Joyland

Toronto |

They Call Me Judas

by Christoph Mehrlein

A man in white walked out of the sun. Bad quality print. Heavy grain and scratches peppered the image. A folk song was playing. Nicholas couldn’t make out the lyrics. The 16 mm projector just wasn’t up to this kind of sound mix. Most of the song was reduced to a mournful sonic blur as though the man in white were being serenaded by ghosts. That this print existed at all was something of a miracle. Nicholas had spent thirty years looking for it. He’d prowled through video store racks again and again, burying his wrists into the discount bins, looking for that familiar title. He‘d never doubted its existence. It was recorded in several reference books. There was an entry on the Internet Movie Database (with no external links). He’d even managed to find a couple of stills in a book on Spaghetti Westerns. As for the film itself though… “Excuse me. I’m looking for a movie called They Call Me Judas. Do you have it?” Blank looks, sad smiles, and shrugs. He got no further on the message boards. “Anyone remember a Euro-Western called They Call Me Judas. It would have been from the early seventies, maybe ’71, with Roland Schoenman, Elsa Klein, Reiner Fischer. West German-Italian co-production. Directed by Nicollo Donati?” “Heard of it. Never actually seen it.” “Nope.” “Read about it once. I’ve never seen it though.” “Great Jeebus! You again? Get a fucking life.” He’d persevered and gotten nowhere. They Call Me Judas was gone, an empty space. Until he’d come across Cinema Central.

“Bitch!” Liz shouted into the phone, hammering it down. Her one customer looked up from the racks, baffled. Liz apologized. She’d just finished a screaming match with an insane woman who’d systematically plundered every lesbian-themed title from Cinema Central. When Liz had threatened to go to the police, the woman had given her the address of the local precinct, adding that she would meet Liz at the front desk, in uniform. The original Get Carter theme was playing on the loudspeakers. Grimly, she called up the main theme from Cannibal Holocaust, which never failed to soothe her. Within seconds, her shoulder blades were sinking back to their normal position. Cinema Central had seen few customers, thanks to the rain. There was only the one guy at the moment and it looked like he would be gone soon. He was currently hovering near the New Releases section, arguing on the phone with his girlfriend who apparently wanted him to rent the latest Kate Hudson masterpiece. Whether he gave in or not, poor bastard was in for a terrible night. Kind of cute too. Why did the “kind-of-cutes” always let themselves get hooked to the type Liz could spot as bitches a continent away? Question for the ages. Probably worked the other way too, not that that was any comfort. The door chimed. Liz bit her lip as she saw him walking through the door, shaking the rain off his trench coat. Sexy Ugly was back. He’d been in three times this week, never renting anything, just browsing through the store with clear interest. Maybe this time. Liz tried to look busy as she followed his progress through the racks. Sexy Ugly always seemed to show a special interest in European films. The other customer gave up the fight and rented his girlfriend’s pick. “Good luck,” she told him. He sighed, leaving her alone in the store with Sexy Ugly. Liz grabbed an old Entertainment Weekly magazine from the pile Ethan had left behind. “Excuse me?” When had he walked up to the counter? “Yes.” “I’d like to open an account.” Sexy Ugly was staring directly at her. Usually he didn’t seem to see anybody. He just walked around with his head pointed forward like an ostrich. Liz looked down at the cases on the counter. A double disc of Sabata and its sequel Return of Sabata; Mario Bava’s Ray Colt and Winchester Jack (not the best thing Bava had ever done); and the brutal Django. Somehow, she explained what he needed to do without her voice trembling. Seeing Sexy Ugly up close was disconcerting. It definitely emphasized his Ugly side. He was tall with a narrow head frosted with the remains of sandy blond hair. His blue eyes stared in opposite directions as though they were being pulled apart. Other features, like his heavy brow, big eyes, pert nose, and sharp cheekbones would have looked gorgeous on him as a child (and probably had); in his late thirties they gave him a distinctly rancid air. He seemed friendly enough though. When she told him he needed some photo ID, he fished in his trench coat for his wallet. A trench coat. Not many guys his age ran around in trench coats. Looked good on him though. He laid his driver’s licence on the counter. Nicholas Klein. Nicholas. His name was Nicholas. Not Nick but Nicholas. Beautiful, old-world. “You like Westerns.” Nicholas smiled. “You have a good selection of them here.” Was that a trace of an accent she heard in his voice? There was. East European? German? “Like John Wayne?” “I prefer Clint Eastwood.” “Oh, uh, that will be $8.75.” Ask him, ask him, ask him…. “Thank you. I was wondering if you could look up a title for me.” “Sure.” Anything you want. “They Call Me Judas.” “I’ll take a look.” Liz entered the name into Cinema Central’s database. She was truly disappointed when nothing came up. “I’m sorry. We don’t seem to have it.” Nicholas nodded. He paid and left.
