This is a short story I’ve been working out for a contest with McSweeney’s. Derived from one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notebook entries, it has gone from ‘A Prince goes to Hollywood and is stuck only playing Princes…” to what follows. I am also working on a novel treatment based on this story.
Prince Adnan Saarim Al Djesu – Sheik of the Persian Empire and son of the Shah of Kehran – stared intently at the dark, aqualine features of the reflection in the mirror. He gazed deep into the coal-black eyes that gave him the exotic intensity that had brought him to acclaim in Hollywood. The dark eyes were rimmed with red, the whites now an exhausted pink. Hard rivulets of sweat rode the strong brow and high cheekbones that had made a million women swoon.
There was a weariness in that face, one that spoke of too many long nights and hard days. Every line in that face told a story. Too many years watching the atrocities of his Father. Years spent fighting in trenches of mud and brambles of wire. Watching too many men die horribly. Watching his Mother murdered at his Father’s command. These were the memories that chased him in the night, made him turn to drink, to opium, to the comfort of women.
The Prince reached into an inside vest pocket and produced a small silver flask. He drank deep, shuddering at the harsh bathtub gin as it ran down his throat and into his belly. The fire of the liquor shot through his body and gave him a jolt of energy he had not expected. He threw his head back, ululating loudly and flung his cashmere coat around his shoulders as he exited the bathroom into the shambles of his once-luxurious apartment. Clothes and bottles covered the floor, the silk drapes had been torn asunder, and someone had overturned two large vases and the pedestals that had held them. A ficus plant had been uprooted from its pot and left piled in the center of the marble floor, a centerpiece from the previous night’s bacchanal. The Prince set his Homburg atop his head, adjusted his lapels and stepped over the heap of soil and plant matter, pausing to drape his jacket over the prostrate form of a young woman passed out near the doorway.
Emerging from the front door of the hotel, Prince Adnan removed his hat and lifted his eyes to the azure sky. The smells of home and the comfort of the Sea came to him as he raised his face to the hot morning sun, eyes closed, jaw strong and resolute. For one solitary moment he was a boy again, laughing and dancing in the surf of the white beaches of Kehran, his Mother watching silently from her chair in the shade.
It had been several hours since Adnan had tasted opium and, after the stiff brace of rotgut, he was beginning to feel his thoughts clearing. Combined with the clean ocean breeze and the morning sun, he began to feel thoroughly resolved in his decision to force the situation with the Studio. Elgin Cromberg, the fat Austrian, refusing him work yet refusing to release his contract. All for having slept with a new face before Cromberg could get his own fleshy hands on her skin. He walked to the Rolls Royce idling next to the squat stone building, settled into the backseat and waved the driver off toward his certain destiny.
“Just like a lousy Arab. You dope-addled dewdropper! What do you mean by coming in here and making a fool of me?! Do you have any idea who you are talking to? I buy and sell trash like you. I made you! I remember when you came to me, begging for a job cleaning toilets! Half-wit Migrant cherry picker! I took pity, put you in a picture because that Swanson whore thought you had looks!”
Cromberg’s face swelled like an overstuffed Vienna sausage, bursting at the meaty seams. He was turnip red and sweating profusely as his voluminous neck struggled against the starch of his high collar. Adnan remembered well when he and Cromberg had first met. It was at a party. Gloria Swanson had introduced them, but Cromberg was the one insisting that he could make Adnan a star. No matter, he would wait for the fat man to tire himself out with his tirade. He would let the Austrian waddle and burn, spitting and drooling in his contempt, and then stand up, bow and make his exit, taking his services to the next studio. If Cromberg fell for the ploy and cancelled his contract.
“I am absolutely sick from dealing with all of you little Prima Donna maggots, ingrate bums who couldn’t even speak English before I dragged you out of the gutters! You think I don’t hear all the stories about you and your pals out there? Sex and drugs and loose women? Flapper kids, Gin parties and Chinese dope? You’ll be lucky if I don’t have you arrested and tossed back to Tijuana.”
Cromberg fell back into his leather armchair, forcing it to groan audibly under his bulk. He waved Adnan away from behind the intimidating vastness of his thick mahogany desk, ornately carved in the baroque style. He reached his pudgy hand out to the intercom device on the desk and called to his secretary.
“Get me Thalberg, and have security come take this gypsy bastard out of my office.”
Adnan waited until Cromberg was finished before he spoke, still sitting casually as if simply enjoying a theatrical performance.
“And the contract, Cromberg?”
Adnan casually swept at the pants of his white silk suit.
Cromberg fumed behind his desk. The Prince could feel the heat radiating from the mass of flesh. Still he sat nonchalant, staring straight into the beady eyes of his adversary. Cromberg’s eyes dropped and the Prince knew he had won. The thought had not even fully materialized in his mind before a satisfied smile crept across his lips. Cromberg watched the smile appear and snapped back into a foaming rage.
