped for the first time.
And now the cameras–two of them!–with their rude lights all pressed up into your face, and all these wandering nobodies, technicians, whoevers filling every nook of the stage under the crude, harsh lights with B-list guests. June Mayfield, the Irvine Boys, Topper Most: no one was buying a set for those names. Tommy wouldn’t piss on ’em if they were drowning, but now he was sharing a spotlight with ’em. Doing sketches. Jesus, sketches. Not like goofing around onstage with Herbie and Geno, no: there were setups and punchlines and timing involved, the kind of shit that required rehearsal, but if Tommy wasn’t going to rehearse for a movie then he certainly wasn’t showing up for rehearsal for telefuckingvision.
It was ten o’clock Back East, and the announcer cried in the profoundest bass,
“IT’S…the Tommy Amici Show! With Tommy’s special guests: the Hayworth Triplets! Ansour Fine! Gerry MacGillicuddy! Music by Van Cantwell and the Radford Orchestra! And now…here’s Tommy!”
And there he was. Still godawful skinny and wearing a downright teenaged toupee. His jaw jittered back and forth, and he had no idea what to do with his big hands: into the pockets, clasped in front, down at sides, random gestures; his skull bandied about. There was no color teevee in 1952, but the audience in the soundstage didn’t know that, just stared at Tommy’s eyes, which were green as the Verdance in the summer, and they forgave him for everything and anything just as long as he’d sing.
Tommy wouldn’t forgive them. He didn’t forgive people he liked, so why should he grant absolution to strangers? He smiled and sang and suffered sketches, all the while seething for two seasons. Teevee. How fucking dare you make me do teevee? Because I left my wife? Fuck you; you never did for a woman what I did for Theresa and the kids. They got the house, they’re taken care of. None of them are ever gonna want for anything. Fuck your moral bullshit. Jealous. You wanna fuck her, he thought. Or be her.
But you can’t. She’s mine.
She’s mine, an old man mumbled in the dark. The Low Desert gets dark at night; there is not much civilization and there is so much desert, so it gets very dark at night. The nurse was in the next room. She had the pills, and she flipped the records. His records. The turntable was in the next room, with the nurse, and she would come in if he called out, but he did not, just smiled for the cameras that pressed themselves into his face even now in the Jeremiad Springs, which is three days by horse from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.