A Pass on the Tabouli
I came to Astoria to make it in pictures. I was the Indiana Pork
by Rob Hunter
“Don’t tell me. Kim, right?”
Errol Flynn reclined in a lavender-scented bath and extended a tanned hero’s arm to make a fist. He suspected the studio had kept him stuffed with hormones and cloned organs for the last seventy-five years all for this one last remake. How many Kims had it been? Damned Kipling. He heard dry gears grind down the corridors of time as the British Empire spun in its grave. Kipling—Flynn wondered if camels gave him hemorrhoids, too. Perfumed bubbles danced with tiny golden flecks as he tightened his triceps. “Look at that sucker bounce,” said Errol Flynn, lost in the poetry of the moment. His flexing fingers closed around a squeeze bottle of shampoo. He squeezed. Quarnk!
And now a musical version. He sank under the suds; a guy deserved a break, not an aria. “And Valentino! I never guessed that SOB had eyes for my script.” One last Kim. Flynn wished he had read the fine print on the resurrection form. “My life...” said Flynn. He throttled the shampoo in a strangler’s grip. A miniature globe of refracted rainbows swelled and popped. “...then, arrivederci Errol.”
Quarnk! said the shampoo.
A scramble from the adjacent guesthouse.
“The loofa. My back.” Not having his option picked up would be tantamount to a death sentence. And if Valentino got the nod... Well, it was too late now. A musical. Well, desperate situations called for desperate measures. “Kato, do we have any of that home-brew tabouli of yours left in the fridge?”
Flynn’s semi-permanent house guest crossed himself. “Cat ate it. I was saving it.”
“To long, boss; cat died.”
“Any left?” The doings of tabouli past its prime were legend.
“Some—for emergencies. I tossed most of it. Those dumpster pickers from the studio commissary made off with it. The tabouli, not the frozen cat.”
“What was the cat doing in the refrigerator anyway?”
“Pack it up. La-la-la-la-la-la-la,” Flynn vocalized. The faithful Kato dropped the loofa and, hands over his ears, fled to the shelter of his daytime dramas. There was that eye-catching secretary in Creative... a well-planned hustle could keep him from having to take voice lessons just to hang on to his puny life.
Quarnk! said the shampoo. Quarnk! Quarnk!
Marcia Harding struggled out of her employer’s office, hastily pulling her slip down to cover her knees. A man was waiting at her desk. She recognized him from the studio commissary that morning; he had morsels of pepper and chopped tomato in his moustache: the tabouli salad guy.
“That Harry Bartlemy is such a reptile,” said Marcia. A crunch of discomfited furniture and the massive flailing of varanus komodoensis, the world’s largest lizard, issued from the room she had just exited. Marcia Harding did not suspect she had recently acquired unusual powers.
“You are lovelier than a kafila of fat camels...” said the tabouli salad guy.
“Well...” Marcia primped. “That’s a new line.”
“I am of the Ghilji. We rule the roof of the world,” said the handsome stranger as he extracted a sprig of parsley from his beard. “There is an Afghan adage: ‘Do you have an enemy? I have a cousin.’“
“I don’t have any cousins. But I have a boss who’s always trying to get into my pants.”
“And who is to blame him,” said Errol Flynn as Mahbub Ali, gallantly. “You are the same size?”
Marcia shrugged and flashed her visitor a smile of frank innocence. “He finds me irresistible. I had to give him a rap with Douglas Fairbanks’ silver-headed Malacca walking stick. Now he’s going to be crabby all afternoon. He’s a lizard or something.” The tabouli salad guy’s beard was trimmed, perfumed, oiled and plaited with ribbons; he was ogling her. Marcia gave her pantyhose an upward yank. “Yes?” she asked.
“Ah, well... Hmm, yeess,” said Errol Flynn.
“I’m sorry. You will have to do better than simply ‘Yes.’“ Marcia turned to check the file drawer where she hoped there was a fresh change of underwear. “You will have to state your business.” From Harry Bartlemy’s office came the crash of Venetian blinds being rent asunder. A dog yelped.
“Your boss seems to be having a fit in there,” said Errol/Mahbub.
