It's Oscars time. Somebody wake the Grouch.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter III (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 14,000 words and has attained a state of relative bliss, which we believe to mostly be catatonia from lack of sleep.)

A panoramic shot of the Phoenix Corporation headquarters was the next thing on the video. It was a lot like the shots of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland commercials, only without the giant rats, giant ducks, tourists and other vermin. The facility itself was nothing like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, first of all in that it had absolutely no windows. There was a large phalanx of security camera outside, lined up in rows around the building and on the long walk leading up to the main entrance. I remembered walking past them every day. On most days, I would just walk in a very inconspicuous way, with my eyes averted well away from the cameras. On Fridays though, particularly on the way out for the weekend, I would play to them like Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard. I always hoped the security guards got a small laugh out of it, but I really didn’t care one way or the other. The beginning of a work free weekend is something to be celebrated. On Friday’s before a three-day weekend, I would moonwalk and gyrate past the cameras, occasionally doing the Saturday Night Fever moves, with a little Austin Powers mixed in for fun.

I would tell you what I did before one two-week vacation, but if anyone ever got their hands on that video, I’d never be able to show my face in polite society again. I should have left out the pogo stick.

The video continued and the camera slowly and majestically panned in on the facility. The insufficient electronic score swelled in volume, with much the same effect as getting to the next level in a Mario Brothers video game. As the camera panned down to the doorway, the sun moved into the background, creating a stunning visual effect that was not at all matched my the music, which now sounded eerily similar to a very old cell phone ring tone.

Suddenly, the screen went to black again, and the music died away. A man in a bone white mask appeared. It was a blank and plain mask, with no shape or features beyond holes for the eyes and a slit for the mouth. The man stared at the camera quietly for a long time. As I waited to see if he would say anything, I suddenly realised he was wearing one of those “Have a nice day!” masks. No wonder it looked so creepy.

He kept standing there, staring like Carol Channing at an awards programme. The silence and staring was profoundly unsettling. I got the creepy feeling that he wasn’t looking at the camera so much as he was looking right at me. I began to wonder if this wasn’t some sort of new computer game designed to make one as paranoiac as possible. If so, it was a smashing success.

Just as suddenly as he appeared, he spoke.

“Yangtze. Yangtze. Yangtze,” came his voice, quick, hoarse, and craggy.

“Yangtze! Yangtze! Yangtze!” he shouted, more slowly and intensely this time. He quickly shouted it again three times, almost screaming. He shouted it again at least a dozen times, in different cadences and lengths. Sometimes he would yell it out slowly. Other times, he’d shout quickly, and then he would alternate the speed in different patterns. All the time he was shouting out Yangtze. It was unnerving, this masked man, shouting out the word Yangtze again and again and again. His eyes could now be seen through the mask, bloodshot and beady. His head swayed alarmingly to and fro as he shouted. It was the kind of eccentric performance that only the truly mad can pull off. Even a method actor with the obsessive commitment of a Sean Penn would have self-consciously broken down in laughter or more likely tears at this point. He kept shouting, fervently and unrelentingly. Sweat was building up behind the mask around the eyeholes. His thin grey hair was becoming increasingly disheveled. He seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown of apocalyptic proportions. At any moment, I expected blood to pour forth from the eye and mouth holes.

And then, just as suddenly as it started, it ended. He stopped shouting, did a neat, if hesitant little bow, and vanished from the screen. The Phoenix Corporation logo came up again, with the now ludicrous electronic music in the background, and then the video ended. Fade to black.

I sat there, dumbfounded. I’d seen many, many strange and even unbelievable things in my stint at Phoenix, but this was simply unhinged.

A noise in the room startled me, and I turned around to find my wife standing there. She had a look on her face that was as sweet a mix of bafflement and horror as you could imagine.

“What on earth was that about?” she asked, with just a touch of tremulousness in her voice.

“No idea,” I replied shrugging my shoulders.

“I heard the shouting and wondered what was going on,” she continued.

“I’m still wondering,” I replied.

I looked back at the computer screen. There was no window open except the DVD video player. I opened a window for the disk, but the only file on the disk was the video.

People always assume that mysteries in real life are like the ones in the films, particularly the film noir ones starring Humphrey Bogart. The protagonist, a detective, who more or less represents us all (except in rattier clothing and with a much cooler and detached attitude), takes a visitor. Usually, this visitor is a woman, often times lovely and of dubious character. This is most often so, to add onto an earlier thought, to suggest that the woman is sexually loose, and thus increase cinema grosses.

Occasionally, the visitor is a male, but this is uncommon, as it means the writers have to invent one more character to provide the protagonist with some romantic interest. Anyway, the woman has either a secret or a problem that she presents the detective with, rarely giving him the whole story, or for that matter, even the development. The detective responds by talking in a hard-boiled, but roundabout way, letting the woman know that not only does he not buy her story about her secret/problem, but also that he knows she is lusting for him and that he’s only interested in business, as if any human male could say that line and be taken seriously. However, the detective manages to make this sound entirely cool.

The rest, as I believe someone has observed at some point or another, is really a kind of prolonged verbal foreplay, only occasionally broken up by a fistfight or a kidnapping, usually the protagonist at the hands of one of the villains hounding the woman. The consummation of this sordid little courtship is either sex, death, or both. Occasionally, the result is that someone is porridge, sent up the river, goes to the big house, and I don’t mean the one on the British telly programme with George Galloway mewling about like a pussycat. Gunfire is sometimes involved, but only sporadically. These are characters who like to do their business close up. The shiv was invented just for these types. Brass knuckles to the head would just be dessert or the cigarette after boisterous shagging.

