Tonight's Feature

Cast—Part 1

So many lights were going off that they looked like explosions, with everybody blown to bits. The image was appropriate, Harry thought, because aspects of Ulmer were being flung to photographers like meat to pigs, chum to fish, pick your favorite animal-feeding analogy. Harry had hired a bodyguard to protect him, but was it possible? Once they secured one side of Ulmer another was sliced off like, yes, strips from a pig or cow or whatever people ate when they still consumed animals and not approximations—oops, there went another line of Ulmer, sheared off by a shutterbug and swallowed. Ulmer, of course, couldn’t actually grow more of himself, they hadn’t invented that style of celebrity yet, so the press and public were always lusting after the same limited amounts of him: no wonder he was exhausted. Harry was weary just handling him, especially at an event like this, one more premiere different only by virtue of being bigger than the last one. Where would it all end, Harry had sunk to wondering?

There was this event to get through, the red carpet, of course, and the film itself: Harry wished he could escape to the bar once the picture began, but Ulmer needed his hand held, literally, and insisted it be Harry who held it, accepting no substitutes. Did he consider it a perk or a punishment? Harry didn’t know.

Now Harry was being eased by the bodyguard inside the stadium-like theater and through the enormous audience. He felt like a slimy eel, sliding in and out—and wasn’t that what people expected an agent to be? Soon he was seated beside the star on the second seat from the aisle; as always, Ulmer insisted on the end in case he became so emotional he had to escape. Tonight he looked particularly and peculiarly glamorous, his scalp wrapped in a glittery headdress, his body encased in shining Sari-like robes, rolled, like chicken had been, in bread crumbs back when people ate and didn’t just inject and absorb. Harry was hungry, impatient for the after-party and the plates of pills, sprays, and rubs inevitably passed around.

The minute Harry placed his palm on the armrest Ulmer grabbed it and pressed it painfully between his own hands, as if it were a bird he meant to save and would suffocate instead. Harry was always surprised at how clammy the star’s skin was. It had the consistency of rubber: hard, squishy, and damp, like something plucked from a pool in a laboratory after it had cooled and solidified. Which wasn’t far-fetched, considering who Ulmer was and where he’d come from.

Now the M.C. began to introduce celebrities in the crowd. The man—a comic whose literally every word was filthy—saved Ulmer for the end, prefacing his name with an obscene honorific which Ulmer sensitively suffered with a polite smile as he waved, his other hand squeezing Harry’s even harder. He winced as he acknowledged the applause, as if he feared being assassinated and did not stay long half-standing. When he sat again, the lights dimmed, and the curtains parted—in the new style, top to bottom, painted as red as someone’s lips—to reveal Ulmer’s face.

And it was only his face. Through the magic of many new technologies, Ulmer played every part—and did in every movie, TV show and entertainment made for phone, tablet, and other devices. Invented by a conglomerate of entertainment executives, he was the only star left—the only one allowed to exist. No wonder he was exhausted, Harry thought again; and no wonder he was exhausted handling him.

Harry had only seen bits and pieces of the picture and was impressed by how well it hung together—though, as ever, he was alarmed by the quality of Ulmer’s acting, which seemed a return to silent movie style of centuries earlier. Maybe that was why people liked him, Harry thought: there was nothing ambiguous about his emotions, everything he did was obvious, as was the plot; so simple an infant could have understood. Which was the idea. At the premiere, people had brought and now held up their babies, the desired demographic, who cried or cooed their approval.

Actually, Harry thought Ulmer was better playing the man than the woman. While he identified as male, he was equal parts both, a rare successful example of a genetically engineered hermaphrodite, with one set of hormones not suppressing the other. Ulmer had been created by the studios and networks to be the most beautiful person imaginable and also the most economical: a rebuff to the fickle public’s taste, a hedge against unpopularity. They wouldn’t have to ever pay anyone else and only needed to negotiate once, with Harry himself.

Distracted, Harry felt the movie drift by as if in a dream. It was over before he knew it. An ovation rose from the theater like a wave that would overwhelm everything. For a second, he was afraid of all that love. He turned to Ulmer and, in that instant, the star’s face expressed everything and everyone: all humanity flickered across his features before fading and leaving only fatigue in its place. This was his gift and curse, Harry thought, to represent the world.