The set took his breath away. Actually, it wasn’t so much the set itself as the sight of it that took his breath away. The set itself wasn’t special. Just an ordinary Western town complete with boardwalk, open fronted blacksmiths, post office, sheriff’s office, saloon (comically misspelled “Salon” here), and other nameless, purposeless buildings. In fact, the town had been constructed for another Italian Western. Sergio Fajardo, the film’s producer had managed to get them cheap before the Spanish landlord tore them down. The man in white walked down the street. Wind machines blew dust around him. The street, framed by Hugo Milligan’s camera work, looked a lot better than Nicholas remembered. He had lived on lots of sets, both stage and screen. His life wasn’t marked by school years but by the tutors his mother hired to supplement his sporadic education: some surly and intelligent, others friendly and stupid. Although he’d gotten along with Mrs. Fischer, his Judas tutor, fairly well, he still liked it better when he was acting with his mother. Sometimes, though not often, he’d scored bit parts in his mother’s films. In The House Without Walls, he’d been the mad warden’s child who played with toy soldiers in an empty cell. He’d had a similar role in Judas: the lonely blond orphan who observed much of the film’s action. Every so often, the camera would cut to a shot of Nicholas standing mournfully in the background, a spectral harmonica playing. It was implied, though never said, that he was son of Elsa Klein’s Madam character. There he was now. Just a shadow at the corner of the man in white’s eyes. The hero turned his head and Nicholas was gone, sprinting behind the “Fed” store. He would be back, of course, even if the man in white didn’t know that yet.
“I’m busy.” “You always say you’re busy.” “Because it’s usually true.” “‘Usually,’ as in ‘it’s usually true but not this time.’ Am I right?” Ethan muttered something unintelligible. “What ails you, my friend?” “I need you to locate something else for me.” “Name, rank, and serial number.” “They Call Me Judas. Spaghetti Western, 1971.” “Never heard of it.” “A customer wants me to special order it. I told him I’d see what I could do,” said Liz. “And by ‘I’ll see what I can do’ you meant ‘I’ll see what Ethan can do.’” “This one shouldn’t be a problem, I swear.” “Did this cinematic gem get a theatrical release?” “In Europe. I don’t know about here.” Liz heard a pencil scratching. “Remember, if it didn’t get past the print lab, I can’t help you. Did you dig up any other details?” He wrote down the name of the cast and crew. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The man in white, the Judas of the title, was a former train robber who sold out his partners to the law. He used the gangs’ loot to set himself up as a respectable farmer with a wife and two sons. One of the gang, the nefarious Brown, escaped prison before he was to be hanged. Brown found Judas, took him out into the desert, and left him for dead. Judas stumbled out of the desert only to find both family and farm burning. All of this was told through a fistful of flashbacks that started right after Judas arrived in town. Donati had wanted to divide them more evenly throughout the film, past running concordantly with present. Fajardo had vetoed the idea, insisting that the flashbacks be presented together as near to the beginning of the film as possible. Judas wouldn’t have been any better a film if Donati had gotten his way but its flaws wouldn’t have been so apparent. The flashbacks were too much: over-acted (especially by Schoenman — no surprise there) and over-burdened with a loud dramatic score that made the rest of the film seem too quiet by comparison. Brown set up shop as sheriff of the town of Limp Ditch (Mario’s dumb sense of humour was showing). He didn’t recognize Judas right away, for some reason; possibly that had to do with what the passage of time (although Roland Schoenman didn’t look any different than he had in the flashbacks, except that he glowered more). Closeup of Judas opening his eyes. The flashbacks were over. Now it was time to meet the Madam, the Boy, the Piano Playing Gypsy, and his destiny.
