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The Carny Contessa (Part II)
By Jonathan B. Ferrini

 
A story about a story. A story about Contessa

Part II

Taller than Most

 

Zondra knew how to cook a steak to perfection. She used a converted oil drum with a grate out back of the bar. No sooner than I was taking my final shot of fresh squeezed orange juice with a tequila chaser, I was startled by what sounded like an Indy car racing its motor outside the bar.

“What the hell is that roar, Zondra?”

“Go outside and see for yourself, writer.

“I’ll see you back here for dinner.

“I cook up some bad ass Fajitas!”

“Good morning, Nathan.

“Jump in and let’s take a ride.”

“Is this street legal, Contessa?”

“So long as you buckle in, dear.”

“This heap resembles a post-apocalyptic death machine from a bad genre film.”

I was buckled into some type of former military, haphazardly retrofitted, dune buggy with a canvas roof, no doors, and large wheels providing enough clearance to scale a skyscraper. Contessa revved the engine, grabbed the stick, and put the evil machine into gear as we tore up the highway heading somewhere into the desert.

“I bought this rig off a failed carny show which limped into town a few years ago.

“We’re fortunate to have a retired master mechanic who worked the racecar circuit living out here.

“He retrofitted this so I can sit comfortably.

“I got an extra jacket packed away along with our lunch Zondra made up.

“It’s equipped with a CB radio, extra gasoline, and emergency rations with water.

“I thought I’d show you some of the magnificent Mojave Desert.”

“The only sand I’m accustomed to is on the beach, Contessa.”

“This rig really is suited for the desert.

“The townsfolk don’t have much to look forward to as a community so I’ll dress this up with lights for the holidays and put on a parade.

“Everybody turns out and it’s a magnificent holiday dinner, potluck style.

“A couple times a year, I’ll invite a school bus with kids from the inner-city who’ve never seen the desert.

“I enjoy loading them up and showing them around.

“I can see the positive effect open space, sun, wind, and blue sky can have upon the kids.

“When do you prefer to write, Nathan?”

“I’m a ‘night owl’ and do my best work late and into the wee hours of the morning.”

“I’m just the opposite.

“It gets too hot in the desert by afternoon so I like to take my journeys in the morning.

“Try a few morning adventures with me.

“You’ll find the sights and sounds to be fertile material for any story.

“Let’s take a drive and let me show you.”

In the days which followed, Contessa and I would ride out into the desert. The story I contemplated became less about “freak shows” and “sex workers” and more about Contessa’s observations concerning life.

We’d return from a day of driving about the desert dusty, sweaty, and cooled off in the pool. We’d meet in the early evening, sit around the pool under the stars, enjoy Sangria and tasty meals whipped up by Zondra who, in my opinion, was capable of opening a joint in Los Angeles with a line around the block!

Maurice and Moana would recount stories about working in the glory days of film alongside film maestros and the makings of a curriculum no film school could provide revealed itself.

I’m going to share entries from the journal I was keeping while embarking upon my journeys with Contessa which provided the “fertile material” Contessa suggested.

“Dried-up Wash”

A flood of water poured through this stretch of desert taking out the highway. It was hard to believe such a force of water could pour through a desert scattering boulders and so much sand in mere minutes leaving behind it’s “signature” the size of an interstate highway.

Contessa remarked, “You can’t tame nature so how can you tame life? Always be prepared for the unexpected, Nathan.”

 

“Empty Well”

We were deep into the desert and came upon a well in the middle of nowhere which once provided sustenance to thirsty travelers.

It looked like a well from an old western with a circular stone wall and a crank handle with a wooden bucket attached to a rope.

It was incomprehensible to me that a deep black hole once filled with water could exist within a desert. I dropped a rock into the blackness and couldn’t hear it hit. It was deep.

I felt ‘light-headed’. Contessa feared I was dehydrated, reached into her well-stocked kit of provisions, and applied a medical grade, tear open, cool compress to my forehead and around my neck.

 

She placed one arm around me and with the other arm held a bottle with a straw to my mouth saying, “Sip, not gulp. Its water infused with electrolytes. The athletic trainers in college insisted we drink it after games.”  

I felt ‘love and compassion’ which had been absent in the vacuous relationships I had with women and like a missile striking a dam, the pent-up emotional trauma of losing my career came flooding out of me. I hadn’t wept so hard since losing a beloved pet as a kid.

Contessa remarked, “I know you’re suffering. I sensed it in your voice when we first talked and saw it in your eyes and clenched jaw during the video call.

