by Bodwyn Wook
THE Actress Zebra Storm found herself to be in a high state of mental inapposition indeed, high in her topmost-perch atop Central Park above the pigeons and the rusty crows; and, she perfectly realised that her condition was because she was, well, nonplussed — an unusual emotion. Still, she had known always from the days of her first studio-contract that the codicil was there in the fine print; and, just as had all recording- and performing-artists ever who got beyond a certain career-point she too had signed:
‘TO The full extent of its proprietary-rights in any individual enterprise of entertainment the Pleiades Institute, a limited partnership chartered under the Bermudan Commercial Code and the relevant statutes of the Swiss Confederation and Free Luna Ltd and hereinafter referred to as “the Institute”, asserts the obligation of the undersigned, a contracting employee of the relevant enterprise(s) of entertainment herein-specified, to perform on demand in such opuses as the Institute may deem necessary in the aid of the public business both terrene and extra-terrestrial and to be undertaken through its proprietary subsidiaries at such time(s) as the Institutional Authority shall deem appropriate. The undersigned agrees that if and when their professional services may be required they shall be compensated at a level to exceed by twenty-three (23) per cent, and no less than twenty-three (23) per cent, and no more than twenty-three (23) per cent, their established total life-time income from all sources net, present and prior, accrued and actual, up to and at the date of service required and said increment to proceed from said date whensoever the undersigned may be enjoined per and within the terms of this instrument….’
THESE Were certainly generous ‘terms’, Zebra mused, especially since the document went on to assert there would be no penalty for a refusal to comply; only then she should be required to give up (!) her career thenceforth and any (and ALL?) public appearances thereafter, including any interviews, broadcasts, lectures. And, no books to be written on any subject — and NO autobiography.
The reason for such a categorical removal from any and all public life — politics and academe were included, or rather excluded, although one could still go shopping and to the market — was a mystery to most of Hollywood. As it was to Broadway, Bollywood and Nollywood, all the world over. Privately Zebra had no doubt that SHE would in any case write huge posthumous memoirs, lots of them too; and, some as scathing as could be! Publicly, the Institute was perceived as a benevolent NGO that superintended mainly the food-production and medical- and educational-needs of the world’s poor. That all was sentimental enough, appropriate as well; and, Zebra pondered that of course no one prominent in entertainment had ever declined to sign the agreement. Probably this was as much because the old UN was now a fact of history; and, for a fact, the poor of the world were getting more aid from the Institute than ever they had done before national borders had begun all over to disappear, and gaean corporations to take over. It had been called by the generally-lefty players (back when she, Zebra, was a young player hoofing it out long ago with such horrid little personalities as the La Mehmeh on the boards above the bowling-alley in Savannah) the ‘Geldoff-clause’. It applied to all; and, Zebra seemed to recall that a motor-court pregnancy-singer girl called Jitney Spikes, long since disappeared — why might that be? Zebra wondered suddenly — had talked laughingly about the ‘stretchmark-clause’ on long-ago talk-shows hosted by late-night leering cadavers of the old-time 1946-64 ‘baby boom’ generation….
Only the Institute were calling on HER now, Zebra Storm — and this was really the big-time, too!
Heavens’ sake why not? It was exciting to feel just as one had done so long since, when one had sung one’s absolutely very first scared-stiff-and-trembley role on Broadway — only then utterly to have bowled over completely EVERY critic in the street!
Still there were rumours; and, Zebra wondered:
What was the truth of the old story, for instance, that Hepburn in her day in the end had refused the Institute? Could it have been? only for reasons of old age and a wise withdrawal from the world? How really wise? might that wonderful and witty old woman have been, truly, to refuse the Institute — if in fact she had done?
It all came down to the essential mysteriousness of the Institute and its purposes. Zebra — unlike nine-ninths of her peers — was a reader and a thinker; certainly, she knew to herself that such lingo as ‘meeting human needs’ and ‘a better future’ was all codswallop and hogwash — ‘bullshit!’ as people had said in the Middle West, when Zebra was young. For one thing the world’s energy — even from so-called renewable sources — was about played out. And, for the rest, people were becoming under conditions of population-pressure more riotous, more violent, more confused and thronging. The scientists (most of whom were rumoured also to have had to sign-on with the tentacular Institute) were largely quiet these days — being kept quiet it was thought — but it was said fearfully in corners that nowhere in the world now was there on hand for instance more than three months’ supply of food ahead of to-day’s need.
People, when they talked about this at all, seemed generally to feel that most of all a truly great leader was needed, and more than ever now that islam was done for and the pope had sold the Vatican to a tuberculosis research-institute and rejuvenation-clinic for Institute Seniors. More than ever one transcendant figure was needed, one to unite all humanity; and, that very possibly in the service of a widely-touted determined mass-migration at last to the newly-terraforming Mars. The actual progress in that project of the Institute was hush-hush though, more-than-somewhat; and, cynics said, it was a matter doubtless of some other abyss at hand, perhaps of inveigling the billions aboard the rockets and then firing them all off — into the Sun. Though others contended it were more practical to revive some sort of volcano-religion, the transportation-costs being thereby far the less….
What a lot of questions, Zebra thought for the thousandth time, these thorny problems of — interpretation.
But what a role! Zebra mused again to herself, turning from the balustrade over the night-time city and the intermittent rolling sparkle of glow-worm gun-fire in far-below streets, walking indoors and tossing the fat bundle of documents onto a crystal table-top.
After all, after fifteen Academy awards; after seven marriages and divorces (after each of which she had returned always for a time to her faithful Reuben); and, after this eighth and gladdest, final, marriage — at last to Reuben! — why not?
And, anyway, after eighteen months of rows the stubborn institutional devils had agreed at last to her final and irrevocable demand as well; so that now she, Zebra, could agree in the end, and did:
Ms Zebra Storm did bend gracefully and there right before all the throng of absolutely silent witnesses from the stratospheric world, with head bent forward read to herself through whispery soft lips the glad words one last time:
King-Emperor of Earth & All The Worlds, signed ‘Reuben Doig’. He was a February baby and as usual he had omitted the middle ‘Lewis’ which he did not like. But this was October and costume-time and so too finally, with a suave gesture she then signed HER name:
ZEBRA Storm, Priestess-Empress & Queen of the Sun, Moon and Stars, Goddess.
THERE Beside the newly typed-in and signed-already space for her beloved Reuben, right there she signed — and, the muted but prolonged, that very susurrant, rustling together of many and finely-manicured, soft, hands afterward lifted as it always did her happy heart.
Taking thought with head modestly cast down before her audience as a servitor took from her hand the glittering emerald nib with a murmurous ‘pray allow me, Your Effulgency’ to lay it on the table with a stealthy tick, and as the quiet applause ebbed and flowed for five full minutes, Zebra ruffled the fur of her little black cat from Greater Iowa, Karma, the companion of her childhood — thank! the Good Goddess for rejuv! — who now was sprawled indolently at the edge of the transparent table, purring, flopping catsomely — about to fall off the edge….
Shoving Karma safely back, all at once, stooping quickly, seizing up again the platinum pen, Zebra dipped lilac ink once more and added to the text now on her strong knees, tongue-tip still and mouse-like peeping from out the space between parted teeth and lips as she drew air and the carefully flowing words, writing in the narrow providential space overlooked till now between superscription and her signature, all intent in one single slow expiring breath as the little girl she had been back in second grade in haunted old Terre de Bleu City (with Karma weaving cobwebby all through the hallowe’en neighbourhood under rotting mansard rooves) and just as though her life depended, writing:
‘AND NO guillotines!’
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 10 August 2006]