Django and the Mario Bava film turned up in the overnight bin three days later. Liz was fidgety for the rest of the week, expecting each morning to find the Sabata films in the bin as well. There was no sign of them for two days. Friday was the due date. Friday passed. As did the next three days. On Wednesday, Liz drew Nicholas’ phone number out of the computer and called him. Annoyed, he promised he would return the movies when he had time. Before he could hang up, Liz said, “And you know that other movie you were asking about?” “What other movie?” He’d forgotten. Oh well, “They Call Me Judas.” Total silence on the other end. “Mr. Klein?” “Yes, I’m still here. Do you have the film?” “Not yet. I found a copy of it through a special orders catalogue.” “What catalogue?” “Um…” “I’ve been looking for this movie for over twenty years and I was never able to find a copy of it. Not even on the internet.” “We’ve got a couple places that we deal with. Foreign outfits specializing in hard, rare-to-find obscurities. You’d be surprised what they’ve tracked down for us.” Was her voice trembling? Oh God, she was such a bad liar. “I see. These ‘foreign outlets’ would be more or less legal, right?” “You could put it like that.” “It doesn’t matter to me either way.” “So you’re cool with this?” “Whatever it takes.” She felt awful doing this. “Yeah, I don’t know, the price…” “Whatever it takes,” he said, hanging up.
Ethan was less than pleased. “I can’t get it for him!” “Calm down! You’re screaming. I can’t believe you’re actually screaming at me! It’s not like I told him I’d could get it for him by tomorrow.” “Why did you promise him anything at all? I can’t get this film.” “With all the shit you’ve collected over the years, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Ethan’s apartment was filled with racks of obscure DVDs, many of them illegal. Back in the day, when he had still worked at Cinema Central, he’d boasted to Liz about his connections to pirates, adding that he could get any title to a customer within a week. He’d even stocked a few highly sought-after bootlegs in the “Recommended” racks. That was, until they’d received a lecture from a nosey customer who pointed out, at length, that by stocking Star Wars Holiday Special they were stealing money from George Lucas’ pocket. Liz had managed to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, their boss got wind of it and banished Ethan along with the bootlegs. “It was only released the one time, back in the early seventies. It’s never been released since. Not to the Drive-Ins. Not on VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, DVD, nothing!” “Why don’t you check the torrent sites?” “Listen, it’s not on the torrent sites. This film is nothing, nowhere. The negative has been melted down into silver and buried in the Wolf Man’s heart.” “Why?” “Because it’s a piece of shit by all accounts. I think the real question is, why does this guy want it so bad?” “Could be sentimental value. Maybe he lost his virginity while it was playing on TV.” “He can be sentimental about it all he wants ’cause he’ll never see it again.” Liz thought of Nicholas’ face looking at her across the counter. She took a deep breath. “I’m calling in my favour.” “What favour?” “The favour. The one I swore I’d never call in.” “I still don’t know what you’re… Ah, come on!” Ethan began swearing as he realized what she meant. “You can’t do this to me, I was in a hole…” “And I helped dig you out. Anyway, nobody forced you to go play poker in Chinatown.” “Granted. Are you sure you want to use your favour for this. It seems too petty for you.” “It’s my favour and I’ll call it when I want, for what I want. Now you must have some last resort up your sleeve.” “…” “Was that a yes I heard?” “More like a ‘yeah.’ I do have one last, final resort I could try. Mind you, I swore I would never deal with this guy again…” “That sounds more like it.” “Yeah, well this guy’s a criminal.” “So are most of your friends.” “He’s not my friend. The last time I dealt with him, he cleaned me out and left me with a shit product. You remember the Four Flies on Grey Velvet debacle?” “Wait a minute. Yeah, I think I do. That tape was pretty unwatchable.” “A third-generation VHS copy burned onto a warped LCD. Yeah, this is the same guy. He travels around a lot as part of his business. What sort of business he’s in, I don’t ask but he collects bootlegs whatever he goes. Used to trade them. Now he just sells. I’m kind of leery about contacting him again. I’ve never had any problems but I get this definite criminal vibe off him. And I paid a fortune for Four Flies.” “Do you think he could find Judas?” “If anyone could.” “Make it so.” “Aye aye, bitch.”