“Ignore him; he just wants attention. And welcome to show business by the way,” said Marcia, giving her pantyhose a final adjustment and flourishing a steno pad. “The store is open. Name, please?”
“Mahbub Ali,” said Errol Flynn. “I am an Afghan swashbuckler, a camel trader? Here to audition?” On her desk he plomped an overlarge floral horseshoe and a basket of figs and loquats. Errol/Mahbub scratched privately in his red pajamas. Probably fleas, damned camels. “I love you. I am sincere in this,” he said, getting right to the business at hand.
Hmm, thought Marcia, a studio romance could be in the offing. She had read about these in Modern Screen. She riffled unobtrusively through her Week-at-a-Glance. April was open. “I am not easy. I want you to know this right off.”
A dot sprang from Mahbub-A-Flynn’s beard to the tip of Marcia’s nose. “Flea,” said Flynn. “Their copulations can take up to nine hours. This is a proven scientific fact.”
“Wow.” Marcia’s eyes crossed. The dot sprang back to the beard. Marcia’s eyes uncrossed. Errol/Mahbub hooked a chair with one toe, pulled it over and flopped untidily with his feet on her desk.
From Bartlemy’s locked office came a noisy reptilian skulking and the whimper of a frightened poodle. The door splintered and sagged open. Bartlemy strode through, somewhat rumpled but otherwise none the worse for wear. He was preceded by a miniature poodle which sported a diamond-encrusted collar.
“You know what’s funny—I thought I was an oversized Komodo dragon for a while there,” said Bartlemy. “I took a Quaalude and it went away. Marcia, I have reserved us a table at Twenty-One...” Bartlemy’s face went ashen. “You, sir,” he held an accusatory finger under Mahbub Ali’s nose. “Have you been carrying on with my secretary?” The poodle growled.
Thump. Thump. Errol Flynn swung his two tasseled boots to the floor. “Yeah?” He leveled a ferocious glare at the poodle. A squadron of bouncing black specs sprang from the Afghan swashbuckler’s beard and launched themselves at the poodle. The poodle whined and slunk between Bartlemy’s legs. “Oh, yeah?”
“Hmmph!” uttered Bartlemy, beating an undignified retreat.
Marcia’s eyes glowed with admiration. “Neat trick—the fleas I mean. You do look like Errol Flynn, you know?” She picked through the fruit basket. “But if you want to get to the head of the list you’ll have to better than figs and loquats,” said Marcia Harding. “They will most likely be casting Rudolph Valentino this time,” said Marcia. “It’s a musical.”
“Valentino. Ha!” Flynn/Ali struck a pose and rolled his eyes to the limits of their outer periphery to observe the young woman’s reaction to this statement. “He can’t carry a tune in a polder dam. Or so they say. C’mere.” He pulled her close and covered her décolletage with an onslaught of passionate kisses. Marcia noticed the felt-booted mountain tribesman’s breath smelled fresh as new-mown hay with an overtone of parsley.
“By-the-bye,” said Flynn/Ali when they paused for a gulp of air, “what’s a choice cupcake such as yourself doing working for Harry Bartlemy, a notorious philanderer?” He munched on a fig.
“I came to Astoria to make it in pictures. I was the Indiana Pork Queen.”
Time squirms, a worm in Eternity sent to mortify our flesh as it eats its own tail, a nasty habit, and, mirabile dictu, we have a flashback, one of those anomalies with which all the best stories abound. On this very day except earlier, togged out as an Afghani seller of used camels, Errol Flynn had crept up on Marcia Harding in the buffet line of the studio commissary. At stake was enhanced preferment on the casting list, hence his continued existence. Unassisted, Kato’s home-brew tabouli might not be up to the task.
“It’s off,” said the tall bearded man at Marcia’s elbow. He wore red silk pajamas and a karakul hat. “...the tabouli salad. Those who would partake of it should beware of unforeseen circumstances.” The Astoria Studio’s salad bar was notorious for the disreputable state of its greens.
Marcia turned to confront the accuser of her salad choice. “You auditioning?” Marcia could not recall the studio having a mid-budget action picture in the works. “And if the tabouli salad is off, how come you are eating it?”
