The garish suite overlooked the fake fairyland grounds in the rear of the hotel; transplanted palm trees lit up by climbers of orange lights, two huge swimming pools shimmering dark blue by the light of the desert stars. On the horizon were the sand and stone mountains that ringed Las Vegas nestling in its neon valley. Johnny Fontane let the heavy, richly embroidered gray drape fall and turned back to the room.
A special detail of four men, a pit boss, a dealer, extra relief man, and a cocktail waitress in her scanty nightclub costume were getting things ready for private action. Nino Valenti was lying on the sofa in the living room part of the suite, a water glass of whiskey in his hand. He watched the people from the casino setting up the blackjack table with the proper six padded chairs around its horseshoe outer rim. “That’s great, that’s great,” he said in a slurred vote that was not quite drunken. “Johnny, come on and gamble with me against these bastards. I got the luck. We’ll beat their crullers in.”
Johnny sat on a footstool opposite the couch. “You know I don’t gamble,” he said: “How you feeling, Nino?”
Nino Valenti grinned at him. “Great. I got broads coming up at midnight, then some supper, then back to the blackjack table. You know I got the house beat for almost fifty grand and they’ve been grinding me for a week?”
“Yeah;” Johnny Fontane said. “Who do you want to leave it to when you croak?”
Nino drained his glass empty. “Johnny, where the hell did you get your rep as a swinger? You’re a deadhead, Johnny. Christ, the tourists in this town have more fun than you do.”
Johnny said, “Yeah. You want a lift to that blackjack table?”
Nino struggled erect on the sofa and pleated his feet firmly on the rug. “I can make it,” he said. He let the glass slip to the floor and got up and walked quite steadily to where the blackjack table had been set up. The dealer was ready. The pit boss stood behind the dealer watching. The relief dealer sat on a chair away from the table. The cocktail waitress sat on another chair in a line of vision so that she could see any of Nino Valenti’s gestures.
Nino rapped on the green baize with his knuckles. “Chips,” he said.
The pit boss took a pad from his pocket and filled out a slip and put it in front of Nino with a small fountain pen. “Here you are, Mr. Valenti,” he said. “The usual five thousand to start.” Nino scrawled his signature on the bottom of the slip and the pit boss put it in his pocket. He nodded to the dealer.
The dealer with incredibly deft fingers took stacks of black and gold one-hundred-dollar daps from the built-in racks before him. In not more than fire seconds Nino had five even stacks of one-hundred-dollar chips before him, each stack had ten chips.
There were six squares a little larger than playing card shapes etched in white on the green baize, each square placed to correspond to where a player would sit. Now Nino was placing bets on three of these squares, single chips, and so playing three hands each for a hundred dollars. He refused to take a hit on ail three hands because the dealer had a six up, a bust card, and the dealer did bust. Nino raked in his chips and turned to Johnny Fontane. “That’s how to start the night, huh, Johnny?”
Johnny smiled. It was unusual for a gambler like Nino to have to sign a chit while gambling. A word was usually good enough for the high rollers. Maybe they were afraid Nino wouldn’t remember his take-out because of his drinking. They didn’t know that Nino remembered everything.
Nino kept winning and after the third round lifted a finger at the cocktail waitress. She went to the bar at the end of the room and brought him his usual rye in a water glass. Nino took the drink, switched it to his other hand so he could put an arm around the waitress. “Sit with me, honey, play a few hands; bring me luck.”
The cocktail waitress was a very beautiful girl, but Johnny could see she was all cold hustle; no real personality, though she worked at it. She was giving Nino a big smile but her tongue was hanging out for one of those black and gold chips. What the hell, Johnny thought, why shouldn’t she get some of it? He just regretted that Nino wasn’t getting something better for his money.