“On my first visit to this well, I was alone and the deep, dark well also invoked an emotional release within me. Let it all go, Nathan. Cast your disappointments, self-doubts, and worries about the future into the well.  That’s why we’re here. The empty well teaches us everything, including our tears, dries up sooner or later.”

I sensed she was reflecting upon her one and only love, Maurice. Just a writer’s gut level feeling.

 

“Ghost Town”

I gave up attempting to gauge our location and trusted Contessa’s knowledge of the desert resembling a nomad from the movies.

She drove into a small town with boarded up stores once a vibrant center of commerce to the miners and ranchers calling this home.

The town attracted tourists. Contessa brought a trash bag and began collecting discarded water bottles, beer cans, and food wrappers left behind by inconsiderate visitors.

Contessa said, “Every town can be a ghost town without friends and loved ones”.

I thought about the lonely days and nights spent inside my glorious condo just blocks from the beach.

I don’t feel lonely sitting around a heart-shaped pool outside an old motel in the middle of the desert with Contessa, Zondra, Moana, and Maurice!

This writer despises hackneyed sayings but “Home is where the heart is…” rings true.

 

“Shack”

 

We came upon a wooden shack at the end of a trail. The door was unlocked. I saw discarded newspapers and magazines from decades past. Glass milk bottles and vintage soft drink glass bottles provided memories of my childhood.

It was tiny and about the size of my half bath back home but somebody made due with very little except the sky filled stars, sound of the desert wind whipping about, and solitude provoking thought and reflection.

This beat-up old place is a writer’s remedy for inspiration and pesky creative blocks.

Contessa pointed out the cupboards were filled with provisions stocked by the visitors to the old shack. It shocked me the visitors would be considerate of those seeking shelter or a rest stop from hiking.

Contessa retrieved a new emergency medical kit and case of water from the rig and placed it inside the shack, saying,

“It’s best to leave behind a soft footprint and a hand-up.”

 

“The Tunnel People”

 

We’re heading to Vegas!

Oh, how I need the “action, lights, sites, and sound”.

I’ll treat us to a night in a five-star casino and I suspect Contessa will appreciate a spa treatment.

Contessa had a different standard when visiting Vegas and checked us into adjoining rooms in one of those low budget motel and casinos I’d race by after crossing the Nevada state line.

The casino floor was empty except for a couple of cross-country truckers playing the slots.

The retail stores and restaurants were shuttered having died after enjoying a short-lived celebrity in the seventies.

Contessa insisted we dine at the “Goldbricker” which was the only dining establishment in this bleak dive.

We were greeted by an old waitress who proudly claimed she has been working here since it opened.

Contessa and “Connie” were acquaintances. They hugged.

“What’s the special, tonight, Connie?”

“Country Fried steak, choice of potato and veggie with house salad or my favorite sauteed liver and onions.”

“Bring us one of each, doll. We’ll share.”

I was surprised by the sumptuous taste of the food. The portions were beyond generous and Contessa insisted Connie include the leftovers in a “Doggy Bag”.

I insisted on picking up the tab and remarked, “This must be a mistake! The total is less than twenty bucks!”

I confirmed with Connie the bill was correct. I left her a twenty-dollar cash tip. I couldn’t eat alone for less than twenty dollars back home!

We drove into the “heart” of the Vegas strip. About a block west or east, and we came to an entrance to a storm drain. It was a large storm drain tall enough to just bend over and walk inside.

Somebody had torn away the metal grate screening off the entrance.

Contessa brought the “Doggy Bag” and a box of ready to eat canned food with plastic spoons. Being so tall, she had to crawl inside the dark tunnel.

“Stay outside, Nathan!

“You’ll frighten them.”

I could hear muffled speaking, crying, and a heartfelt connection between those living inside the storm drain and Contessa.

I was worried for Contessa’s safety. What should I do if she doesn’t come out? I’m not going inside. I’ll call “911”.

I can read the headlines now, “Hollywood writer found living inside storm drain reports death of Mojave woman!”

Contessa emerged and dusted herself off.

“When rain floods the strip, the storm drains fills, and many of those poor souls drown!

“Under every bright, shiny, diamond embedded in the ground, you’ll find life worthy of respect and reverence.”

I saw an analogy to the Hollywood “pipeline” filling with unemployed writers drowning without work. At least I had hope unlike these unfortunate people living inside the bowels of Vegas with so much abundance being thrown about while so much misery existed under their feet.