“I eat it every day and have acquired an immunity,” said Flynn. Odors of patchouli and sandalwood wafted from his oiled beard. “It is a well-known scientific fact that, under the influence of tainted tabouli, one’s merest utterance tends to become unruly reality.” He emptied a table with a swift arc of his sword arm. A snappily dressed busboy hurried up to clear. “Have a seat.” He graciously held Marcia’s chair and tucked a napkin under her chin. “As you are obviously naive in matters of imported condiments, it is time for a little backstory. This is common knowledge but there might be someone who needs filling in.” He eyed her lap lasciviously.
Marcia crossed her legs and leaned across the table. She spoke in hushed, intimate tones. “Okay. Astoria, Queens is the movie capital of the world. We weekend on the Jersey shore. There is eternal life, almost, for stars who get their resurrectioning options renewed. Everybody knows that.”
“If they had found gold instead of coal in California things might have been otherwise,” said Errol/Mahbub-Ali/Flynn. “The cattle trains west are packed with bit players sent to die in the mines.”
“I have heard the tales, but I never believed them.” Marcia’s clear blue eyes crossed in contemplation. “Well, they did fail their screen tests. But California, unthinkable!”
“A living hell, the mines. Nonetheless, whatever the human cost, cheap power from cut-rate coal has enabled our factories to run twenty-four hours a day, thus keeping impoverished children off the streets.”
“You have a lovely speaking voice,” said the beguiling Marcia. “Are you afraid of the talkies?”
“No, darling. Of the musicals. I can’t carry a tune in a bindlestiff.”
But that, as they say, was that morning. In the meantime, in-between time, the tainted tabouli had had leave to work its insidious ways with Marcia Harding.
Mahbub Ali the camel salesman, one-time Errol Flynn, and Marcia Harding, quondam Indiana Pork Queen, were entwined on her desk, between the Week-at-a-Glance and a cup of freshly sharpened pencils. Harry Bartlemy, Vice President for Creative, chose that moment to leave his inner sanctum.
“He’s a bit of a jack-in-the-box, our Harry,” said Errol/Mahbub, hastily restringing his red silk pajamas.
“Careful,” said Marcia as she shimmied into a fresh set of knickers.
“Well!” said Bartlemy. “So that’s how things are. I had plans for us, Marcia; we could have made beautiful music together.”
Mahbub Ali leaned close to Marcia’s ear and whispered, “Gary Cooper to Madeleine Carroll, The General Died at Dawn, 1936. Bartlemy is plagiarizing.”
“Ohhh...” Marcia Harding frowned, an endearing petulance. Mahbub Ali took a nip at her ear.
“Ohhh!” said Marcia.
“Phooey,” said Bartlemy. Giving the poodle’s leash a yank, he retreated to the sanctuary of his sanctum, slamming the door behind him.
“That Harry Bartlemy is such a snake,” said Marcia Harding. The words had scarcely escaped her lips before Bartlemy’s poodle gave a strangled yelp and was silent.
The splintered door creaked open and a giant python thrust its head into Marcia’s cubicle. “Damned doorknobs,” said the snake as it spat out a broken tooth. “Call the carpenters. Get ‘em changed to over to handles. After that, you’re fired.” Mustering as much dignity as herpetologically possible, the python gave an all-over wriggle and retraced its path back into Bartlemy’s chamber. “Close the door, please. Sorry about the poodle. Instinct.”
“I need some air,” said Marcia.
Marcia and Mahbub Ali passed from the cloistered compound that held the Creative bungalows and out into the drizzle of a Queens springtime. Deep-bosomed odalisques from the court of the Sun King paused to peer through lorgnettes. Cowboys, Indians, Mongols, Huns and Romans, the usual crowd, strolled by.
“I must have developed a thingy—a curse—from the tainted tabouli.” Marcia was inconsolable.
“You, you, you. What about me? I’ve got to learn how to sing or I’m yesterday’s camembert. A nobody,” said Errol Flynn/Mahbub Ali. “And a dead nobody at that. So what if you have turned a vice president of Creative into a giant python; get over it. You’re young; you’ve got time.”