Nino let the waitress play his hands for a few rounds and then gave her one of the chips and a pat on the behind to send her away from the table. Johnny motioned to her to bring him a drink. She did so but she did it as if she were playing the most dramatic moment in the most dramatic movie ever made. She turned all her charm on the great Johnny Fontane. She made her eyes sparkle with invitation, her walk was the sexiest walk ever walked, her mouth was, very slightly parted as if she were ready to bite the nearest object of her obvious passion. She resembled nothing so much as a female animal in heat, but it was a deliberate act. Johnny Fontane thought, oh, Christ, one of them. It was the most popular approach of women who wanted to take him to bed. It only worked when he was very drunk and he wasn’t drunk now. He gave the girl one of his famous grins and said, “Thank you, honey.” The girl looked at him and parted her lips in a thank-you smile, her eyes went all smoky, her body tensed with the torso leaning slightly back from the long tapering legs in their mesh stockings. An enormous tension seemed to be building up in her body, her breasts seemed to grow fuller and swell burstingly against her thin scantily cut blouse. Then her whole body gave a slight quiver that almost let off a sexual twang. The whole impression was one of a woman having an orgasm simply because Johnny Fontane had smiled at her and said, “Thank you, honey.” It was very well done. It was done better than Johnny had ever seen it done before. But by now he knew it was fake. And the odds were always good that the broads who did it were a lousy lay.
He watched her go back to her chair and nursed his drink slowly. He didn’t want to see that little trick again. He wasn’t in the mood for it tonight.
It was an hour before Nino Valenti began to go. He started leaning first, wavered back, and then plunged off the chair straight to the floor. But the pit boss and the relief dealer had been alerted by the first weave and caught him before he hit the ground. They lifted him and carried him through the parted drapes that led to the bedroom of the suite.
Johnny kept watching as the cocktail waitress helped the other two men undress Nino and shove him under the bed covers. The pit boss was counting Nino’s chips and making a note on his pad of chits, then guarding the table with its dealer’s chips. Johnny said to him, “How long has that been going on?”
The pit boss shrugged. “He went early tonight. The first time we got the house doc and he fixed Mr. Valenti up with something and gave him some sort of lecture. Then Nino told us that we shouldn’t call the doc when that happened, just put him to bed and he’d be OK in the morning. So that’s what we do. He’s pretty lucky, he was a winner again tonight, almost three grand.”
Johnny Fontane said, “Well, let’s get the house doc up here tonight. OK? Page the casino floor if you have to.”
It was almost fifteen minutes before Jules Segal came into the suite. Johnny noted with irritation that this guy never looked like a doctor. Tonight he was wearing a blue loose-knit polo shirt with white trim, some sort of white suede shoes and no socks. He looked funny as hell carrying the traditional black doctor’s bag.
Johnny said, “You oughta figure out a way to carry your stuff in a cut-down golf bag.”
Jules grinned understandingly, “Yeah, this medical school carryall is a real drag. Scares the hell out of people. They should change the color anyway.”
He went over to where Nino was lying in bed. As he opened his bag he said to Johnny. “Thanks for that check you sent me as a consultant. It was excessive. I didn’t do that much.”
“Like hell you didn’t,” Johnny said. “Anyway, forget that, that was a long time ago. What’s with Nino?”
Jules was making a quick examination of heartbeat, pulse and blood pressure. He took a needle out of his bag and shoved it casually into Nino’s arm and pressed the plunger. Nino’s sleeping face lost its waxy paleness, color came into the cheeks, as if the blood had started pumping faster.
“Very simple diagnosis,” Jules said briskly. “I had a chance to examine him and run some tests when he first came here and fainted. I had him moved to the hospital before he regained consciousness. He’s got diabetes, mild adult stabile, which is no problem if you take care of it with medication and diet and so forth. He insists on ignoring it. Also he is firmly determined to drink himself to death. His liver is going and his brain will go. Right now he’s in a mild diabetic coma. My advice is to have him put away.”