Lots of slapstick in the second reel, more than he remembered. Which made sense. Filming had taken four weeks and they could only afford to pay Schoenman for three. So they’d improvised; the story was inflated with “comic” pratfalls, courtesy of the brothel denizens, especially the circus-performer-turned-drunken-piano-player played by an Italian actor credited as “Kirk Hardwood.” Lots of hand-waving and face-mugging ensued. There was a whole subplot about an ugly wife ploughing through the brothel, room after room, trying to catch her equally grotesque husband in the act. Cut occasionally to the man in white, drink in hand, watching sullenly over the proceedings. Even as a kid, Nicholas had never found Mario to be all that funny. As an adult, he found Mario’s jokes tortuous. Elsa was in these scenes, which mitigated the pain a little. By the time Judas had rolled around, she was already in the later stages of her film career. She’d told Sergio she’d have gone back to the stage entirely if it wasn’t for Nicholas. “There I can play characters rather than pinups.” Sergio had smiled indulgently. “Are you saying you’re dissatisfied with Mario’s script?” Beside him, the preternaturally handsome young man snorted. “Of course Elsa’s dissatisfied. It’s a nothing part. This character does nothing but get shot and moon over our so-called hero.” Elsa stretched her arm across the table, taking Mario’s hand in her own. “I’m afraid it’s more than that, Sergio. Mario is only writing down to the level of the audience and I’m afraid the audience for these films…disturbs me. I admit, I’ve never understood Westerns. The whole form is so…brutal.” Mario grinned at the producer. “Elsa thinks that Western culture should have stopped with Ibsen.” Elsa had not argued the point. Neither had Nicholas, who at nine, was already old enough to appreciate that his mother was something of a snob. A fiercely protective snob at that. She refused to let anyone touch her little boy, especially on set. Years later, Nicholas would learn that there were good reasons for this, but at the time it seemed paranoid. She wouldn’t even let the makeup artist do his face, insisting that she do it herself. Since Elsa was not a professional, it always took twice as long. He’d squirm in his chair. “Mummy, I’m not a doll.” “Dolls are less trouble,” she’d snapped back. Hair trussed up in a bun, wearing gaudily coloured skirts, Elsa looked a lot like a doll herself. A doll with broken eyes that had been used in unspeakable ways, secretly, in the dark. Although his chest went hollow every time he saw her on-screen, he would not look away.
Three months passed. Nicholas kept coming in to ask about his movie. When Liz kept fending him off, Nicholas’ face grew steadily darker. Liz, in turn, got on Ethan’s case, who then, in turn, got on the case of his mysterious supplier. That, at least, was what Liz hoped he’d do. She never heard from Ethan one way or another. While she waited, she’d pulled up Nicholas’ call information. She’d studied his address as though committing it to memory. She’d even dialled his number once, cutting off the call even before the first ring, furious with herself. Then Ethan called. “He’s got it.” “He’s got our film.” “He says he does at any rate. He wants to meet me to set the terms. I think you should be there.”
Liz and Ethan tromped up to the third floor of a detached house. A dank smell hung over the stairway. It grew stronger as the door opened, revealing a clean-cut man in his late twenties. His name was Brody. He greeted Ethan coolly, clasping his hand. Liz got a nod. Brody sat on the bed while Liz and Ethan found their own seats. They talked about Brody’s business dealings in the Philippines, which, despite the lack of details, sounded highly dubious to Liz. He was friendly enough, even offering them some weed. Ethan declined for both of them then asked about Judas. Brody smiled. “I got to admit, I like a challenge.” “Were you up to it?” said Liz. He directed that uneasy smile towards her. “Always.” Ethan coughed. “What format?” “Sixteen millimetre. Hope you own a projector.” “We can manage.” “I can burn you a LCD if you like. I know a guy.” “We’re cool, we’ll find a projector.” Ethan was straining to sound relaxed. Liz scanned the apartment. There were several laptops lying around as though the apartment held more than one person. “You sure? ’Cause, like I know a guy….” Liz interrupted, “How much do you want for it?” Brody named his price. Ethan’s cheeks puffed out. “Why that much?” Liz looked at him then back at Brody. “Okay.” Ethan stared at the back of her head in disbelief as they walked down the stairs. “Can you afford this?” “Yes,” she lied, mentally totalling up how many paycheques this was going to cost. No vacation this year, that was for certain. Ethan wasn’t satisfied with this. “Why’d you do it?” “’Cause I wanted to. And maybe Nicholas will pay me more.” Ethan wasn’t satisfied with this. Neither was Liz, come to think of it. She didn’t know what his motives were for looking for this movie. He wasn’t an obsessive collector so he might have a ceiling price beyond which he would refuse to pay. Her own motives troubled her even more. She realized then how her heart beat a little quicker at the thought of his ravaged face marching into her store.
