by David Morris Parson
Orton is led down a low-arched tunnel, off the marbled entry, into the mahogany library that faces west into the rolling canyon. But the chamber is so dense with books, floor-to-ceiling, three stacks deep, that the setting sun is all but blocked except for a coffin-sized rectangle of twilight that illuminates the director’s desk. Orton inhales deeply to calm his nerves. He relishes the vanilla amalgam of decaying books shrouded in dust. This is the air Makaber breathes!
The secretary, named Fin, a pale young man who bears the angular cheekbones of an eastern European, fades like a shadow into the paneling only to return with a gleaming tray of coffee. “Sit,” he insists, but seeing no room on the crowded desk, he nods politely for Orton to create space. “Herr von Makaber, as you see, buries himself.”
Orton drops his briefcase and, wheezing heavily, struggles with two tiers of bulky volumes, all on the art of filmmaking, all in German, and adds them to the floor.
“Sugar or cream, Mr. Orton?”
“Black, please.” He dabs his cheeks with a soiled hanky, then wipes dust from his corduroy blazer.
“You and Herr von Makaber have the same tastes,” Fin says with a wink. He pours coffee and backs away. “Anything else to comfort you?”
“No. But. Since you took my watch, how will I…”—he clears his throat—”How will I know when time’s up?”
“Ah. Thank you for that courtesy. Your valuables are safe.” Fin pats the pocket on his black vest where Orton’s watch and phone are tucked. “Herr von Makaber’s particulars are particular.” He vanishes through the door, leaving Orton hanging.
Orton scrunches his face and contemplates the affront, but he’s too wired to focus. He squeezes himself in the chair, positions his briefcase near, and lifts the dark brew to his lips with a thick pinky quivering. He soaks it all in: the blue/black books rising like weathered headstones in a wintery cemetery; burnt-colored beams criss-crossing the ceiling, as if trapping him beneath a rail yard; black and white stills of murdered starlets, some of whom he recognizes from the director’s oeuvre; and sound, or the lack of it, dying all around.
He’d eagerly driven up from the valley, freshly shaven and dotted with sprigs of bloodied tissue sticking out like shards of broken glass. He was hardly able to follow Fin’s directions, so when he took the steep drive off Sunset Blvd. and discovered Makaber’s rusted gate hidden in a blind curve on the backside of a slope, he was a blathering mess. Now, staring through a sliver of window, his face free of bloody tissues, Orton chuckles: of course Makaber doesn’t face LA’s beautifully lit Mondrian lines that sprawl toward downtown; instead he views a craggy gulley and the steel underpinnings of a mansion cantilevered to a hill. If a massive quake hits, the home above will crumble and crush Makaber like the Wicked Witch of the West.
A door opens and closes behind him. His ears pick up a whispered shuffling and the dull tap of a cane on the carpet. A slumped man appears on his left and maneuvers glacially, carefully sidestepping the stacks of books on the floor. His white hair is a tight cap on his veined head; he looks warm in a midnight herringbone cardigan. As he rounds the desk, he smiles. Herr von Makaber! He may be as old as death, but behind his dark glasses his eyes are alive. He sits, framed by the window, and the cordovan remnants of the day halo him.
Orton thrusts a hand. “Douglas Orton, Herr von” Makaber, sir. Chair of the RTF Department at Ennis Heights Prep—” The tea set clatters, coffee spills. Goddamn! He fingers the white linen napkin and dabs the dark brown puddles. Shit! The monogrammed napkin, the cursive stitched ‘M,’ ruined, stained with his mistake. Fucking disaster!
“Mr. Orton, please.” Makaber’s German accent is incisive yet harmless like a dull knife. “Fin will clean it up.” And just like that Fin appears, erases the mess, and pours Orton a fresh cup before dissipating like fog.
Makaber leans in. “Let’s try again,” he offers.
With exaggerated caution Orton clasps the director’s bony grip. “Wow. It’s you, it’s really you! I’ve seen all your films. Billions of times. Catacombs. God! And Return to Catacombs and Catacombs Unleashed. Mr. Bones and The Inner Sanctum of Mr. Bones. Oh—and the Dr. Canine trilogy. DVDs, Blu-ray, Criterion. I’ve even got the amputated Executioner doll in its original box!”
Herr von Makaber blinks. “You are a fanatic.”
“Well, sir, Mr. Makaber—may I call you Mr. Makaber? You were my childhood. I caught your films on Midnight at the Movies in high school. Edited, of course. I was hooked. And the German Department in college did a semester series. The dean shut it down. ‘Disturbingly graphic!’ Neanderthal. I went abroad because of you! Prague. The underground film tour. The Bone Church! The sacrifice scene!”