“You do not tell me what I do in my own studio! I will have you out of every studio in town. You will never work again!”
Adnan felt his heart drop. Rage welled up from deep inside of him like a whirlwind, twisting up through his throat and out of his mouth before he had any sense of his own intention. He stood fully erect and stiff-backed in one rush of feral movement.
“I will say this to you only once Cromberg, and may God have mercy on you, for he would be much dismayed to see a lowly leech like you posing as a Son of Abraham. I have listened to you whine and scream and slather like a spoiled child. I have put up with your terrible manners and your complete lack of honesty. I will NOT be kept as a slave by a fat Austrian flachwichser with no more sense than a dog.”
Cromberg had now become so enraged that his eyes bulged and his jowled face shook with sweat. He stood faster than Adnan would have thought possible for a man of his size and planted his hands with a thundering force onto the desktop.
“Stück Scheiße! Verdammtes Arschloch! You will never work in this town again! You goddamn Gypsy Swinehund!! GET OUT OF HERE! ROUS!! ROUS!!”
Adnan, shaking with fury, stalked to the door. He turned on his heels and saluted Cromberg with a Kehran dismissive meant to imply the inadequacy of his manhood then slammed the door behind him. As he set out down the hallway, head held high, Adnan knew that Cromberg’s words were true. He would never work in this town again.
A representative from the studio called early the next morning. Adnan stumbled from his bed, tripping over discarded clothes and empty champagne bottles from the nights debauchery. He glanced back to see that the two young women still lay entwined, fast asleep, undisturbed by the ringing of the telephone.
“Prince Adnan Saarim Al Djesu.”
Adnan summoned all of the regal condescension he could muster, knowing what was to come next, feeling in his bones that he was speaking to a Cromberg lackey.
“This is James Wentworth from Mr. Cromberg’s office. He wanted me to personally advise you that your contract with Monolith Pictures has been terminated and that your services will no longer be necessary. He has also asked me to intimate that he has spoken to the other studio heads and suggested, very firmly I might add, that you are not suitable for their employ. I do hope you understand. We will, of course, no longer be supplying you with amenities. Your car has been called back to the studio and you will need to vacate your suite by end of day.”
Adnan stood trembling. There was a click as Wentworth hung up the line without waiting for a reply. He dropped the receiver to the floor and slumped towards the bed, feeling the weight of every single day of his life in each step. Adnan sat heavily on the edge of the feather mattress and let his head drop to his chest as the full implication of the conversation sank in. One of the girls rustled and stirred in the bed behind him, putting her delicate hand on his shoulder. Her voice came in a contented whisper.
“Addy? What’s the matter, baby?”
He struggled for composure, then turned to her, lifting the sheets to cover the lithe body. He couldn’t even remember her name. Worse yet, he did not recall having ever met the second girl, who was still sound asleep turned away to the wall.
“It is nothing, Cherub. Go back to sleep.”
The girl sighed and turned over to curl herself around her sleeping friend. Adnan stood and quietly observed the two young women, momentarily leaving his worries behind a feeling of peaceful nostalgia, vaguely remembering how much he enjoyed the company of lovely creatures like these in his younger days. The feeling turned maudlin and then spiralled down into a bleak dark depression, knowing those days were behind him, never to be equalled.
Adnan stepped quietly around the mess on the floor stopping to absently reach for his robe, hanging on a nearby chair, before he stepped out into the clear, peaceful morning.
As he stood, looking out over the green hills of California, it seemed plain to him that he was finished. His career was ended. ‘Prince Adnan’ was no more. He would be known forever, but as a face from the past, one with no future. Beyond this moment was only time, wasting away after having already seen the best Life could offer. He would not return to Kehran, to the abuse and evil of his father and his terrible brothers. They lived only to maim and destroy, to wield power and demand obedience. These things were not a Life. They were dirty, shameful and evil. Adnan could not survive smothered by their rot. What choice did he have? This life had run out. Perhaps the next would offer him real freedom.
Prince Adnan Saarim Al Djesu – Sheik of the Persian Empire and son of the Shah of Kehran – former star of the silver screen, climbed to the precipice of the balcony’s ledge, took one deep breath of the California air and leaned into the breeze, falling to the street nine stories below.
“I would not lie to you Fairbanks. This will be the greatest motion picture of all time! You play a real Arabian Prince who comes to Hollywood, becomes a star…”
Cromberg eyed the dashing, dark haired man in front of him, sizing up his reaction to the pitch. He leaned back in his chair, then sat forward abruptly, slapping the desk with one meaty hand.
“Ends with a bang! He throws himself to his death! Ladies love it! Tragedy. Like Shakespeare!”
The dark haired gentleman folded his hands in his lap.
“I don’t know Cromberg, sounds far-fetched, and I’m sick of playing Arabs”
“Then we make him French.”