Judas struck a match across the piano top, cupping the flame with one hand and lighting the cigar in his mouth, all in one smooth motion. The dark bags under his eyes gave him the look of a man who had seen too many things. Nicholas knew they were just the result of a hangover. Nothing sordid or dramatic about it; Schoenman had just gotten drunk with a member of the crew. He’d carried a bottle of whisky to bed and shut the door behind him. Members of the crew kept him steadily supplied with alcohol, with Donati and Fajardo’s blessings. Unlike most drunks, the actor was at his most violent when he was sober. He’d thrown a couple of tantrums that had shocked young Nicholas, who looked at the forty-five year-old askance as if to say, “You know, you’re supposed to be an adult and yet you’re acting like this?” Schoenman would stalk back and forth on the set, profanely abusing cast and crew alike. At one point, he’d even reduced Mario to tears, ripping the script apart under the writer’s nose. Nicholas had been so frightened by that, he’d actually hid in Elsa’s skirts, trembling until Elsa had put her hand on his shoulder. Then it was as if Schoenman’s voice was pushed into the distance. Nicolas had been safe because she was safe, she’d made herself safe. Although he’d scream at her as much anyone else (“Talentless fucking whore!”), Elsa remained stone-faced through all of it. “Why is he like that?” Nicholas had asked Elsa. Elsa was sitting in front of a mirror, adjusting herself in ways Nicholas didn’t understand. “He’s a stupid man who thinks everyone else is as stupid as he is. He thinks people will only listen to him if he’s shouting at the top of his lungs.” “Is he right?” “That’s possible, I suppose.” Nicholas had had another question. “Why doesn’t someone just fire him?” “I think Sergio nearly did after what happened today.” “So why didn’t he?” “So many questions today, Nicholas. Why are we so curious today, hmmm?” “I was wondering if they were going to finish making this movie after what happened.” “I was wondering that myself this afternoon. I spoke with Sergio. Naturally, everyone is very angry with what Herr Schoenman did to Mario, but they won’t fire him. We are too far into filming. The farther you get, the harder it is to fire someone, especially someone in a crucial role like Herr Schoenman. No, I think this movie will be made, unfortunately.” She’d turned her attention back to the mirror, unaware that Nicholas hadn’t finished what he had to say. He was breathing heavily, almost in a state of nausea. “Mother?” “Yes, darling?” This had been building up before Herr Schoenman’s tantrums, before Judas had started; in fact, it had been building up for years, which only made it harder for him to say. “I don’t want to be an actor.” She’d wheeled around in her chair, face blank. Somehow, he’d managed to stutter on. “I mean…I don’t mind the little bits now, being the boy in the story…but, I don’t think it’s what I want to do…when I grow up.” She’d embraced him, kissing his forehead, her breath warm on his ear. “Good.” The Mario affair had blown over. Donati secretly instructed crew members to increase Schoenman’s supply of alcohol so the actor would be easier to deal with. For those times he was too drunk to stand upright, a double was enlisted from among the Spanish crew. Donati shot him from behind or with the brim of Judas’ hat obscuring his face. Nicholas came to think of him as the Man in the Hat. He tried to guess how much of the film was Schoenman as opposed to the Man in the Hat. Sixty-two percent, perhaps. Schoenman was drunk a lot during the last two weeks of filming. Still, it was always his face in the closeups, like the one coming up right now.