“That one got me axed from Festiva Berliner Diabolique.”
“The blond, what was her name?” Orton snaps his fingers, thinking. “Damn, that was so real. When I took the tour, the altar room, the guide was too spooked to speak.”
“When your peers turn on you, it’s time to disappear. I protected the cast and crew. Names were faked.”
“I bet they wish differently now. You’re a god.”
Makaber waves a hand dismissively. “Late sixties, they were kind to me. Horror then, in eastern Europe especially, was raised to Michelangelo heights. A reflection of the times, you understand? Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the fear of McCarthyism in the fifties. My own Mr. Nightmare, a parable on the atrocities of Ho Chi Minh. And Ceausescu in the nineties, genocide, you recall, a renaissance! Makaber retrospectives around the world!”
Orton smiles, mesmerized by the director’s beatific enthusiasm, then spots a severed head high on a shelf.
“Awesome! Who’s that?” he points.
A woman, anemically green, hair matted like a skullcap, peers from a pedestal in a silent scream.
“Ah. Elke. Star of my first film. She was…rapture.” Makaber looks off as if recalling days gone by. “My way of filmmaking has been eclipsed by the machine,” he says, waving a hand toward the darkening window.
Orton allows the director’s mood to temper, takes a timid breath, then adds, “Sir, it’s an honor to be in your presence.”
“Your enthusiasm is the salve on my tell-tale heart. But—” He raps his knuckles on the desk and proffers a wicked grin. “—You didn’t drive up to this dusty lair to massage my ego. You have a project? Fin provided details to pique my interest.”
“Of course.” Orton pulls a folder from his briefcase and sets it on his lap. “You can’t imagine how excited I was when I found your number. I thought you were dead.”
“Skip the niceties, Mr. Orton.”
“I mean, who’d believe the Herr von Makaber was the genius behind the educational films in the eighties!”
“I don’t advertise.”
“Of course you don’t. Wikipedia’s got everything.”
“Wikipedia is sinister.”
“So it’s true!” Orton shoots a guffaw to the beams above. “You directed those bloody high school films?”
Makaber exhales slowly. “I have a reputation to keep, Mr. Orton. But, yes, as the coroner says, the body is out of the bag.”
“Holy shit! The drunk driving film—classic! When that Camaro wrapped around the tree…I couldn’t look away. Snapped limbs. Broken jaws. Heads through the windshield. All that blood! Slow motion, brilliant.”
“You should see the director’s cut.”
“Sir, if I may say so, I credit your films with reducing DWI deaths.”
“We used them at Ennis Prep for years. We’d gather freshmen in the gym and run the films. Scared ’em shitless. But with the times, students bitched, wanted things modern: cars, clothes, no mullets. Ha-ha. We ditched your films, sadly, and with district budgets sucking, we turned it into a school project. Shot the stuff myself. I’m not as good as you. Never could be! But the superintendent called me to his office, shook my hand. Still, the numbers went up, drunk driving. And the STD films, well, instead of stopping gonorrhea…I was put on unpaid leave for a bit. Anyway, the super came to me with one last chance. ‘Solve this…or else.'”
Makaber slowly shakes his head. “I can’t imagine your pain.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“To have to face your wife. The trouble it must’ve caused.”
“I’m not married.”
“Ah. Well then, your…girlfriend.”
“I’m single, sir. Like you, I devour movies.” Orton motions to the stacks of books.
“Cold comfort,” says Makaber. Then, he brightens. “Fin had you sign the nondisclosure?” Orton finds the document and Makaber confirms Orton’s signature. “Precautions insisted upon by my attorney,” he says.
Orton snickers, shakes his head. “I can’t believe you want to do this.”
Makaber motions for the folder. “Your time is dwindling.”
It is dark. Orton imagines the lights down below Sunset Blvd. fanning out like talons gripping the city. The director pulls the metal string on his desk lamp and reads.
“Let’s see…Three films. Drunk driving. Drug abuse. Sex education. Hmmm. No. I see four films. Sex education spliced in two. Prevention and STDs. A carbuncled penis will make teenagers abstain from sex.”
Orton’s eye’s bulge. “Heh-heh, the school board might have a tough time—”
“I see the vision. How this will play out.”
“Uh, and there’s the budget…four films will stretch the—”
“Fourth film is free.”
“Free? That’s generous, sir, but I—”
“I direct alone. In Bucharest. I mail the finished films.”
