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The Performance

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“Cut!”

The director slammed his script to the floor in disgust. This was the eighth take. The eighth time his leading actor had blown the scene.

The actor, dressed in prison fatigues, looked across the open set. It was designed to resemble a small, stark attorney – client room in a state prison.

“What’s that stupid director’s problem now?” he muttered to himself.

“Tony… Tony… please, come here…” From off stage a man waved. Begrudgingly, Tony strolled over.

“What is it, Jim?”

Jim handed the actor a cup of juice. “Hey, man, relax. Take it easy. You just about got this one in the can.”

“I know…”

“Look, a couple more scenes and we can take off somewhere; blow some of that money they’re paying you.”

“You’re right, Jim.” Tony grinned at the thought and took a sip. “I’m just letting this part get to me, that’s all.”

“That’s what makes you such a great actor. You get into your character.”

“Thanks.”

Jim was right. Tony would listen to his friend. After all, Tony trusted him with his life. Jim had never let him down.

Jim and Tony grew up in Joplin, Missouri. Jim, Tony and Jim’s kid sister Melinda were fast friends, inseparable. It seemed only natural by the time they were in high school Tony and Melinda would be romantically involved. Jim welcomed the relationship.

The summer before senior year brought a rival for Melinda’s attention. Brad Stockton was a transfer student, rich, obnoxious and used to getting what he wanted. When Melinda refused him, Brad had nearly raped her. His father’s money and influence covered up the incident. But Tony plotted revenge.

Tony and Jim lured Brad to a remote lake on the premise of possessing evidence that would send him to jail. When Brad arrived Tony was waiting at the water’s edge. Venting his anger he coldly struck Brad across the head with a rock.

With Jim’s help, they stripped the unconscious boy to his shorts, tossing him into a shallow section of the lake. The incident was ruled an accident: the boy had struck his head while swimming and drowned.

Tony and Melinda eventually split up. The two boys never spoke of Brad’s death again. That was over twenty years ago. Tony Howard was now one of Hollywood’s leading men. He commanded top billing, top pay, and his pick of leading ladies. Jim became Tony’s trusted agent.

“Ok, ok… I get it!” Tony shouted at the director, not caring who heard. “Get off my back.”

Tony’s outbursts were becoming a regular part of the daily shooting. He constantly missed cues and fumbled lines. When asked, he angrily shrugged it off, blaming it on a sudden migraine. At one point the studio considered replacing him. But Tony always managed to finish the scene, usually to the raves of studio execs viewing the daily rushes.

“Alright people, alright, let’s try it again.” The director signaled and studio hands sprung into action. Props were re-set; make up was freshened; lights recalibrated; cameras loaded and readied. Rudely brushing off an over attentive wardrobe girl, Tony mounted the stage. He glanced at Jim, giving his friend a curt nod, and took his mark.

“Give ‘em a performance they won’t forget,” Jim encouraged.

“Ready all…” Two dozen workers took up their positions.

“Ready,” the director barked. “Let’s get it right this time! Lights… speed…” a set of digital timing sticks clicked in front of the camera lens, “…and… action!”

“Damn it Tom, you know I’ve done everything I can!” The actor-attorney dropped a thick file folder on the metal table top. “There’s nothing left… nothing!”

“I’ve got a date with the electric chair in just over an hour and you say there’s nothing you can do!” Tony’s character Tom paced nervously, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

Across the room, watching the scene carefully, the director noticed the perspiration. It wasn’t in the script. But this was good, by God, this was what he wanted: emotion, raw, honest emotion. He signaled his assistant to let the scene play out.

On stage, Tom spun around to his lawyer. “What about the new evidence?” he asked excitedly, “the DNA thing.”

The lawyer shook his head. “It didn’t pan out, there was no match.”

“Damn it!” Tony, as Tom the condemned man, savagely punched the table. This is dynamite stuff, the director thought, grinning, if the set holds up.

“There’s nothing left to do, Tom.” The lawyer tapped the folder in front of him. “The psychologist signed off this morning. He says you are sane and fit. Short of the governor there’s nothing left… nothing. I’m sorry.” He lowered his head unable to look at his client.

“Sorry,” Tom said softly. “Sorry…” Tony repeated the line. He was ad-libbing now, following instincts which earned him two Oscar nominations. A tear rolled down one cheek. Across the sound stage every eye, every ear, was focused on the tense performance unfolding before them.

“Sorry…”

Tony’s character slowly turned to face the wall, his back to the camera. It was a gutsy move for an actor. The director could have kissed him. It was brilliant.

“Yeah… well…” The actor’s voice was barely audible. “I’m sorry, too.”

The actors froze in position, film still rolling. Finally a silent direction was given. Lights slowly faded, plunging the set into darkness.

“Cut… print… that’s it, that’s it!” The director excitedly jumped off his seat. Wild applause arose, lights flickering on.

On stage Tony stood motionless. His migraine was back but he didn’t care. He knew he nailed the scene. A satisfied smile crossed his lips. “Next picture I’ll hit ‘em up for twice, no three times the money. I’ll get it too!” Tony mumbled under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nothing, I was just…” Tony turned to find himself in a small, drab enclosure. Like the set, it was painted an ugly grey. But it smelled of stale cigarette smoke. A single lamp hung over a metal table and two metal chairs.

Unlike the set, this room was real.

The entire length of one wall was occupied by a large, dark mirror. Opposite it was a heavy looking door. Overhead, the single air vent did little to alleviate the claustrophobic atmosphere.

