I AM ON the left in the photograph. As if I am drifing into shot, just shading my presence on the scene. My mouth slightly open – perhaps having spoken, possibly having picked something from my teeth, all the same I am caught in the middle of something. Caught in the act. From the photograph, that something could look as if it may be of import.
God, that it were so.
More than likely I had just picked something from my teeth.
Do you think that it was just luck? That I slicked my hair, put on a tuxedo and cologned my cheeks on the off-chance? Examine the photograph. Do I look that fucking stupid? You have to know this – I wanted to be there, I really wanted to be there. That moment defines me. As did the many other moments before and after – this is where I belonged. This is what I did.
Of course it wasn’t always this way.
Once, I had thought, there was a better way.
Until, that is, I met my friends – I would be nothing without them. Let me put it another way, they would be nothing without me. There, I’ve said it and I will say it again – they would be nothing without me. I was more important to them than they would ever admit. It’s the truth. Think of a name, any name, think of a singer, an actor, an artist. Think of anyone whose work you admire. Then think of them alone. Go on, try. Think of them by themselves, at home perhaps, eating a ham sandwich in front of the televison set. Watching an old variety show, or a news broadcast. The mustard dripping onto their shorts while a dog yaps for attention. It’s not the image you want, is it? And I’ll tell you why, because you are missing me – the unidentified man.
Laughing at their jokes. Patting them on the back. Guiding them through crowded rooms. Blocking a punch thrown in their direction. Fetching them a drink. Smoothing their way. Always making sure their way was smooth.
They knew me, of course. They knew me as a stand-up guy. Someone to rely on. Part of the circle, part of the crew. A squeeze on the shoulder; a nudge in the ribs; a playful cuff to the back of my head. Of course they knew me. What’s not to know?
Apart from my name. Apart from the dreams I had. Apart from the fact that I knew I was better than them.
There, once again, I’ve said it. I was better than them.
Why? Because what I did for them they would never do for me. Not in a million of your Earth years. This was not how it was meant to be. For me.
But, and you have to realise this, I was not angry. This did not make me a bitter man. I had not missed my boat, it is more that I had missed a connection – and at some point, I believed, I would make that connection. Would be riding the same train as they were. High on the hog. Pals together. Chums.
This was not always the way … I was the man that we all were at one time or another. The man of promise, who cracked the jokes, who had a ticket out of town and knew that he didn’t need the return stub. There’s no need to tell you the name of the town, nor the name of the country. For my story is not uncommon. It is eternal.
Songs have been written about me. The forgotten man, the everyman. Movies have featured me. Back in my home town, anecdotes sprang up around me; they clung to me and suffocated me until I had to get out. I had to cash in my ticket. The ticket we all posess at some point in our lives, our chance to shake the shackles of what created us, to free ourselves of our past. Re-invention, it’s the modern way – it’s the only way of fulfilling dreams. The only way.
So, I left where I came from – I left what I had once been and discovered myself.
In another time, another place.
Martinis and margaritas, pitchers of them. Cartons of Lucky Strikes, handed around like marshmallows at a picnic. Swimming pools and casinos. Parties, stag films, showgirls. Hangovers and cold showers.
It was a movie-lot of a life – the scenery was shifted by hired hands, but the players remained the same. Their names a blur, their faces a blur, but everyone had their part to play. I was to play the unidentified man.
Clean-cut, with a strong jaw, I was perfect. Straight teeth, a full head of hair, I fitted the bill. An even tan, a good wardrobe, an easy smile; I was straight from Central Casting. Which I was – Central Casting took one look at me and cast me in my part. In my role.
– Do you have a tuxedo? The girl had asked, as if it were a requirement for the job. A downpayment on my future. Which it was.
A bit part, a walk-on in a party scene, I had arrived.
They were all there – the factotums and the flunkeys, the yes-men and the easy girls, the pimps and the dealers. They were all there, carving off their slice of the action. Moths to the flame, flying ever closer until some had their wings singed and fell to the ground. Left in the dirt, to be trodden on – thoughtlessly – and forgotten. Just something unpleasant on the sole of a shoe. Gone. In an instant.
And the instant was what we all craved. An instant of recognition. God, how I craved for that moment. For that instant. Of recognition.