“Whoa…with all due respect, I have a superintendent—”
“The cast is key. The best come from halfway houses. The streets. Prostitutes plucked from pimps. Derelicts whose faces scream life. They are the freshest. A more visceral response for the viewer, no? Killing Julia Roberts is acting, everyone knows it. I want verisimilitude. So—you did what Fin requested?”
Orton desperately wants to reach for his handkerchief to wipe his forehead, but at the moment he’s struggling to maintain a cool front—in spite of the islands of sweat pooling in the pits of his blazer. He reminds himself of his good fortune, of where he is and whom he’s with. He takes a breath, pulls out a new folder, and hands it over like a student presenting a dissertation to his professor.
The director rifles through the headshots. He stops on a dozen or more, scratches his chin, fans out his selections across the desk.
“Your Polaroids are good.” He looks up
Relieved, Orton expels a stale, fecund breath.”It was weird getting these shots. Sneaking around felt a little perverted.”
“Only a little?”
“These kids…I don’t want to follow ’em around.”
“Society’s rejects, Mr. Orton. Life expects nothing of them; they expect nothing from life. But…they make great actors. And I refuse to rehearse them. With no rehearsals, things stay alive!” Makaber stabs a picture with his middle finger. “Tell me about these people.”
“What can I say? Broken homes, druggies, the worst.” Orton stops himself and replaces his casual air with a professional tone. “I mean, as a teacher at Ennis Preparatory Academy, I’m unbiased about such things.”
“Please, Mr. Orton. It’s hard to be unbiased. The way kids run the schools…”
“You have no idea.”
“Do you long for the good ol’ days? When you could…spank?”
“Things are different now, for sure.”
“A brave educator like yourself, on the front lines. No respect!”
“It’s hell out there.”
“Hell. Yes. These kids, they deserve the depths, no?”
“You’d love to see them suffer, wouldn’t you, Mr. Orton?”
Orton laughs hesitantly.
Makaber slides a picture. “What’s his story?”
“Um…skinhead. Neo-Nazi. All around turd.”
“What if I inject his penis with chlamydia?”
Orton sits back, feels damp heat against the chair.
“It’s only a movie.” The director smiles.
Orton shrugs. “Harm to him would not exactly disappoint me.”
“And him?” He points to another photo. “In your humble mind, could he take a hit of meth and, in a hallucinatory stupor, jump from a hotel balcony?”
“You’re very creative, Mr. Makaber.”
The director slides another picture, a muscled ginger with a pink snarl curled like a comet’s tail in a galaxy of freckles.
“How’d you like him to go?”
“Oh…I don’t know if I—”
“You can do it, Mr. Orton! Play with me!”
Orton squints. He is drawn into the hundreds of freckles on that smart-ass face. They dart before his eyes, taunting him. “Crabs?”
“Pubic lice! Isn’t this fun? And her?”
“Don’t know her. But her mom’s a stripper at a club on Van Nuys.”
“Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. So…?”
“Gang raped by the football team?”
“Mr. Orton—I think you could be a director!”
“The creative spirit’s flowing through you!”
“And this little fucker!” Orton preempts, salivating, and points to a handsome, shaggy kid in the center of the pile. “He’s the devil.”
Makaber pulls the head shot. “Him? You don’t like him?”
Orton fiddles with his soft, puffy hands.
“Go on, Mr. Orton…”
“Nothing is something. What did the little shit do?”
Orton looks up. “Keyed ‘faggot’ across my car.”
“On your car?”
“You are homosexual?”
“That is horrible, Mr. Orton. ‘Faggot’ is a horrific word. It even sounds horrific. Faggot faggot faggot.”
“Outed me to the superintendent.”
“That is a crime?”
“It puts me in a vulnerable position. Some parents don’t like it.”
“You lie about your truth?”
“The truth can get you fired, Mr. Makaber.”
“What if I catapulted him through a bloody windshield? His skull cracked open like an egg, lungs crushed by a steering wheel. Headlights flickering, tires topsy-turvy, spinning, your handsome bully, dead. Thanks to the good ol’ American pastime, DWI. I could do that for you.”
Orton absorbs the crisp percussion of the director’s vision. He is drawn into the dark passion, the wanderlust.
“Yes, I thought I detected cruel justice in you, Mr. Orton.”
“Where is he?”
“…a halfway house….”
“He’ll lurch at the chance to be in a film. He’ll be good too.”
“You really get into…death…”
“I bring to life what the audience wants.”
The air in the room has changed. His nervousness at meeting his hero has somehow coalesced into…conspiracy? You’re in the inner sanctum! Collaborating! Herr von Makaber likes your ideas! The mind of a creative genius is an illusory place, like suddenly finding oneself deep within a slaughterhouse, witnessing how the sausage gets made.