Johnny felt a sense of relief. It couldn’t be too serious, all Nino had to do was take care of himself. “You mean in one of those joints where they dry you out?” Johnny asked.
Jules went over to the bar in the far corner of the room and made himself a drink. “No,” he said. “I mean committed. You know, the crazy house.”
“Don’t be funny,” Johnny said.
“I’m not joking,” Jules said. “I’m not up on all the psychiatric jazz but I know something about it, part of my trade. Your friend Nino can be put back into fairly good shape unless the liver damage has gone too far, which we can’t know until an autopsy really. But the real disease is in his head. In essence he doesn’t care if he dies, maybe he even wants to kill himself. Until that is cured there’s so hope for him. That’s why I say, have him committed and then he can undergo the necessary psychiatric treatment.”
There was a knock on the door and Johnny went to answer it. It was Lucy Mancini. She came into Johnny’s arms and kissed him. “Oh, Johnny, it’s so good to see you,” she said.
“It’s been a long time,” Johnny Fontane said. He noticed that Lucy had changed. She had gotten much slimmer, her clothes were a hell of a lot better and she wore them better. Her hair style fitted her face in a sort of boyish cut. She looked younger and better than he had ever seen her and the thought crossed his mind that she could keep him company here is Vegas. It would be a pleasure hanging out with a real broad. But before he could turn on the charm he remembered she was the doc’s girl. So it was out. He made his smile just friendly and said, “What are you doing coming to Nino’s apartment at night, eh?”
She punched him in the shoulder. “I heard Nino was sick and that Jules came up. I just wanted to see if I could help. Nino’s OK, isn’t he?”
“Sure,” Johnny said. “He’ll be fine.”
Jules Segal had sprawled out on the couch. “Like hell he is,” Jules said. “I suggest we all sit here and wait for Nino to come to. And then we all talk him into committing himself. Lucy, he likes you, maybe you can help. Johnny, if you’re a real friend of his you’ll go along. Otherwise old Nino’s liver will shortly be exhibit A in some university medical lab.”
Johnny was offended by the doctor’s flippant attitude. Who the hell did he think he was? He started to say so but Nino’s voice came from the bed, “Hey, old buddy, how, about a drink.
Nino was sitting up in bed. He grinned at Lucy and said, “Hey, baby, come to old Nino.” He held his arms wide-open. Lucy sat on the edge of the bed and gave him a hug. Oddly enough Nino didn’t look bad at all now, almost normal.
Nino snapped his fingers. “Come on, Johnny, gimme a drink. The night’s young yet. Where the hell’s my blackjack table?”
Jules took a long slug from his own glass and said to Nino, “You can’t have a think. Your doctor forbids it.”
Nino scowled. “Screw my actor.” Then a play-acting look of contrition came on his face. “Hey, Julie, that’s you. You’re my doctor, right? I don’t mean you, old buddy. Johnny, get me a drink or I get up out of bed sad get it myself.”
Johnny shrugged and moved toward the bar. Jules said indifferently, “I’m saying he shouldn’t have it.”
Johnny knew why Jules irritated him. The doctor’s voice was always cool, the words never stressed so matter how dire, the voice always low and controlled. If he gave a warning the warning was in the words alone, the voice itself was neutral, as if uncaring. It was this that made Johnny sore enough to bring Nino his water glass of whiskey. Before he handed it over he said to Jules, “This won’t kill him, right?”
“No, it won’t kill him,” Jules said calmly. Lucy gave him an anxious glance, started to say something, then kept still. Meanwhile Nino had taken the whiskey and poured it down his throat.
Johnny was smiling down at Nino; they had shown the punk doctor. Suddenly Nino gasped, his face seemed to turn blue, he couldn’t catch his breath and was choking for air. His body leaped upward like a fish, his face was gorged with blood, his eyes bulging. Jules appeared on the other side of the bed facing Johnny and Lucy. He took Nino by the neck and held him still and plunged the needle into the shoulder near where it joined the neck. Nino went limp in his hands, the heaves of his body subsided, and after a moment he slumped down back onto his pillow. His eyes closed in sleep.