Ulmer didn’t respond to the applause and cries of “bravo.” He made haste to start up the aisle again, Harry hustling behind him as if attached by a handcuff. The bodyguard got them both to the nearest exit right before the spectators surged forward and stampeded.

Ulmer and Harry were escorted into an alley where a limousine was idling. Harry didn’t even feel himself enter: suddenly, they were simply locked behind black glass, as if specimens in a new experiment.

“Couldn’t you have hurried up?” Ulmer cried, furious. He slapped Harry’s face with a hand weirdly heavy while also moist and springy. Then the car took off.

Harry endured the pain and humiliation in silence; only for a second could he bear to catch the chauffeur’s sympathetic glance in the mirror. He turned and stared at himself in the one-way side window, as if seeing the face of a pitiful fan pressed against the glass. Haven’t you got anything better to do with your life? he wished to ask.

He knew that Ulmer had been getting worse, more often taking out his sense of helplessness on Harry and others in his employ. It was probably better than him punishing members of the public, Harry thought, or even worse, the executives who paid his exorbitant salary. Still, how much longer could Harry go on like this? Inside, he was seething.

Because Ulmer owed Harry everything. The star was his only client. It had been Harry who had gotten him his deal when Ulmer escaped from captivity and came crawling to Harry’s agency as a teenager, ten years ago, looking for financial protection from the people who’d made him. Harry’s proposals incensed the executives, who’d assumed since they’d created Ulmer they were entitled to take advantage of him. They hadn’t anticipated their invention having a savvy and self-protective mind, as well as an over-emotional streak already evident in adolescence. And Harry had come up with the cleverest clause of all, the insistence on Ulmer retaining the rights to his DNA, so that neither his superiors nor anyone else could duplicate him without permission or payment. True, it had led to the discomfort of Ulmer always having to be covered—after much trial and error, professionals Harry hired came up with the most comfortable “container” they could for him, an invisible cast of synthetic polymers that prevented Ulmer from ever touching or being touched, a prophylactic mask that coated even his cheeks, nostrils, and tongue and still allowed him to breathe, swallow and salivate. It hadn’t been easy, but it remained remarkably effective in preventing him from being reproduced, increasing his value in ways that were unimaginable.

And yet Ulmer wasn’t happy. Even as Harry nursed his offended face, pressing it against his image in the cold glass, he could hear the star softly crying, unable to help himself or be helped, trapped behind his wrapping like a psychotic in an asylum made of artificial skin. Harry couldn’t care; he had had enough, and this was why he had finally hired someone to help him.

The limo pulled up outside the after-party entrance. He dreaded going in, not even hungry any more. Still, Harry followed Ulmer again, as the star fluttered from the vehicle past more and more ululating fans, the actor shrieking each time a flash or click sawed off another section of him. Ulmer seemed unaware that he was even accompanied now; Harry could have simply walked away. Yet he knew his new assistant was inside and he could not abandon her.

The cavernous space was empty, the multitudes from the screening having yet to make it there. Harry saw Kane the second he set foot in the place: She was an infinitesimal figure at the far end, looking like a ladybug stationed precariously on the edge of a piece of paper. She turned away as if to topple and, reaching her, Harry’s outstretched hand—like a finger that rescued the falling bug—pulled her back from the brink.

“Oh,” she said, relieved. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Agents were usually cold, tough, or brash, Harry knew, yet Kane was the opposite: a thoughtful, shy young woman ill at ease in every situation. Maybe he’d been impressed by her modesty, which was so different from the miens of most people he met: Maybe he thought her sobriety would be a good match for his mercurial and hysterical client. Coming to the end of the rope that wrapped him around Ulmer, Harry thought: let someone placid take my place.

“Did you say hello to our hero?” he asked, indicating the guest of honor now at the bar, injecting the first of what Harry knew would be many martinis.

“I haven’t,” Kane said, “Should I?”

“It might be helpful. If you’re going to be handling him.” The word was funny given Ulmer’s literal inaccessibility. But Kane was too jittery to get the joke.

“Handle? I thought I’d just be trailing you.”