A handsome woman of indeterminate age stood nearby sucking on a Dove bar. Her ice cream treat had a thick Swiss white chocolate coating. She was not in a good humor.
“Who is that?”
“Shhh. It’s Gloria Swanson. Valentino dumped her for that big Swede, Amy Lopsin. Hiya, Gloria.” The woman chucked her ice cream into a trash barrel and sauntered over. The aging star, now 108 years old, didn’t look a day over 30. Albeit stooped with many contract negotiations, she still had a hit-your-brakes figure. She wore a diaphanous wrap draped with ropes of pearls.
Gloria squinted at Mahbub Ali. “Don’t tell me. Kim, right? Not a chance. Rudy’s going for it.”
“Rudy?” asked Marcia.
“Valentino, you delirious ingénue.”
Marcia wondered if her feelings should be hurt. She decided not. “I came to Astoria to make my way in the world of the movies. I was the Indiana Pork Queen.”
“High hopes,” Gloria was reflective. “I had high hopes, too, my dear. Of course my high hopes were realized.” Marcia nodded sadly. Studio magpies gathered at the trash barrel where they pecked at Gloria’s abandoned ice cream. “Yesterday’s goodies,” said Gloria, referring to the Dove bar. “Rudy has a marvelous singing voice; he’s taking lessons. We are the best of friends.”
“What? Where?” said Errol Flynn.
“The thirty-seventh remake of Kim. Rudy is up for the role of the Afghan camel trader. With his gifts, he’s a shoo-in. Italians,” said Gloria slyly, “they get it with their mothers’ milk. Music, that is. Errol Flynn doesn’t stand a chance.”
“I mean where does he get his singing lessons?”
“Oh, that’s a secret. He slips away every afternoon. He dumped me for that big Swede, but I still love him.” She touched Marcia, who had a faraway look in her eyes, gently on the shoulder. “You didn’t eat the tabouli salad, did you, dear?”
“You are beautiful,” said Marcia Harding.
“20 resurrectionings, darlings.” A man galloped past on a heavily lathered horse and, seeing Gloria, Mahbub Ali and Marcia closeted in deep conversation, negotiated a hazardous U-turn. “Ahh, here comes the phallic cathedral himself,” said Gloria. Hooves flailed the air as the rider stood his mount on its hindquarters. “Still a hunk, that Rudy. And most of him is the original equipment, if you catch my drift.” Valentino braked to a stop before them. Sally, the stallion, scattered the magpies and went nose deep in the trash barrel for Gloria’s discarded ice cream. Sally, a tractable mare of many summers, had been retrofitted for long shots; the Paramount executive was not about to put at risk the life and limb of its marquee property. Sally whinnied and rolled her eyes.
“Lo, Gloria, how they hanging?” bantered Valentino. “Can’t stop to pass the time of day; I’m on the Quest. For the River that whoso bathes in it washes away all taint and speckle of sin.’ I have read the Book,” said Valentino.
“He’s been researching the backstory for Kim,” Gloria sighed as she took the good-looking Valentino’s measure from withers to fetlock.
“Ah, the River,” said Mahbub Ali. “What river?”
“Whatever,” said Valentino. “Who’s the cupcake?” He pointedly turned from Mahbub Ali and nodded to Marcia. “How do?”
“Rudy...” said Gloria.
“Gotta go,” said Rudy. At that, he dug his heels into Sally’s flanks and charged off toward the Queensboro Bridge.
“The chase is on,” sighed Gloria Swanson, “the mad, impetuous boy.”“I thought Valentino was slipping away for a singing lesson.” said Errol Flynn.
“He is. He’s trying to throw us off the track.” Gloria Swanson put two fingers into her mouth and gave out with an ear-splitting whistle. “Taxi!” A Checker, one of the five-seaters, screeched to a halt. Gloria gestured Marcia to a jump seat. “Your handsome Arab and I have to talk.”
“Afghani,” said Mahbub Ali. “From Kim? Kipling?”
The ancient actress rapped at the partition to attract the cabbie’s attention. “Turn left when we hit Manhattan.” She snuggled closer. “I’ve never kippled. Tell me.” Her hand was on Mahbub Ali’s thigh.