You have to understand that I had come from nowhere to somewhere. I had come from nothing and I was close to something. Yet at the same time I was surrounded by other nothings from nowhere, looking to be something in somewhere.
Look at these photographs, look as I leaf through them – through the boxes of them, the albums of them, the loose-leaf folders full of them. What do you see? Do you notice me? No. You do not. You will recognise the blonde girl, who used to be someone. Or you will recognise her. Her, you cannot fail to recognise. She had a fame that was particular, that she has never lost. Properly and for-ever famous.
(I have her telephone number, if you’re interested, but she doesn’t take calls anymore. A bit of a recluse, if you know what I mean. Some say cranky. What the fuck do they know?)
And this bunch? A crazy gang, to be sure. Hell-raisers, liquor-sodden hoodlums whose names are inscribed on tombstones from Cardiff to Hoboken. What a bunch, what a bunch of deadbeats. Mean-spirited, tight-fisted deadbeats. You know what? I spit on their graves.
And this picture? This picture here?
That was my wife.
It was on a jet, a private jet flying into a resort. Just another flight. Just another party. Her face was crumpled, as if she had been to one one party too many. I knew the feeling.
Our eyes met. It is within such seconds that corporations strike deals, that empires fall, that lives are lost. It took a second. It was forever. It was without words.
She was called … I nearly said it, I nearly told you her name – I can never tell you her name. The problem is, I can never tell you what she meant to me. Of course the surface details were there for all to appreciate – the luminous skin; the eyes, the eyes that flashed with menace; her figure that was not the voloptuous norm. All of this and more. The auburn hair, the sound of her voice, the throaty rasp of her laughter.
We married. Were happy. Still, we fulfilled our roles. We were always on the left in the photographs – never together, but still in the same room.
It was no matter that we were the unidentified man and the unidentified woman. We had each other. We had everything.
We had a lustre.
Everyone said so.
It was commented upon. It was noticed.
And we were photographed – for your benefit.
Yes, I shall tell you something about yourself. It is your appetite, your voracious appetite for a fleeting taste of what the lives we led might be like that make you complicit. That, to a certain extent, makes you to blame. You, of course, also have a role to play. But it is clear-cut, there is a demarcation, by definition you are the consumer. These are the rules. That is what you are supposed to do. Consume. Films are shot, songs are recorded, books are written and televison is made for you. This is your lot. You may feel that this is not enough. You may feel that you have invested enough in the act of consumption to be privy to the lives led behind it.
You want to gorge yourself on the details.
And we hate you for it.
You want us to make you forget your existence behind the check-out counter, at a desk in the tax office, behind the wheel of a taxi cab.
Which makes your world somehow more acceptable – more explicable.
After a while the parties became one. It was a job of work for us – to swell the ranks, to keep the make-believe afloat, to keep the dream alive. And we worked at it, while I waited for the call that never came. There had been many calls – I’m not beginning to suggest that I was out of the loop. Those calls, though, were not the call. The call that would identify me, put a name to my face, that would put my name in the credits. I waited for the call.
When the call came – it wasn’t for me.
I handed the telephone across to her, I told her who it was – still, to this day, I cannot bring myself to say his name, nor, come to that, hers – and I left the room. I stood in the garden. Pretended to admire the view. I cannot tell you what I was looking at.
Some time later I went back into the Hollywood bungalow and everything had changed.
Suddenly life had curdled.
It was as if a long-forgotten marker had been called in. A bad debt had come back to haunt us, and it needed paying – it needed honouring. We sat in front of the television that was not turned on. Next to the record player that played no tunes. Beside the drinks trolley that remained untouched. We didn’t speak. We both knew that there was nothing left to say. We had lived the dream at someone else’s expense, now we were being called to account for the chit.
The photographs stop there. There are no more photographs. Well, of course there are more photographs – hundreds of them, thousands of them. But no more photographs with any meaning.
She went to her second marriage. I went to my second career.
Neither would exist without the man who had made the call. Who had waited until he was ready. For my wife. To care for him in his old age. And then he had paid me off. Like a street whore. I accepted his thirty pieces of silver – the fame I had been waiting for.
We are both famous now. You will recognise the both of us. You can put names to our faces. We have everything that we had ever dreamed of.
Except each other.
To each other, we are both dead.
I am no longer the unidentified man. Nor she the unidentified woman.
We are just whores.