Johnny, Lucy and Jules went back into the living room part of the suite and sat around the huge solid coffee table. Lucy picked up one of the aquamarine phones and ordered coffee and some food to be sent up. Johnny had gone over to the bar and mixed himself a drink.
“Did you know he would have that reaction from the whiskey?” Johnny asked.
Jules shrugged. “I was pretty sure he would.”
Johnny said sharply, “Then why didn’t you warn me?”
“I warned you,” Jules said.
“You didn’t warn me right,” Johnny said with cold anger. “You are really one hell of a doctor. You don’t give a shit. You tell me to get Nino in a crazy house, you don’t bother to use a nice word like sanitorium. You really like to stick it to people, right?”
Lucy was staring down in her lap. Jules kept smiling at Fontane. “Nothing was going to stop you from giving Nino that drink. You had to show you didn’t have to accept my warnings, my orders. Remember when you offered me a job as your personal physician after that throat business? I turned you down because I knew we could never get along. A doctor thinks he’s God, he’s the high priest in modern society, that’s one of his rewards. But you would never treat me that way. I’d be a flunky God to you. Like those doctors you guys have in Hollywood. Where do you get those people from anyway? Christ, don’t they know anything or don’t they just care? They must know what’s happening to Nino but they just give him all kinds of drugs to keep him going. They wear those silk suits and they kiss your ass because you’re a power movie man and so you think they are great doctors. Show biz, docs, you gotta have heart? Right? But they don’t give a fuck if you live or die. Well, my little hobby, unforgivable as it is, is to keep people alive. I let you give Nino that drink to show you what could happen to him.” Jules leaned toward Johnny Fontane, his voice still calm, unemotional. “Your friend is almost terminal. Do you understand that? He hasn’t got a chance without therapy and strict medical care. His blood pressure and diabetes and bad habits can cause a cerebral hemorrhage in this very next instant. His brain will blow itself apart. Is that vivid enough for you? Sure, I said crazy house. I want you to understand what’s needed. Or you won’t make a move. I’ll put it to you straight. You can save your buddy’s life by having him committed. Otherwise kiss him good-bye.”
Lucy murmured, “Jules, darling, lutes, don’t be so tough. Just tell him.”
Jules stood up. His usual cool was gone, Johnny Fontane noticed with satisfaction. His voice too had lost its quiet unaccented monotone.
“Do you think this is the first time I’ve had to talk to people like you in a situation like this?” Jules said. “I did it every day. Lucy says don’t be so tough, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. You know, I used to tell people, “Don’t eat go much or you’ll die, don’t smoke so much or you’ll die, don’t work so much or you’ll die, don’t drink so much or you’ll die.’ Nobody listens. You know why? Because I don’t say, `You will die tomorrow.’ Well, I can tell you that Nino may very well die tomorrow.”
Jules went over to the bar and mixed himself another drink. “How about it, Johnny, are you going to get Nino committed?”
Johnny said, “I don’t know.”
Jules took a quick drink at the bar and filled his glass again. “You know, it’s a funny thing, you can smoke yourself to death, drink yourself to death, work yourself to death and even eat yourself to death. But that’s all acceptable. The only thing you can’t do medically is screw yourself to death and yet that’s where they put all the obstacles.” He paused to finish his drink. “But even that’s trouble, for women anyway. I used to have women who weren’t supposed to have any more babies. ‘It’s dangerous,’ I’d tell them. ‘You could die,’ I’d tell them. And a month later they pop in, their faces all rosy, and say, ‘Doctor, I think I’m pregnant,’ and sure enough they’d kill the rabbit. ‘But it’s dangerous,’ I’d tell them. My voice used to have expression in those days. And they’d smile at me and say, ‘But my husband and I are very strict Catholics,’ they’d say.”
