ARZEL WAS WRINGING her hands nervously when the soft blue panel began to blink. “Five minutes, Mr Bogart,” she said tensely, biting her lip.
I hated to be nagged, but she didn’t see me frown – her eyes were glued to the monitor. I sighed and continued adjusting my tie. We’d been through this countdown hundreds of times and the routine was always the same: a few minutes before show time, Arzel would make the attachments and then I’d go bounding, or maybe ambling, perhaps skipping – sometimes even dancing – out onto the stage or set or up to the podium or whatever. It all depended on my face.
“Have you decided yet, sir?”
Arzel’s nervous pushiness was annoying, but I had to admit that our well-timed routine was off its normal pace tonight due to my preoccupations. “Let me look,” I said. I gave her an ambiguous Bogey half-smile, the one where only one side of his lips pull back in a sort of lopsided grimace.
Her short plump form hopped quickly over to the array of aluminum containers that she had spread neatly around the back of the Gold Room. The cases were all open and I stepped closer, peering down, slowly shuffling from one to the other in my customary fashion, inspecting each in its turn – except the empty Bogart one, of course. I pretended to be going through my usual face-selection ritual, but actually I was trying to decide whether or not tonight was the night.
ARZEL INTERRUPTED, “I don’t like to rush you, sir, but, well, I do need a small amount of time to make all the proper attachments, and…”
Her voice trailed off when I raised my head and glowered at her. After a tense few seconds, I looked back down and muttered a little half-truth – “I’m having some trouble deciding.”
She sprang to life. “Why, Mr Bogart, all of your faces are so good, you could just pick out any one and the audience will simply adore you. But …” She hesitated, anxiety flickering through her hazel eyes. “But, well, don’t you think we should let Mr Jimmy’s staff know? I mean, it doesn’t really matter that it’s so late, I’m ready for anything, Mr Bogart, whatever you need, but don’t you think we should …”
“Arzel, please! Don’t get hysterical!” Her head jerked back at my harsh bark, so I took a deep breath and lowered my voice. “I know you need time to do the face properly, Arzel,” I mumbled, “… and no one does it better.” I glanced up and smiled in that devilish Bogey way.
The effect was instant, and she gazed at me with dreamy rapture. “Oh, thank you so much, sir, you’re so kind.”
“Sure, kid,” I said, finishing with the same warm, sad smile that I’d programmed for the wildly successful remake of Casablanca a few years ago. That had been a lucrative project, triggering a wave of Bogie nostalgia that had not yet dampened. I was still pocketing a steady flow of cash from the residuals.
“OH MY GOODNESS!” Arzel exclaimed. She was looking at her watch. “Only about a minute to go, Mr Bogart.” Her eyes welled with tears and her red-rimmed mouth widened as she wailed, “I’ll never get another face on you in time! Oh please, don’t be mad, sir, but I guess you’ll just have to use Bogart again. I know you don’t like doing two shows in a row with the same face, but I don’t know what else we can do.” She was blubbering now and tears streamed along both sides of her nose, creating little canals through her heavy make-up.
I walked over and gave her a hug. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Bogart will be fine.” Her body trembled. I stepped back and placed my hands on her shoulders. As I knew she would, she instantly responded to Bogey’s touch – her tears stopped trickling and she gazed up at me with an adoring smile. I murmured, “Now, since I’m all set, please give me a moment to meditate.”
Arzel nodded and padded over to the doorway of the small adjoining room. She turned and breathed softly, “Thanks, Mr Bogart”, as she clicked the door shut between us.
THE PALE BLUE LIGHT switched to bright amber. I took a slow breath, steeling myself, and decided that I didn’t want to wear the Bogart face again tonight. In fact, I didn’t want to wear a face tonight at all. Fortunately, faces were only difficult to put on
I unhurriedly unsnapped and unplugged Bogart and dropped him into his padded container, timing my actions to coincide with the final 60-second count, and then calmly walked down the short hallway toward the waves of wild applause.