In their wake, a large snake followed as they bounced over the Queensboro Bridge.
“Nonononono. Left, not right. We’re not going to the Carlyle,” Gloria shouted. “The off ramp. Right?”
“You said left, lady.”
“Well, yes,” said Gloria Swanson as the cab veered across two lines of traffic, Sadiki bin Amin, the cab driver, being of headstrong temperament. “Now turn left. Under the bridge. See, it’s easy.” She settled back into the vinyl upholstery as Marcia relaxed her grip on the jump seat.
“Hang on” said Sadiki. “This is totally cool. I knew the lights on Broadway timed out, but this is my first crack at York Avenue.” They galloped hell-for-leather through the byways of the Manhattan’s East Side. Or Sally galloped; Errol/Mahbub-Ali/Flynn, Gloria Swanson and Marcia Harding careened and wobbled. The cab veered and swerved as they hurtled diagonally through a gas station.
“Incidentally,” said Sadiki, “there is a giant snake right behind us and he’s gaining. Yours?”
Three heads shook an emphatic No.
“Ayee!” cried Sadiki bin Amin, his eyes riveted on the rearview mirror. The pursuing python had picked up enough time to pause under the self-serve canopy and give the hi-test pump a loving squeeze. The three passengers turned to look as a pillar of flame engulfed the former gasoline station. The python was still in hot pursuit.
“That is one fucking big snake,” said Sadiki, revealing the depth of his assimilation, Oriental roots notwithstanding.
“It’s only Marcia’s ex-boss,” said Mahbub Ali. “He’s harmless if you’re not a poodle.”
Sally, the stallion, put on a burst of speed. Eyes wide with panic, she regretted the Dove bar and its excess calories. Valentino’s mount felt the python viewed her as dinner, a not unreasonable supposition. Ahead of the careering cab, the departing leading man clung desperately to the neck of his mount as he flailed at her flanks with his heels. “To expound the Most Excellent Way is good,” he shouted over his shoulder at his pursuers.
“That’s in the book,” said Sadiki bin Amin.
“God’s curse on all unbelievers!” said Errol Flynn as Mahbub Ali.
“Not that Book. Kim, by Kipling. I have been boning up on the backstory,” said Sadiki. “This is a prerequisite for a hack license in New York City.”
“Then Rudy’s white stallion was foreordained.” Gloria Swanson blanched.
“No, only retrofitted,” said Sadiki. “The mysteries of the East: inscrutable, insurmountable.”
“Who would have guessed?” Marcia Harding’s eyebrows curled into twin question marks. “Perhaps... then if we all read the book...?”
“We’d know how things come out but this would then be Kipling’s tale, not ours. We have our own destinies to whittle from the twig of Creation,” said Sadiki bin Amin.
Gloria rapped on the partition, “Take the 72nd Street Transverse. Rudy is making for the bridle path.” A missile flew through the air to collide with Sadiki’s windshield.
“He’s throwing rocks,” exclaimed the cabbie.
“It’s a dildo. Polyurethane.” Mahbub Ali gestured to the windshield. “See, no ding in the glass. Sonofabitch, who woulda guessed.”
“Precisely,” said Gloria Swanson. “But it’s not Rudy’s; it’s the horse’s.”
“The pedigree of the white stallion is fully established,” exclaimed the cabbie, quoting Kipling.
“Oops.” The three were knocked to the floor by one of Sadiki bin Amin’s impromptu detours.
“Sorry about that. He’s headed downtown.”
“We knew that,” replied Marcia, Gloria and Mahbub Ali in unison.
“I heard you say ‘voice lessons,’” said the cabbie. “Well, downtown you want the Kit-Kat Klub on Hudson Street; Kenny the piano player tutors solfeggio.”
“The twenty-first century is truly a panoply of marvels,” said Marcia Harding. “Consider the cinema: first the talkies, and now piano players that perform solfeggio.”
“A refugee, this Kenny escaped a contract labor gang in the California coal fields,” said Sadiki bin Amin. “This is a well-reported fact within the cinematic underground.”