There was a knock on the door and two waiters wheeled in a cart covered with food and silver service coffeepots. They took a portable table from the bottom of the cart and set it up. Then Johnny dismissed them.
They sat at the table and ate the hot sandwiches Lucy had ordered and drank the coffee. Johnny leaned back and lit up a cigarette. “So you save lives. How come you became an abortionist?”
Lucy spoke up for the first time. “He wanted to help girls in trouble, girls who might commit suicide or do something dangerous to get rid of the baby.”
Jules smiled at her and sighed. “It’s not that simple. I became a surgeon finally. I’ve got the good hands, as ballplayers say. But I was so good I scared myself silly. I’d open up some poor bastard’s belly and know he was going to die. I’d operate and know that the cancer or tumor would come back but I’d send them off home with a smile and a lot of bullshit. Some poor broad comes in and I slice off one tit. A year later she’s back and I slice off the other tit. A year after that, I scoop out her insides like you scoop the seeds out of a cantaloupe. After all that she dies anyway. Meanwhile husbands keep calling up and asking, ‘What do the tests show? What do the tests show?’
“So I hired an extra secretary to take all those calls. I saw the patient only when she was fully prepared for examination, tests or operation. I spent the minimum possible time with the victim because I was, after all, a busy man. And then finally I’d let the husband talk to me for two minutes. ‘It’s terminal,’ I’d say. And they could never hear that last word. They understood what it meant but they never heard it. I thought at first that unconsciously I was dropping my voice on the last word, so I consciously said it louder. But still they never heard it. One guy even said, ‘What the hell do you mean, it’s germinal?’” Jules started to laugh. “Germinal, terminal, what the hell. I started to do abortions. Nice and easy, everybody happy, like washing the dishes and leaving a clean sink. That was my class. I loved it, I loved being an abortionist. I don’t believe that a two-month fetus is a human being so no problems there. I was helping young girls and married women who were in trouble, I was making good money. I was out of the front tines. When I got caught I felt like a deserter that had been hauled in. But I was lucky, a friend pulled some strings and got pie off but now the big hospitals won’t let me operate. So here I am. Giving good advice again which is being ignored just like in the old days.”
“I’m not ignoring it,” Johnny Fontane said. “I’m thinking it over.”
Lucy finally changed the subject. “What are you doing in Vegas, Johnny? Relaxing from your duties as big-time Hollywood wheel or working?”
Johnny shook his head. “Mike Corleone wants to see me and have a talk. He’s flying in tonight with Tom Hagen. Tom said they’ll be seeing you, Lucy. You know what it’s all about?”
Lucy shook her head. “We’re all having dinner tether tomorrow night. Freddie too. I think it might have something to do with the hotel. The casino has been dropping money lately, which shouldn’t be. The Don might want Mike to check it out.”
“I hear Mike finally got his face fixed,” Johnny said.
Lucy laughed. “I guess Kay talked him into it. He wouldn’t do it when they were married. I wonder why? It looked so awful and made his nose drip. He should have had it done sooner.” She paused for a moment. “Jules was called in by the Corleone Family for that operation. They used him as a consultant and as observer.”
Johnny nodded and said dryly, “I recommended him for it.”
“Oh,” Lucy said. “Anyway, Mike said he wanted to do something for Jules. That’s why he’s having us to dinner tomorrow night.”
Jules said musingly, “He didn’t trust anybody. He warned me to keep track of what everybody did. It was fairly straight, ordinary surgery. Any competent man could do it.”
There was a sound from the bedroom of the suite and they looked toward the drapes. Nino had become concious again. Johnny went and sat on the bed. Jules and Lucy went over to the foot of the bed. Nino gave them a wan grin. “OK, I’ll stop being a wise guy. I feel really lousy. Johnny, remember about a year ago, what happened when we were with those two broads down in Palm Springs? I swear to you I wasn’t jealous about what happened. I was glad. You believe me, Johnny?”