 

Part III

Closing Credits.

 

I found Contessa sitting on a broken-down swing inside the playground rocking gently back and forth turning the final pages to my screenplay. The rusting chains of the swing provided a sound similar to a bow gliding across the strings of a violin out of tune which abruptly stopped when Contessa finished the last page.

The sun had set and we only had the moon to light our faces like a key light on a soundstage covered by twinkling stars and some orchestra out in the wilderness providing a symphony only the desert can muster. I summoned the courage to approach Contessa like I did as a young writer turning in my script to the producer.

“This isn’t what I bargained for, Nathan.”

“I wrote the screenplay to serve as a ‘Cinema verité’ portrayal of a courageous woman.

“It portrays a real-life superhero motivated to make it despite the odds against her.

“Despite a life of bad luck, the ‘Contessa’ of this story always found a way of re-inventing herself and most importantly, leaving behind a ‘soft footprint’.”

“It’s much, much more, dear.

“What I ‘bargained for’ when I hired you was an objective portrayal of my life and you provided me a beautiful epitaph to accompany my photo album.

“Please accept this check representing payment in full for the completed script.”

“Thank you, Contessa.

“It’s time to head back home.”

“To what, Nathan?

“It’s getting chilly so why don’t we go inside the bar and celebrate the completion of the script.”

Flames leapt about the old stone fireplace as if joining our celebration and gifting us with glowing red and yellow wrapping paper warming us as we sipped Hot Toddies.

Maurice thumbed through the script like he had so many times in his career. He remained stone-faced and handed it to Moana who did the same. I knew my words were being consumed by professionals capable of being the harshest of critics.

“Let’s have Contessa read from the script.”

“I’ll feel nervous reading these beautiful words aloud, Maurice.”

“Then read them to yourself, Contessa.

“I recommend you record the reading, darling.

“I have a vintage reel to reel tape recorder with a professional grade microphone stashed away.

“It’s very easy to use and you can stop and start again but I suggest not rewinding.”

“Moana is correct.

“Speak from your heart, Contessa.”

“The recording can be edited, darling.

“I’ll complete the editing with you.”

“Thank you, Moana.”

It was wonderful to see Maurice stepping into the shoes of a director and Moana back working as an editor. I saw happiness radiate from their faces.  They both had in common a work ethic, love for their craft, but for one reason or another, never made it to the ‘big time’. “Taller than Most” would be their reprise and the beneficiary of their brilliant careers.

“I knew somehow, somewhere, my story would be told.

“My life’s journey led me here and to all of you.

“We did it, together.

“A family production.”

During the evenings, we all sat around the pool listening to the recordings. It wasn’t lost on me that I was sitting with giants of cinema. Contessa was speaking about her life without hesitation, regret, or even a single retake. Her words flowed naturally.

Contessa was slowing down and became fatigued earlier and earlier in the day. She’d excuse herself and sleep until we saw her the next morning.

Moana finished editing Contessa’s audio story and we were excited to hear it during a celebratory champagne “Wrap Party” the following night.

That morning, I didn’t hear the audacious roar of Contessa’s desert cruiser.

Without saying a word to anybody, Contessa asked Zondra to assist her in checking into a remote desert hospice run by a retired Native American doc and nurse who were husband and wife. She said her final goodbye to Zondra and asked that nobody visit with her. My gut tells me it was no clinic but an “off the grid” heavenly environment in which to pass over.

When the call came from the doc telling us Contessa had passed, he said compassionately,

“Contessa was not in pain and enjoyed the beauty of the desert surrounding her.

“I can tell you all, Contessa loved you all beyond measure.

“She referred to Nathan as ‘My angel from Hollywood.’

“We scattered her ashes to the desert wind at sunrise.

“When the wind blows, know Contessa has come to say, ‘hello’”.

Zondra was in possession of Contessa’s Last Will and Testament which left The Shady Palms to Maurice, Moana, and Zondra with a caveat that “Nathan shall always be provided accommodations at no cost to him for life.”

There was a one hundred-thousand-dollar life insurance policy which paid out to a trust account to be administered by Zondra for completion of the script into a film.

“As trustee of Contessa’s estate, let’s make a film, folks!”

“A hundred grand won’t go far, Zondra

“We need a camera, film stock, a crew, and postproduction facilities.”

“With me watching every dime, we’ll make a film Contessa would proud of, writer!”

“Actually, Nathan, we can use the beautifully edited audio as a voice over.