“What were you saying, Tony?”

A man stood across the table from Tony. He was about fifty; well dressed wearing a tailored Brooks Brothers suit. An open brief case sat in one chair, while a file folder rested atop the table. Tony gave the stranger a puzzled look.

“Who… who are you? What…? He looked around then back at the man. “What is this?”

“What do you mean, Tony?”

“Where am I? What’s going on?” There was anger and panic in Tony’s voice.

The stranger held up his hands. “Whoa! Easy, Tony, take it easy. It’s me, Bob, your attorney.”

“What?” Tony shouted. “I don’t know you! Where am I? Who in the hell are you?”

“Tony, I’ve warned you about this,” the attorney said angrily. “Acting crazy won’t do any good!” He tapped the folder on the table. “The psychologist signed off this morning. He says you are sound and fit. Short of the governor there’s nothing left. We’ve been over this.”

Tony shook his head trying to clear it. “What are you talking about?” He yelled, and rushed across the room.

Instantly the door burst open and two uniformed guards entered. They stopped short as the attorney held up a hand. “It’s ok, no problem.”

Tony now stood inches from his attorney. He looked around at the two guards then returned his gaze to the man. Suddenly he smiled and began to laugh.

“Ok, I get it. You got me. It’s a joke… right?” He looked around the room again. “Thought you’d put one over on Tony, huh?” He patted the other on the shoulder. “And you… where has the studio been hiding you? What a performance!”

Tony staggered over to the large mirror and rapped on the glass. “You can come out now… Mr. Director… Jim… all of you, I know you are watching. Ok, you got me! I give up!”

Still laughing, he spun around and started for the door. “Come out, come out wherever you are.” The guards seized Tony by the arms and gently but forcibly moved him into one of the chairs.

“Don’t make this any harder on yourself, Tony,” the attorney said softly, trying to calm his client.

It did no good.

Tony continued to struggle.

An elderly doctor entered carrying his bag. Ignoring the guards, he stood in front of Tony. “Easy now, son, it’s alright.”

He opened the front of Tony’s shirt, listening to his heart through a stethoscope. Tony tried to jump up but the guards held him fast.

“What are you doing?” Tony screamed. “Let me go!”

The doctor produced a hypodermic from his bag and began to roll up Tony’s sleeve.

“What… what, are you crazy? What are you doing?” Tony struggled as the needle pierced his skin. A second later Tony stopped struggling.

“He’ll be fine shortly,” the doctor announced, checking Tony’s pulse, “Just a very mild sedative… not unusual.”

The next thing Tony knew he was being slowly marched down a barren green corridor. He was flanked by four guards. The doctor and another man led the somber procession. His attorney followed.

Tony’s mind reeled. The scene in the grey room played over in his mind… like a movie.

That was it…

Of course!

They reached the end of the corridor and a pair of brown doors opened. Through the pale lighting Tony could see a low wooden platform and the back of a wooden chair. Entering the room, everything became clear.

Sure, Tony thought, give ‘em a performance they won’t forget. That’s what Jim told him. Well, damn it, he’d do just that!

Looking around, Tony wondered where the stupid director and his cameras were hidden. As long as they got it right he’d give them the performance of his life. “Just don’t screw it up, Mr. Director.” He could feel his migraine returning.

Without protest, Tony allowed himself to be strapped into the chair. He sneered, and then grinned arrogantly. The audience would eat it up.

Secured in the chair, a man Tony didn’t recognize approached him. “The state has found you guilty and condemned you to death for the murder of Brad Stockton. Do you have anything to say?”

Tony looked him in the eye. “Let’s do this,” he barked. Academy award here I come.

The man backed away.

A hood was lowered over Tony’s head. Seconds later, loud humming split the silence. The room lighting dimmed and then slowly came up.

Tony stiffened his body, shaking himself violently. He pulled and strained against the leather straps. With a sudden burst he tried to come up out of the chair. Then he stiffened again, held it, and collapsed into the chair, his body limp.

“Hold it… hold it…” the director nervously told himself. “Wait… wait… now…

…Cut!”

He shouted and jumped from his seat. “Print it!” he called triumphantly. “That’s a wrap!”

From all around applause and cheers rang out. Studio lights came on. Workers scurried about, shaking hands, congratulating each other on a successful wrap.

“Well, Jim,” the director said, proudly shaking the agent’s hand, “our boy did it again! This one should win him the Oscar!”

The celebration was cut short. A shrill scream echoed through the cavernous sound stage.

All eyes turned.

The scream came from a woman who was unfastening the straps on the prop electric chair. Her hand went to her mouth. Shaking, she pointed to the motionless figure still strapped to the chair.

One of the lighting gaffers ran up. He felt for a pulse… first the wrist… then the neck.

The studio fell silent.

The worker put his head against the figure’s chest.

“He’s dead,” he somberly announced, the color draining from his face.

“Tony Howard… he’s dead…”

End

BJ Neblett’s stories can be found in Romance and eFiction Magazines via Amazon. His books include Elysian Dreams, a romantic fantasy adventure. His newest work Ice Cream Camelot, about his growing up during the Kennedy administration, was released as an e book to very positive reviews. It will be available in paperback shortly. BJ hosts two very popular blogs: www.hereforaseason.blogspot.com for poetry, and www.bjneblett.blogspot.com for his short stories. BJ was asked to write a short memory for the Kennedy Library; his poem Black Wall is being considered for inclusion at the Vietnam War Center. BJ’s writings have been compared to Haruki Murakami and Isaac Asimov.

 

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