Johnny said reassuringly, “Sure, Nino, I believe you.”
Lucy and Jules looked at each other. From everything they had heard and knew about Johnny Fontane it seemed impossible that he would take a girl away from a close friend like Nino. And why was Nino saying he wasn’t jealous a year after it happened? The same thought crossed both their minds, that Nino was drinking himself to death romantically because a girl had left him to go with Johnny Fontane.
Jules checked Nino again. “I’ll get a nurse to be in the room with you tonight,” Jules said. “You really have to stay in bed for a couple of days. No kidding.”
Nino smiled. “OK, Doc, just don’t make the nurse too pretty.”
Jules made a call for the nurse and then he and Lucy left. Johnny sat in a chair near the bed to wait for the nurse. Nino was falling asleep again, an exhausted took on his face. Johnny thought about what he had said, about not being jealous about what had happened over a year ago with those two broads down in Palm Springs. The thought had never entered his head that Nino might be jealous.
* * *
A year ago Johnny Fontane had sat in his plush office, the office of the movie company he headed, and felt as lousy as he had ever felt in his life. Which was surprising because the first movie he had produced, with himself as star and Nino in a featured part, was making tons of money. Everything had worked. Everybody had done their job. The picture was brought in under budget. Everybody was going to make a fortune out of it and Jack Woltz was losing ten years of his life. Now Johnny had two more pictures in production, one starring himself, one starring Nino. Nino was great on the screen as one of those charming, dopey lover-boys that women loved to shove between their tits. Little boy lost. Everything he touched made money, it was rolling in. The Godfather was getting his percentage through the bank, and that made Johnny feel really good. He had justified his Godfather’s faith. But today that wasn’t helping much.
And now that he was a successful independent movie producer he had as much power, maybe more, than he had ever had as a singer. Beautiful broads felt all over him just like before, though for a more commercial reason. He had his own plane, he lived more lavishly even, with the special tax benefits a businessman had that artists didn’t get. Then what the hell was bothering him?
He knew what it was. The front of his head hurt, his nasal passages hurt, his throat itched. The only way he could scratch and relieve that itch was by singing and he was afraid to even try. He had called Jules Segal about it, when it would be safe to try to sing and Jules had said anytime he felt like it. So he’d tried and sounded so hoarse and lousy he’d given up. And his throat would hurt like hell the next day, hurt in a different way than before the warts had been taken off. Hurt worse, burning. He was afraid to keep singing, afraid that he’d lose his voice forever, or ruin it.
And if he couldn’t sing, what the hell was the use of everything else? Everything else was just bullshit. Sing was the only thing he really knew. Maybe he knew more about singing and his kind of music than anybody else in the world. He was that good, he realized now. All those years had made him a real pro. Nobody could tell him, the right and the wrong, he didn’t have to ask anybody. He knew. What a waste, what a damn waste.
It was Friday and he decided to spend the weekend with Virginia and the kids. He called her up as he always did to tell her he was coming. Really to give her a chance to say no. She never said no. Not in all the years they had been divorced. Because she would never say no to a meeting of her daughters and their father. What a broad, Johnny thought. He’d been lucky with Virginia. And though he knew he cared more about her than any other woman he knew it was impossible for them to live together sexually. Maybe when they were sixty-five, like when you retire, they’d retire together, retire from everything.
But reality shattered these tests when he arrived there and found Virginia was feeling a little grouchy herself and the two girls not that crazy to see him because they had been promised a weekend visit with some girl friends on a California ranch where they could ride horses.
He told Virginia to send the girls off to the ranch and kissed them good-bye with an amused smile. He understood them so well. What kid wouldn’t rather go riding horses on a ranch than hang around with a grouchy father who picked his own spots as a father. He said to Virginia, “I’ll have a few drinks and then I’ll shove off too.”