The seekers, now a quartette with the avid involvement of Sadiki, rounded a tight-angle switchback onto Varick Street where the taxi skidded and took out the front of a lingerie boutique. A tinkle of broken glass punctuated the sudden silence. The Checker’s radiator steamed and sputtered in the garish light of a flashing neon sign. It said Kit-Kat Klub.
“Let’s check it out. Wait for us.” Gloria Swanson slipped the cabbie a twenty. Sadiki salaamed as the three entered the bistro on unsteady legs. An enormous python was wrapped around the jukebox.
“Hiya, Harry. Got here first, I see,” said Marcia Harding. The snake hissed.
“A Rock-O-La, good taste,” observed Gloria.
A slippery-looking youngish man wearing a fez appeared from behind a beaded curtain. “Who seeks Kenny?” He rubbed his hands together nervously, an unappealing sight. From behind the curtain came the sound of a man practicing scales.
“Mahbub Ali the camel trader, if you are Kenny,” said Errol Flynn.
“La-la-la-la-la-la-la,” vocalized the hidden man.
“Rudy, put a sock in it,” shouted Kenny over his shoulder. “The curse has come home. We got a big snake, a babe, a middle-eastern type in red pajamas and some old trout with a ton of pearls.”
“Ahh, company,” said Valentino. The beaded curtain parted and he strode into the room. “Welcome to our little soirée, Gloria. You brought friends, then?”
“They brought the curse, Rudy,” said Kenny. “Smell it? They have a cab waiting.”
“So, they hope to return. Ha-ha-ha.” Valentino’s superbly sculpted nostrils flared. “Tabouli salad!” He slapped at his gaiters with a riding crop. “It’s off. Not from the commissary?”
“Rudy...” Gloria Swanson wrung her great ropes of pearls in supplication. “I love you.” She threw herself at his neck, then slid to the floor where she lay clutching at her former lover’s gleaming gaiters.
“Oh, Gloria, Gloria. Unattractive,” said Valentino as he smoothed his jodhpurs. “Besides, the python may mistake you for a goat.” He bent to lift her and, as they embraced, their eyes met and held for one electric moment. Valentino stroked her hair as he gently kissed her eyelids. “Sorry about the Amy thing, Gloria. But she was so much younger.”
“You wouldn’t rather have experience?”
Valentino’s almond eyes misted over. “Well, now that you mention it...”
Gloria Swanson threw herself into Valentino’s arms, “Rudy...”
“That dildo? It was the horse’s...?”
“I have a spare.”
As Sadiki bin Amin’s taxi rattled away toward the Queens Midtown Tunnel, Mahbub Ali and Marcia leaned back into the forgiving upholstery. “Alas, we are now both addicted to the cursed compote,” said Mahbub Ali. “If we stay in New York it will be the coal fields for us. This is Kismet, my hibiscus flower.” The Afghan camel seller groomed his beard and, as he reached for Marcia Harding, made a quick appraisal of his career options. Valentino did have one hell of a voice.
“So you’re really Errol Flynn? Really?” Marcia went walleyed with wonderment.
“In another life, perhaps. I am now Mahbub Ali the camel trader, and your humble slave. Come away with me, my sweet potato pie, and live on mutton and babaganouj. The liner Empress of Luxembourg steams to Afghanistan this very week. Screw Kim. We shall travel to where the mountains touch the sky and the tabouli salad is always fresh.”
Behind them, inside the Kit-Kat Klub, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino took a respite from yet another torrid embrace.
“Sadly, there is no known antidote for tainted tabouli.” Valentino gestured toward Harry Bartlemy the python who, become peckish, had wrapped his scaly flesh around the Rock-O-La in a spiral of death. “Or its collateral damage. Sorry, buddy, you are cursed for all eternity.”
There was a mighty crunch and the strains of “La Vendetta” from Le Nozze di Figaro came stuttering from the jukebox. “Tough darts, fella,” said Valentino. “An encore is still gonna cost you two bits.” Uncoiling his gaucho’s black oxhide whip, Valentino drove the serpent from the Kit-Kat Klub and into the drizzling Manhattan April.
copyright 2006, 2015 Rob Hunter
A Pass on the Tabouli was first published in the Hiss Quarterly, Spring 2006: the Future Imperfect issue.