“Tonight. But tomorrow always comes.”

“Oh. Right.” It was as if she were hearing the fact for the first time. Could someone so naïve be a negotiator? Harry suddenly wondered if he had hired Kane merely to fill in a missing feature of himself. Or had it been to recover this aspect, which he had mislaid along the way, as you leave on a subway a beautiful scarf your mother made? Maybe he wanted openness returned to him, even if it belonged to someone else. For whatever reason, Harry took her elbow—careful to avoid her hand and not replicate Ulmer’s proprietary grip of him—and led Kane to the bar and the star.

“Who’s she?” Ulmer asked, impolitely, the booze spike reluctantly pulled from his arm. He looked at Kane as if she were a silly fan Harry had had the temerity to bring forward.

“Kane. She’ll be helping me,” Harry said, “from now on.”

“Helping you with what?” Ulmer scoffed, as if Harry worked so little that the idea of his needing assistance was absurd.

“With you,” Harry blurted out, unable to contain his hostility. Kane’s arrival had freed him, the way he had cheated with his mistress more flagrantly once he knew that his marriage was over.

Ulmer looked at him with an expression that said, Well, aren’t you the little rebel? Then it was covered up by the innumerable other expressions of which he was capable. He didn’t acknowledge the woman opposite him, just turned and signaled the bartender for a refill.

Harry saw more people starting to pour into the gym-sized space. The D.J. began to spin deafening tunes, and a tray of tiny tubes and syringes was offered him by a server (and turned down). It was almost time to go.

Surprising Harry, Kane extended her hand to the star as he once again faced them, martini in mitt.

“Nice to meet you,” she said.

Ulmer looked at the hand with a mixture of disgust, curiosity, and admiration. Like many successes, he at once identified with and was threatened by other aggressive people. He didn’t notice that Kane’s hand was shaking.

“Nice to meet you, too,” he said at last, pressing the tips of her fingers with his own, as he might his fingerprints onto a policeman’s pad. Then he swiveled and shot Harry a look that cut through all his competing emotions to say: Good choice.

Now the place was officially overrun with the patrons from the premiere. Ulmer flinched and ducked as he saw them swarm the bar, photographing him with secreted cameras no one had been able to confiscate.

“That’s it,” Ulmer said and grabbed and gobbled a capsule of food from a tray. In what seemed seconds, he was gone, the bodyguard elbowing people from his path. Ulmer did not need Harry’s help any more tonight.

“Well done,” Harry said, turning once Ulmer was gone, but it took him a moment to find her. At last, he located Kane, crushed between customers, straining to rub a pig-in-a-blanket into her skin.

“What?” she said, above the escalating music.

“I said, well done. With him.”

“Really?” Her tone implied, that’s not what I thought.

“Yes. Really.”

Harry placed a hand on her back. He felt the small round bones of her spine beneath her sweat-soaked shirt. They seemed like a stable enough foundation for her shaky façade, or so he hoped. “Let’s go.”

He escorted her through the gyrating mob to a car outside, a former ambulance converted to a cab after the latest hospital closing. He shut the door, she swam in the big backseat, and he leaned in through the open window.

“Aren’t you coming?” Kane asked, and it seemed she felt abandoned.

“I go the opposite way,” he said.

“Okay.” Disappointed.

“Don’t worry. It only gets easier from here.”

Kane nodded: if you say so. Then the car took off, looking as if it were returning her to the asylum after a supervised excursion.

Harry watched until it disappeared. Her home had been on his way, but he thought it best to leave alone. He felt a weird and perplexing mix of paternalism and desire for Kane, which he hadn’t expected. Ulmer may have had every emotion churning in him, but Harry did not: This was like cutting open a corpse and seeing cockroaches run out; there’d been a scene in a horror movie like that once. It was a disgusting analogy, but no one could be more unkind about Harry than himself. It made him laugh that at his age, of all people, he might be in love.

 

 

 

 

Laurence Klavan has had short work published in more than forty literary magazines, and a collection, "'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies," was published in 2014 by Chizine. His novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” were published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, "City of Spies" and "Brain Camp," co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, "Wasteland," was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London in 2011. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, "The Show Must Go On," was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015.