“All right,” she said. She was having one of her bad days, rare, but recognizable. It wasn’t too easy for her leading this kind of life.
She saw him taking an extra large drink. “What are you cheering yourself up for?” Virginia asked. “Everything is going so beautifully for you. I never dreamed you had it in you to be such a good businessman.”
Johnny smiled at her. “It’s not so hard,” he said. At the same time he was thinking, so that’s what was wrong. He understood women and he understood now that Virginia was down because she thought he was having everything his own way. Women really hated seeing their men doing too well. It irritated them. It made them less sure of the hold they exerted over them through affection, sexual custom or marriage ties. So more to cheer her up than voice his own complaints, Johnny said, “What the hell difference does it make if I can’t sing.”
Virginia’s voice was annoyed. “Oh, Johnny, you’re not a kid anymore. You’re over thirty-five. Why do you keep worrying about that silly singing stuff? You make more money as a producer anyhow.”
Johnny looked at her curiously and said, “I’m a singer. I love to sing. What’s being old got to do with that?”
Virginia was impatient. “I never liked your singing anyway. Now that you’ve shown you can make movies, I’m glad you can’t sing anymore.”
They were both surprised when Johnny said with fury, “That’s a fucking lousy thing to say.” He was shaken. How could Virginia feel like that, how could she dislike him so much?
Virginia smiled at his being hurt and because it was so outrageous that he should be angry at her she said, “How do you think I felt when all those girls came running after you because of the way you sang? How would you feel if I went ass-naked down the street to get men running after me? That’s what your singing was and I used to wish you’d lose your voice and could never sing again. But that was before we got divorced.”
Johnny finished his drink. “You don’t understand a thing. Not a damn thing.” He went into the kitchen and dialed Nino’s number. He quickly arranged for them both to go down to Palm Springs for the weekend and gave Nino the number of a girl to call, a real fresh young beauty he’d been meaning to get around to. “She’ll have a friend for you,” Johnny said. “I’ll be at your place in an hour.”
Virginia gave him a cool good-bye when he left. He didn’t give a damn, it was one of the few times he was angry with her. The hell with it, he’d just tear loose for the weekend and get all the poison out of his system.
Sure enough, everything was fine down in Palm Springs. Johnny used his own house down there, it was always kept open and staffed this time of year. The two girls were young enough to be great fun and not too rapacious for some kind of favor. Some people came over to keep them company at the pool until suppertime. Nino went to his room with his girl to get ready for supper and a quick bang while he was still warm from the sun. Johnny wasn’t in the mood, so he sent his girl, a short bandbox blonde named Tina, up to shower by herself. He never could make love to another woman after he’d had a fight with Virginia.
He went into the glass-walled patio living room that held a piano. When singing with the band he had fooled around with the piano just for laughs, so he could pick out a song in a fake moonlight-soft ballad style. He sat down now and hummed along a bit with the piano, very softly, muttering a few words but not really singing. Before he knew it Tina was in the living room making him a drink and sitting beside him at the piano. He played a few tunes and she hummed with him. He left her at the piano and went up to take his shower. In the shower he sang short phrases, more like speaking. He got dressed and went back down. Tina was still alone; Nino was really working his girl over or getting drunk.
Johnny sat down at the piano again while Tina wandered off outside to watch the pool. He started singing one of his old songs. There was no burning in his throat. The tones were coming out muted but with proper body. He looked at the patio. Tina was still out there, the glass door was closed, she wouldn’t hear him. For some reason he didn’t want anybody to hear him. He started off fresh on an old ballad that was his favorite. He sang full out as if he were singing in public, letting himself go, waiting for the familiar burning rasp in his throat but there was none. He listened to his voice, it was diferent somehow, but he liked it. It was darker, it was a man’s voice, not a kid’s, rich he thought, dark rich. He finished the song easing up and sat there at the piano thinking about it.
Behind him Nino said, “Not bad, old buddy, not bad at all.”
