Hell’s Kitchen. My favorite English words. Like the neighborhood in New York. I wonder what they would be cooking in Hell’s Kitchen? Is it for employees only? Is there even a kitchen in Hell?
Never mind. Today I’m going to read you one of my stories. Don’t look so upset. This one is special. I wrote it just because I’ve always wanted to start a story with a line of dialogue.
The Great Actor
“Look, sir, at all the letters you’ve received,” the nurse said as she looked at the pile of letters that lay on the desk. “More and more every week,” she added as she took a letter out of the pile and stared at it as though she were trying to read its content through the white envelope.
She turned around and smiled at the Great Actor, who was agonizing on the bed. His blue eyes were fixed in the direction of the TV and didn’t even seem to notice her presence.
The nurse took a seat on the armchair next to the bed on which the Great Actor slowly faded away. She wore a white dress, a red cross covering her generous breasts. For a while she sat there, watching over the small man.
Narrow waves of orange light came into the room through the small windows and settled on the white floor and shadows rose from every corner of the room and melted together, enclosing the feet of the bed. The voices of the characters inside the TV set murmured away.
“I would have liked to be as loved as you are,” the nurse said and a long sigh came out of her mouth, as if she were one of those debutantes of the stage. One of those debutantes that didn’t know what acting was all about.
Acting means suffering, thought the Great Actor. “Nonsense, madam,” he said. “I am sure your husband can’t even breathe without thinking of you.”
With her hands resting on her lap, the nurse sank deeper in the armchair, as if she prepared herself for another one of the Great Actor’s stories. But he was far, far away. You could see it in his blue, empty eyes.
His fans were the only thing he had truly gained in a lifetime of acting. Those fans who kept telephoning him. He always answered, no matter the time on the clock. And he always made them laugh or so he liked to believe. He still had his trademark voice, that voice void of any masculinity. He still knew how to tell a joke.
He had always known that it is so hard to laugh until you run out of air. Anyone can be sad or furious, it’s not that hard. That’s, after all, the way life builds us: slowly taking away our innocence until there’s nothing left.
His soul had died a long time ago but his body was stubborn.
There’s nothing great about dying, the Great Actor thought. It was just another thing he had to do. He imagined an actor or singer, someone incredibly famous, dying on a toilet seat. He smiled. That would be something. He would have liked to rise from his bed and try that one himself, but he had no more strength. He wondered if he could still laugh. Most probably not… if he would have tried, something would probably break inside his body.
“I would love to go skiing,” he said.
The nurse wrinkled her eyebrows. “I didn’t know that you enjoy skiing.”
“I, actually, hate it. But it’s far better than this.”
The nurse frowned. “Don’t say that… you’ll get better soon,” she said with a ringing voice.
It was, of course, a lie. But she said it anyway.
She rose from her armchair and walked over to the windows. There was too much death inside the actor’s eyes. She stared down at the ocean and the beach. Such a tender kiss, such a sluggish love. A bizarre feeling was burning inside her body. She pressed her palms against her cheeks and forehead. Hot, burning hot.
The Great Actor felt like smoking a cigarette. He regretted that he had given up smoking at the age of seventy. What for? He could have smoked, coughing out his lungs after every cigarette, coughing for minutes in a row every morning. That way his body would have broken down faster. A bitter taste flooded his mouth. He imagined that it was Death searching for cavities. He smiled. Clearly he couldn’t laugh anymore and that saddened him the most.
He would have liked to grab Death out of his mouth and offer her a coffee or something, maybe some candy or a glass of whisky. He didn’t want to ask for more time, like he was sure most people would do if offered the chance. Instead, he wanted to know if his friend, the other Great Actor, was doing well on the other side. Ah, and if smoking was allowed in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or whatever place he was headed for after… after. But he couldn’t raise his hand anymore.
He remembered about the epitaph he had written, “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again.” He imagined all of his friends, tears glimmering in their eyes, trying to smile just so they could be friends with him in the afterlife. Maybe some of them would try to bring him back in a séance. He thought about what kind of pranks he could pull on them as a ghost.
A tear slid down his wrinkled cheek.
The Great Actor looked at the huge pile of letters resting on his desk, and he couldn’t help but ask himself if fifty years from now, people were still going to remember him. Probably not. Fifty years from now, people were going to look at his movies, full of black spots and strange shadows, and try to decipher them, like archeologists in front of an ancient inscription.
The sound of the television seemed to come from a thousand miles away. The only thing that remained in that bizarre, muffled silence was the realization that he was going to die very soon. But he didn’t regret it.
The moment he was going to reach Heaven or Hell or Purgatory, he was going to light himself a cigarette. He needed it.
“Are you okay, sir?” the nurse asked, her body leaning over the Great Actor’s head. “Sir?” she asked, louder this time.
The old, old actor opened his eyes, blue and empty. All the lights inside the room failed to make them shine.
No. No, he was not okay.