“We’ll go back to the sites you toured with Contessa and I’ll shoot each in stunning black and white sixteen-millimeter film stock which will save money.”

“That’s beautiful, Maurice.

“Contessa left a photo album with Zondra.

“I’ll edit the still shots into your film coverage and layover Contessa’s voice.”

“Get off your ass and call your Hollywood contacts who can provide us what we need to make a film, writer!”

“Your drove the point home ‘eloquently’ as usual, Zondra.

“I can rent a sixteen-millimeter camera and purchase film stock from Hollywood suppliers I know.

“Maurice’s recorder and mic simply need a boom and an outdoor mic which is also available from this suppler.

“Round up a crew from around town.

“There one problem, however.

“I don’t know how to get back to those sites.”

“That’s my job as Producer, writer.

“I know all those sites and I can drive that buggy of hers.

“Let’s ‘get this show on the road’.”

We visited “The Shack”, “The Ghost Town”, “Empty Well”, “Dried-up Wash” and the storm drain in Vegas. During each visit, the desert, like a protagonist, showed up with an unpredictable jaw dropping performance.

I reveled in watching Maurice and Moana apply their genius to the directing and editing of the film. It was like “riding a bicycle” for them, never missing a beat, and working together as “one”.

The “dailies” were spectacular even though we projected them onto a white motel room wall. Maurice captured the stunning beauty of the desert like the great American directors of westerns but with a “French” eye.

There was enough money in the budget to send Maurice and Moana to a Hollywood postproduction facility to complete the film and sound editing. They were revered by the production staff requesting autographs.

Moana edited in beautiful photos of Contessa as a kid on a farm, college basketball star, team member of “The Amazonian’s, showgirl, partner to a booky, and a few of her less risqué sex model pictures. Moana included a photo of young Contessa and Marcus arm in arm. It was the final photo of the film wrapping the story like a beautiful gift to the viewer.

Zondra made producers with reputations for being “tight with a dime” look like spendthrifts. She brought the film under budget and used the remaining life insurance proceeds to refurbish the broken-down playground now named, “Contessa’s Carny Land for Children.”

The completed film was a beautiful mosaic with layers of Contessa’s heartfelt words, Maurice’s beautiful photography, and Moana’s artful inclusion of the still photographs. I knew instinctively it was film festival quality. The budget had run out and although we could have submitted the sixteen-millimeter film into a local film festival, the story and production effort deserved a larger canvas.

I used Contessa’s ten-thousand-dollar writers fee to pay the postproduction facility to “blow up” the print to thirty-five millimeters.

The writers’ strike, my firing, and meeting Contessa allowed me to step out of the writing grind I spent my life inside. I wrote from the heart about somebody I admired and cared for. The story wrote itself!

“Taller than Most” was accepted into the “Desert Film Festival” and received rave reviews. Maurice and Moana’s film credits didn’t go unnoticed to a new generation of filmgoers.

We were notified it was nominated as a “Finalist”.

“Taller than Most” received attention from all over the world. Interestingly, much of the interest came from budding filmmakers seeking “Master Classes” with the filmmakers. We formed “The Desert Film Academy” with courses we’d teach in motel rooms converted into classrooms with enough motel rooms left over to convert into dorm room accommodations for the students.

My bankruptcy was discharged and I was ordered to sell the condo providing me enough equity to live off and the credit card debt was cancelled. I’ve been ordered to surrender the leased car. It was difficult filing Bankruptcy but my attorney replied,

“It’s a fresh start.

“Use it, move forward, and don’t look back!”

I need a “fresh start”. I’ll let go of my past and stay on here as a writing instructor. They can have all my material possessions because they can never take away the friendships I forged here.

 

I learned from Contessa, life is about ups and downs and how you manoeuvre both. In defeat, one finds hope and opportunity. Yeah, I’ve known many who couldn’t manage being “on top of the world” and crashed. It’s not really about success or failure. It’s about riding out the downturns and leaving behind a “soft footprint” as Contessa said.

My girlfriend and agent both phoned me upon hearing about my writing credit on the film. Like sharks, they smelled “fresh blood” in the water. Fortunately, I live in a desert.

 

“Taller than Most”

Grand Prize Winner

The Desert Film Festival

Image by Thomas Griggs

Jonathan Ferrini is a published author of over seventy fiction stories and poems. A partial collection of his stories have been published within "Hearts Without Sleeves. Twenty-Two Stories" and is available at Amazon. Jonathan received his MFA from UCLA in motion picture and television production. He resides in San Diego, California.

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