Johnny swiveled his body around. Nino was standing in the doorway, alone. His girl wasn’t with him. Johnny was relieved. He didn’t mind Nino hearing him.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “Let’s get rid of those two broads. Send them home.”
Nino said, “You send them home. They’re nice kids, I’m not gonna hurt their feelings. Besides I just banged mine twice. How would it look if I sent her away without even giving her dinner?” The hell with it, Johnny thought. Let the girls listen even if he sounded lousy. He called up a band leader he knew in Palm Springs and asked him to send over a mandolin for Nino. The band leader protested, “Hell, nobody plays a mandolin in California.” Johnny yelled, “Just get one.”
The house was loaded with recording equipment and Johnny had the two girls work the turn-off and volumes. After they had dinner, Johnny went to work. He had Nino playing the mandolin as accompaniment and sang all his old songs. He sang them all the way out, not nursing his voice at all. His throat was fine, he felt that he could sing forever. In the months he had not been able to sing he had often thought about singing, planned out how he would phrase lyrics differently now than as a kid. He had sung the songs in his head with more sophisticated variations of emphasis. Now he was doing it for real. Sometimes it would go wrong in the actual singing, stuff that had sound good when he heard it just in his head didn’t work out when he tried it really singing out loud. OUT LOUD, he thought. He wasn’t listening to himself now, he was concentrating on performing. He fumbled a little on timing but that was OK, just rusty. He had a metronome in his head that would never fail him. Just a little practice was all he needed.
Finally he stopped singing. Tina came over to him with eyes shining and gave him a long kiss. “Now I know why Mother goes to all your movies,” she said. It was the wrong thing to say at any time except this. Johnny and Nino laughed.
They played the feedback and now Johnny could really listen to himself. His voice had changed, changed a hell of a lot but was still unquestionably the voice of Johnny Fontane. It had become much richer and darker as he had noticed before but there was also the quality of a man singing rather than a boy. The voice had more true emotion, more character. And the technical part of his singing was far superior to anything he had ever done. It was nothing less than masterful. And if he was that good now, rusty as hell, how good would he be when he got in shape again? Johnny grinned at Nino. “Is that as good as I think it is?”
Nino looked at his happy face thoughtfully. “It’s very damn good,” he said. “But let’s see how you sing tomorrow.”
Johnny was hurt that Nino should be so downbeat. “You son of a bitch, you know you can’t sing like that. Don’t worry about tomorrow. I feel great.” But he didn’t sing any more that night. He and Nino took the girls to a party and Tina spent the night in his_bed but he wasn’t much good there. The girl was a little disappointed. But what the hell, you couldn’t do everything all in one day, Johnny thought.
He woke up in the morning with a sense of apprehension, with a vague terror that he had dreamed his voice had come back. Then when he was sure it was not a dream he got scared that his voice would be shot again. He went to the window and hummed a bit, then he went down to the living room still in his pajamas. He picked out a tune on the piano and after a while tried singing with it. He sang mutedly but there was no pain, no hoarseness in his throat, so he turned it on. The cords were true. and rich, he didn’t have to force it at all. Easy, easy, just pouring out. Johnny realized that the bad time was over, he had it all now. And it didn’t matter a damn if he fell on his face with movies, it didn’t matter if he couldn’t get it up with Tina the night before; it didn’t matter that Virginia would hate him being able to sing again. For a moment he had just one regret. If only his voice had come back to him while trying to sing for his daughters, how lovely that would have been. That would have been so lovely.
* * *
The hotel nurse had come into the room wheeling a cart loaded with medication. Johnny got up and stared down at Nino, who was sleeping or maybe dying. He knew Nino wasn’t jealous of his getting his voice back. He understood that Nino was only jealous because he was so happy about getting his voice back. That he cared so much about singing. For what was very obvious now was that Nino Valenti didn’t care enough about anything to make him want to stay alive.