Real life mysteries aren’t even close. They are far weirder than anything Humphrey Bogart ever was in, with the possible exception of Beat the Devil. This was a doozy. I was saddled with a mysterious package, presumably from my previous employer, and the package was revealed to contain what was simply the most bizarre performance I’d ever witnessed. My wife was growing understandably nervous, and neither of us had a single clue as to what was going on. Humphrey Bogart’s head would have exploded under his fedora if he’d faced this kind of strangeness. Lauren Bacall would have to hold his head in her lap and massage his temples with a warm washcloth, whilst pouring sips of brandy down his gaping throat. All the hard-boiled, inscrutable banter in the world wouldn’t quell the numbing sense of terror that one viewing brought.

And I still had at least 50,000 words to write for a bloody novel that I didn’t have an iota of a plot for.

I took the DVD out of the machine, lest our daughter wander in, accidentally listen to it and have a nervous breakdown before even reaching middle school.

“What are you going to do with it?” asked my wife, as I put the DVD back into the case.

“I’m not sure,” was all I could manage to say. I simply didn’t know what to do. I thought about it for a moment and then decided that a mystery shared is a mystery better understood. “Maybe I’ll take it into the office tomorrow and see what Stew thinks. Who knows; maybe even Nuffy will turn up and have an opinion.”

I could tell that this was hardly the soothing balm I’d hoped it might be. My wife looked at me with great love in her eyes and quietly told me to be careful.

“Well, at least it wasn’t a bomb,” I optimistically added.

The rest of the evening was rather tense and moody. However, I did churn out 3,000 words in the quiet gloom. The story was still sketchy, but the opening scene involved a very laconic detective who played guitar receiving a long-winded visit from a buxom ex-model who was being followed by suspicious package delivery men. I wouldn’t say I felt exhilarated at the end of the session, but I was relieved to know that the file with the title “big_novel.doc” was no longer empty, at least of words.

Monday was the day before the American national “midterm” elections. I voted regularly, being a citizen, patriot, and civic-minded sort, but I was completely uninterested in the results given this new development of mysterious masked people on multimedia, casually interrupting my life with bizarre exhortations of great Chinese rivers. The bi-annual tit for tat, no pun intended, between the Republicans and the Democrats was a blip on the edge of the radar screen of my life.

Stew was of little help at the office, though he tried mightily in-between polishing his Titleist irons and dialing up the Drudge Report to get a chuckle out of the headlines there. “Bush Gets Thrust of American Anger” and “Kerry Swallows Foot Whole – Craps Gucci Boot” were my guilty favourites, although Stew enjoyed “Bat Boy Unites Libertarians and Green Party” which was linked directly a detailed Weekly World News story.

“Maybe it’s a late Halloween prank?” Stew opined, after viewing the video for the first time.

One comforting thing about showing Stew the video was that he was not as disturbed by the work. Stew was rarely disturbed by anything, with the possible exception of Gary Coleman’s and Danny Bonaduce’s runs for the California Governorship, and only on the principle that whilst one world-famous actor running for public office is unusual, two troubled former child actors running for control of one of the largest states in the U.S. was a pathological cry for help. Even then, he briefly considered traveling to California to counsel the two to step back and let Arnold “I’m a Kennedy, Now” Schwarzenegger and Arianna “Zsa Zsa” Huffington rip each other apart, and with similarly musical accents.

Stew watched the video at least a dozen times that morning. It was like Green Eggs and Ham. He watched it from up close. He watched it from the other end of the office. He watched it lying on his side, from each side, and he watched it upside down. He played the video without looking at it, listening to the sounds of the shouting for details. He played it with the sound turned down, carefully studying every detail of this faux-smiling lunatic in demented action. He watched it in slow motion and he watched it in fast motion. He loaded the video into a film editor application on his PC and ran the video in negative image mode. He even watched the video whilst having a phone conversation at the same time. This was unavoidable however, as it was Nuffy calling into let us know he was still at work on that article of his at home. Stew said that he was certain he heard a bullfighting crowd in the background, although he did add that Nuffy asked him what all the shouting was about.

I had to sit outside the office for most of this. I was convinced that, whatever this raving maniac was trying to prove, he was trying to prove it to me. It was a bit much to take, especially in the many varieties Stew was trying out.

When I came back in, stew was sitting in front of his PC with a quizzical look on his face.

“I think I’ve come to a conclusion,” he said tentatively.

“Let’s have it, then,” I said.

“The fellow in this video is a complete loon,” Stew concluded, after a dramatic pause, during which he later admitted he was trying to decide between the words “loon” and “nut job.” Stew took great pride in his choice of words.

“Well, that was helpful,” I muttered.

“Go with what you got,” he wisely retorted.

Indeed, that was sound advice. I realised then and there that I did have one good option, though I was loath to use it. I had no choice though. I turned to Stew and curtly excused myself for the afternoon.

“Where’re you going?” he queried.

“The Phoenix Corporation Headquarters,” was my stony reply.

“Well then, I’m going out for a round of golf,” responded Stew. I couldn’t blame him. That was my second choice.

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