As I emerged I tilted my head toward the burgundy curtains on the right and sailed past the small group of staffers puddled to the left who were waiting anxiously to relay my selection to Jimmy and his right-hand man, Fredorf. Someone blurted at my back, “Hey, wait a minute, we can’t see – who are you?”
I ignored her as I strode around the curve between the bandstand and the stage, automatically syncopating my step to the band’s generic intro number. Normally they would have roused the audience with a tie-in theme, like The Matrix or Gladiator or one of the 007 scores (depending on my choice of a particular Bond), or perhaps even Dueling Banjos, now that the Reynolds face was starting to gain popularity again with the fickle public.
Fredorf was standing at the far side of the tastefully decorated set, droning out an unctuous introduction with his unmistakable baritone, interlaced by the crowd’s anticipatory whistling and shuffling of feet. I grinned inwardly, knowing that he was winging it.
“And tonight we have quite a surprise for you,” he continued sincerely. “In fact, it’s a surprise that words simply cannot adequately describe. So without further ado…” Fredorf swept his immaculately tailored arm in my direction. Jimmy, seated at his wide mahogany desk, bounced a pen down and then swung his narrow head left at me as the audience simultaneously strained their heads rightward.
AS MY HARD-SOLED BLACK shoes clicked their way toward the cluster of expensive furnishings that Jimmy maintained for his guests, I knew that Jimmy himself, the king of cool, was boiling beneath that placid smile beaming at me. Jimmy didn’t know who had stepped out of that small bronze hallway, and I knew he didn’t like it one bit. But he really had no choice. After all, I was a Face Master, one of the few who could resurrect the deceased celebrities, those gods of yesteryear that the public craved. I was the narcotic of choice for the masses; Jimmy was just a pusher.
Striding out from behind the band where I’d been partly obscured, I approached centre stage and glanced briefly leftward toward the audience. Heads recoiled, gasps were uttered, and the thunderous clapping faltered as they all glimpsed the surprise I had for them.
I neared Jimmy’s desk and his puzzled, icy gaze locked onto my face – or lack of one. His features contorted briefly, slightly, signalling his confusion, until he finally absorbed what I had done. Rage started to crack through his polished facade, but the old pro’s experience saved him. Clenching his jaw, he resumed his amiable expression and then got to his feet in slow motion and extended his arm. I reached out my hand to grasp his and we shook.
Jimmy’s Adam’s apple bobbed in its patented fashion and his lips split into a fake grin as he stuttered, “Well, uh, well, who do we have here tonight?”
After an awkward pause, the drummer hit a rim shot. Fredorf and some band members chuckled. The audience tittered and murmured over the top of the low-whispering sea of confusion.
I smiled carefully back at Jimmy and then slowly rotated my head toward the centre camera. There were a few more giggles, interspersed with the staccato cackles of the professional laughers. I waited patiently until there was a respectful silence, stretching out the moment, and then I spread my arms wide, palms up.
“Good evening!” I said loudly, feeling glorious. “I’m a Grade Five Face Master and my name is Larry Threnton!” My high-pitched natural voice filled the quiet studio, and I took a peek at the monitor. The camera was focussed on my broad smile, framed by an array of empty sockets and tiny protuberances, the implanted tools of my trade. Finally, my fans were looking at the real face, the real talent, hidden no longer. But before they had a chance to applaud, Jimmy spoke up.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said smoothly, but with a slight edge to his voice that was at odds with the folksy manner he tried to convey, “we have a first for you tonight.” He walked up beside me and put his hand on my shoulder, like we were old pals and had planned this together. Jimmy looked at me and beamed, “The Face Master is going to put on a new face for us now, aren’t you, Larry?”
After a pause, Fredorf let loose with a loud guffaw and started clapping, and then the audience started hooting and hollering: “All right!”
“Yeah, let’s see it.”
“Get to it!”
AS THE STAGE RIGHT camera panned across the enthusiastic panorama of anticipatory smiles, I ignored the commotion and calmly turned my head towards Jimmy. Sweat beads were gathering on his brow, threatening to burst into little rivulets that would drip down over his tightly controlled features. “Well, Jimmy, not exactly,” I said, parrying his pathetic little attempt to thwart my plans. “Instead, tonight I thought you and your audience would like to get to know the man behind the face.”