“Hello, Mr. Klein?” “Yes, this is Mr. Klein.” “I have your movie ready for you. They Call Me Judas.” Nicholas was silent. Liz explained about the 16 mm print. “It’s going to be a bit pricier than I thought.” “Tell me.” “You understand, I’m not going to be seeing much of a profit on this.” “Tell me how much.” She told him. “I’ll throw in a 16 mm projector in the bargain.” That had been an odyssey to find. “I owe you that much at least….” “I would like to see it.” “Sure, we can let you view the merchandise.” “At your store?” “I’m afraid we couldn’t do it in the store. We could do it in my apartment. Unless, would you feel comfortable doing that? Coming to my place.” Liz waited. Her speakers were playing the theme to A Shot in the Dark. One of her favourites; the movie and the theme. She wondered what Sexy Ugly thought about them both. Maybe she could ask him. The phone rasped. Chin-stubble grazing the receiver. Liz smiled. “I have no problem with that,” he said. “Great.” She gave him her address and hashed out a time. As she scrambled to clean her apartment, Liz’s motives continued to nag at her. Was she really in love? No doubt, now, she had a crazy crush on Sexy Ugly that he showed no signs of reciprocating. Frankly, he’d never showed any sign of noticing the world outside his own life. Not the best basis for a relationship, unless it was one of those short-lived, messy ones. Enough of those already. Stumbling to the washer with arm full of clothes, she realized she was trying to impress a man who might not be impressed by anything.
By the time Nicholas buzzed up, she was all raw nerves. She led him into the living room where she’d set up the projector, her eyes picking out specks of lint on the sofa she’d forgotten to clear away. Nicholas sat down while Liz fuddled with the projector. She babbled on how the copy had come from the estate of a South African collector. The story was completely made up. She had no idea where Brody had dug this thing up and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Nicholas sat quietly, hands folded on his knees. Was he praying? Was he religious? Would he care that she wasn’t? Oh God. “Okay. I think we’re all set.” “You don’t have to do this.” Keeping her voice level, “I want to. I don’t want you to pay until you’ve seen what you want to buy.” “I suppose you’re right.” He wasn’t even looking at her. “Could you hit the lights? Thank you.”
Night. The boy was standing in front of Judas. He’d been trailing the man in white ever since Judas stomped out of Brown’s headquarters. The boy froze, unable to move as the man in white towered over him. Nicholas knew the scene well. It was among the last ones they shot though it came near the middle of the film. The scene was a last minute addition of Donati’s, who loved to tinker with the script. By that time, Mario the screenwriter was no longer around to object. The producer had sent the young man home. Mario could no longer cope with Donati or Schoenman. Laughter, off-key piano music played on the soundtrack. The set had been totally quiet, waiting to see if Schoenman would stay on script or fall on his face. Fajardo’s gambit had worked to a degree. His booze flow doubled, Schoenman had shifted from being abusive to sleepwalking through his scenes. He picked the boy up by his shoulders, lifting Nicholas to his face where the cigar smouldered. Footsteps. Shift in focus; foreground to background. The Madam was standing there, holding her skirts with one hand, the other at her mouth. Judas’ eyes burned. The Madam lowered her hand. With great effort, she summoned some small bit of strength still left to her. A stranger’s voice came out of his mother’s mouth. “Let him go. You beast!” He looked over at her, then back at the boy as though weighing his options. Gently, he lowered the boy back to his feet. As soon as he was free, the boy rushed to the Madam’s side. She closed a protective arm around him. Then Donati had made them do the scene again. Elsa smoothed Nicholas’ hair, telling him he’d done well, this was just so they had a backup in case the previous take didn’t turn out well. She’d given the same speech to Nicholas so many times before that he was starting to wonder if her memory was going bad. He was about to tell her what he’d smelled on Schoenman’s breath when Donati took him by the hand. The director led him back to Schoenman and explained in simple, childlike terms what he wanted from Nicholas. He didn’t remember the words now, only the general concepts. Fear, terror, pain. Schoenman was standing with his head lowered, holding his cigar in his left hand. A soft breeze caused the end to glow. As the crew shuffled back into position, he put the cigar into his mouth, put his hands on Nicholas’ shoulders, nodding conspiratorially at the boy as he prepared to lift him. Right away, Nicholas could feel Schoenman’s legs trembling. The great actor pulled him up then stumbled backwards under the boy’s weight. Nicholas’ head bobbed forward like a doll. The cigar stabbed his cheek. There was a lot of screaming in the next few minutes, some of it his. His next memory was of standing in the midst of crew members, bawling his eyes out. The makeup girl was stroking his cheeks, trying to comfort him, even as she cast appalled glances to her right. Nicholas slapped her away. He didn’t want her, didn’t care what she did because the makeup girl wasn’t Elsa, and he couldn’t understand why his mother wasn’t there with him. The crew tried to pull him away from Schoenman who was on his back, helpless. It took Nicholas forever to recognize the shrieking form on top of him, shredding the great actor’s face with her fingernails. Schoenman was sent to the best plastic surgeon Fajardo’s money could buy. Elsa and Nicholas caught the next plane to Germany. There was no lasting damage to Nicholas face, unlike Schoenman’s. She never worked with Donati or any film director again.