“The artists…sir…the ones you work with…they’re loyal?”
“Cinematographers, set designers. Birds of a feather, as they say.”
“And the actors…?”
“My films were small.”
“You never used any twice?”
Makaber pauses, “What is this—the inquisition?”
“No one wanted to…play with you again?”
Makaber is as still as death. He sees Orton staring at him, and he is alarmed by the transition, how his guest’s eyes are no longer naïve; they are negatives of an unraveling film. He missed something somehow; he is suddenly a rough cut exposed. Now all of his defenses coalesce, and he burrows into Orton’s soggy sockets.
Orton shrinks like a turtle retracting in his shell. His mind’s levers are smoking, snapping. He inventories the room: the bloody starlets in guillotine-colored picture frames; the blond spiked on a high shelf, her last scream meant for Makaber’s ears.
“You are…mad,” he musters.
Mr. Makaber rests his hands gently on the desk, one on top of the other, and adjusts the cuffs of his sleeves, a tug here, a tug there, paying close attention to how much they are exposed by the herringbone sweater.
“On the contrary, Mr. Orton. I am very happy. Happy to meet…a bird of a feather.”
“I had no idea…”
“Don’t be coy, boy! You know too well!”
Orton’s lips tremble, tears well in his eyes. “How…Why would I?”
“The face of Christ on the cross! Fear and death immortalized! The clandestine photos? The pathetic story of your faggot student whom you secretly love? You thrill from it. Emulating me in your hack films. There’s a reason they were shit…your audience could see you, the man behind the curtain. No—in art, strings and scrims are invisible!”
Orton gasps: a bolt of lightning crackles within, an unexpected illumination, a vision of himself in a mirror. Art. Never before has he felt more alive. Beautiful. The sharp pendulum of ecstasy!
A clap of thunder shakes the room.
Orton’s head spins. His chest heaves. The pendulum swings wildly in his direction. Now! He propels himself out of the chair, bumps the desk, smashes the tea set, stumbles to the door.
“Mr. Orton. Imagine…artistic impunity!”
Makaber hears him rumble against the walls of the narrow passage, pictures shattering to the floor. The sharp echoes of skittering heels on marble, like the clamoring feet of bugs trapped under glass. The front door…BANG. The final nail in a pine box.
Just like that a seal is broken, a rock rolled away, opening the crypt, for he feels the rush of air from the hallway. Orton was there, at the edge of the abyss, creation in his grasp, but…
And he was just beginning to like him.
All the years press down at once, like dead roses flattened in a book, bittersweet keepsakes. The framed stills appear to fade; the pungent decay of black ink and binding glue is already retreating. His knobby fingers, as long as unlit tallows, trace the facial features of the hooligan’s Polaroid; the electrical charge is weak.
Fin materializes. Dutifully silent, he watches Herr von Makaber carefully stack the photographs, bringing order into a chaotic universe. Fin turns on the lamp in the corner, giving assistance to his master’s tired eyes.
Makaber raises an eyebrow.
From behind his back Fin presents a greasy rod with a severed piston.
Makaber stares at him with discontent.
As if to reassure, Fin adds, “The S curve at the bottom of the hill.”
Makaber nods, reticent, his spirits idling.
“Orton’s acting debut…” It’s as if he’s speaking to himself. Makaber frowns. “You vetted him poorly.”
“Sorry, sir. I was greedy for you.”
Makaber gestures toward the pictures.
“Hunting them down, sir. If all goes well, they’ll be on a plane in a week.” Fin drops the car parts and wipes his hands on his vest before sliding the pictures into the folder. “Your bags are packed.”
The director tilts forward and stands with effort. Fin retrieves his master’s cane and escorts him around the desk.
“Fin…this one…will be for me. For us. For those like us.”
“The sacrifices you make, sir, if people only knew.”
Makaber shrugs. “This shall be my last.”
“Nonsense, sir. You’re a phoenix.”
The director halts, thunderstruck. “Fin! Raising the dead?” He ponders, lightens, continues toward the door. “In another life I can capture that on film.”
David Morris Parson is a screenwriter and novelist. His stories have appeared in the anthology The Monsters Who Loved Me (Lucky Dark Press) and Word Riot, as well as in Cold Mountain Review, Prime Mincer, and Jet Fuel Review (Best of the Net nom), among others. He is currently adapting his novel The Divorce Comedy into television. Additionally, as a creative director he has twenty years of experience writing another form of fiction: advertising. David is an MFA graduate from Antioch University Los Angeles. A recovering Arkansan, he lives with his partner, son, and two dogs in Austin, Texas. Visit him at davidmorrisparson.com.