I locked my eyes on his. I expected Jimmy to graciously nod and step away, but he surprised me.
“Now, why the hell would anyone be interested in that, Larry?” he said as he grinned charmingly, his hand digging into my shoulder.
The quiet was shattered with a burst of laughter, and I flinched as though Jimmy’s fingers had sprouted talons – I had underestimated the man. My skin turned clammy and my knees wobbled at the sudden embarrassment, and I wished I had on the Stallone face, or maybe the Schwarzenegger. I swallowed hard and forced those thoughts aside. I knew I had to act fast to regain control.
I carefully peeled my lips back – an awkward task because I was so accustomed to manipulating the prosthetics – and tried to simulate an expression of courteous disagreement, but my unpractised effort was met with gasps and groans. Undeterred, I said, “No, Jimmy, seriously, I thought that it was time that all my fans…” I paused and swung my arms up and outward, like a pastor imploring his flock, “… all of my fans got to know me – the real me, and…”
Jimmy stepped a bit in front of me, dominating the stage and cutting me off. “Why not introduce your fans to De Niro?” He paused as the crowd responded with cheers. “Or Eastwood?” More cheers. “They’re the real you!” he exclaimed, and the audience began to stomp and holler as Jimmy egged them on. “Right? Right?” he yelled, and the studio reverberated with an echoing thunder, “Right! Right!”
JIMMY TURNED AND looked at me, his chiselled smile commanding me to obey. Someone shouted, “Yeah, De Niro!” and then a fusillade of late and great celebrity names erupted. “McQueen!” “Ledger!” “Pacino!” Within seconds, as though it were a single organism, the audience began stamping its feet and clapping and yelling in unison, “Face! Face! Face!”
Panicked, I reflexively adopted the Heston persona; I would command the crowd with the deep resonant voice of Moses to ignore Jimmy and listen to me, their Face Master.
But I wasn’t wearing Heston. As I tried to apply his stern visage, my embedded circuits sent a blizzard of commands to the arrays of unattached micropumps and I felt a thousand spastic twitches as the myriad subminiature pods inflated and deflated and jerked my flesh about aimlessly. The unplugged neural interconnects caused my scalp and facial implants to randomly extend and retract clumps of synthetic hair. My throat ached and cramped as its piezo-controlled muscles clutched and released erratically, vainly trying to connect with the missing Heston larynx interface.
“Look!” Jimmy shouted over the top of the boisterous throng, gesturing toward my writhing and twitching head. “It’s the real Larry Threnton!”
Laughter exploded with a deafening roar. My mouth fell open and I clenched my hands into fists as Jimmy’s right eyebrow arched triumphantly high, daring me to protest. The floor tilted under my trembling legs as my eyes hazily swept the room, and a hundred sneering faces burned their obscene images into my brain. One of my knees buckled and I almost fell, fuelling an even greater outburst of scorn. As my mind lurched toward collapse, desperately straining to find a refuge from the torrent of humiliation, a murmur bubbled up from the unruly gallery. They started to clap as heels tapped their way toward centre stage.
ARZEL WALKED UP BRISKLY, eyeing me with distaste. “Let me help you put this on,” she said coolly, holding Nicholson up toward the audience. They began cheering and whistling at the old favourite. Jimmy was clapping heartily, smiling at me, as he ambled adroitly backwards toward his desk.
I moved numbly to Arzel’s side, dipped under her outstretched arms and then thrust my body upward, feeling the familiar clamminess as the lifelike elastomer caressed my head. Arzel’s fingers flew rapidly around, occasionally brushing my neck as she tugged and jostled and secured the various connections. When she was done, she rapped me on the shoulder. “You’re all set, Mr Nicholson,” she whispered, and then quickly trotted away. The room was now silent except for some murmuring, mingled with impatient coughs and rustlings.
I started with the maniacal leer from The Shining and the crowd went crazy.