Liz watched Nicholas’ face as the credits rolled. She’d already watched it once to make sure the projector worked. It wasn’t all that great, veering schizophrenically between a comic and dramatic tone. The middle of the film had too much slapstick (including a pie fight) while the other two thirds were depressing. Literally everybody died except Judas and Brown. Even the Madam and her little kid bought it. The boy was shot in the back as he was running away from the bandits who were burning down the brothel. The Madam was watching from a window. She got into a bathtub with her clothes on, slitting her wrists as the flames crept up the corn-coloured walls. Liz turned to Nicholas, ready to deliver a smart remark. She saw tears sliding from his eyes. His overall expression hadn’t changed but he was crying. When was the last time this man had cried? Liz wondered again what this film could possibly mean to him that he would go to such lengths for it. Feeling more than a little out of her depth, she went back to watching the movie. Judas killed the rest of Brown’s men. The fire spread to the rest of the town. Judas and Brown held their final showdown, which was clogged with smoke. Trumpets blared, a string section shrieked, a chorus wailed. Sweat beaded on Brown’s forehead. Judas flickered in and out of sight. Brown’s hands crept to his guns. The smoke was as thick as clouds in the sky. Then, suddenly Judas was there. Draw. Two figures spun and fell. Then, the twist ending that Liz hated even more the second time. The cavalry swooped in. (Why? What were they doing there?) Finding the two men on the ground, they carried them to safety. Judas and Brown woke up side by side in a hospital. Brown leaned over. “Are you going to kill me now?” Judas chuckled. “Maybe after I get some sleep.” The End, thank God. Liz turned on the lights, allowing the film to roll through the projector until the reel came to a finish, the tail end slapping the casing as it spun around and around. She’d changed reels so many times she was sick of the thing. Nicholas must have wiped his face with his hands because his eyes were now totally dry. Or had his tears been a trick of the light? Then again, she might have seen what she wanted to see. Just another geek collector obsessed with the things he couldn’t have. There was certainly no passionate romance waiting to blossom here. Suddenly, Liz wanted nothing more than to get this expressionless lump out of her apartment. “So?” she said calmly. “Do we have a deal?” If he said No, if he went back on their deal, she had no idea what she would do. Screaming, now there was an option. Nicholas reached into his jacket, pulled out a cheque book, a pen. He wrote down his name, a couple of figures, signed it, tore it off and handed it to her. The amount was larger than Liz had expected. Nicholas was already getting up. “If you have any trouble cashing that, you have my address.” She trembled still in spite of herself. “Are you expecting trouble?” He smiled a little. “No. There won’t be any trouble.” She followed him to the door and let him go, paralyzed.
The End, for now. He planned to watch this again at home, if and when he had time. He would also build some kind of dry storage area for the print, get it digitized somehow before it deteriorated further. For all he knew, this was only copy left. As he was turning on the light, the nurse stuck her head past the door. “How was your movie, Mr. Klein?” He smiled. “Very good thank you. How long do I have?” “Another five minutes. But you can take your time.” “You didn’t hear anything?” “No. It was completely quiet out here. I don’t think you disturbed anybody.” That was a relief. He wasn’t sure he could adjust the volume on this thing. Liz had warned him there were problems with it. When he had the movie burned onto an LCD they could watch it on TV. He put the reels away and packed up the projector. “I’ll be back on Thursday,” he said to the woman in bed. “We can look at some more pictures. I found a couple of stills from Vespasian. Remember when we used to live in Rome? Remember how I was scared they were going to throw me to the tigers?” He laughed. “I was almost as scared of that as I was of the man with no arms. You remember the man with no arms. He was on the Judas set. Funny, I remember him being everywhere there and yet I can’t seem to find him anywhere in the film....” Elsa did not respond. Her head lolled on her pillow, her eyes as empty as a blank screen.