An essay by Tony Russo, as provided by Darren Ridgley
Art by Justine McGreevy
Never thought I’d say it, but one day I’d like to come out to an empty room. But tonight ain’t the night. Tonight it’s a full house. Standing room only. Every single one of ’em here to see me, Tony Russo, in the flesh. Just not alive.
Three tours in and the buzz hasn’t faded, they still buy tickets months in advance, they line up around the block all day, wanting to get a good seat. Close enough to get a real good eyeful, not close enough to catch my scent. My arms hang limp at my sides while I wait for Neal, my “manager,” to bid me to step out into the spotlight. My legs have been commanded just enough to hold me up, but they buckle inward at the knees, my rotten ankles leaving my feet crunched up underneath my shins, half-sideways.
C’mon, Neal. Let’s just get it over with. I can’t move my eyes–though both are pretty cloudy anyhow–but I think he can sense I want to be staring him down. A warm-up guy comes out and gives me a grand introduction. Neal waves his thick little fingers, and off I go, top hat and tails and a jawbone held on by a thread. The speech is penned by Neal, and my mouth moves along with his backstage whispering.
“Thanks folks, it’s me, Tony Russo, bringing the American Songbook to life–make that unlife–” A titter from the crowd. “In the most spectacular jazz show in the history of the world. Come one, come all, come watch a reanimated corpse sing Moon River to ya for twice the cost of a Hamilton ticket–”
I don’t know what Hamilton even is. Neal’s never told me. Folks today sure seem to like it, though, and it sounds expensive.
“I don’t see a dime, of course–fifty years in the grave and show business hasn’t changed a whole lot, if you ask me.”
Bigger laugh this time. Never figured out why, but people who spend a lot of money to see you always think it’s a gas when you admit a lot of it doesn’t go to you. Maybe Neal will surprise me with a slightly nicer coffin, once this is all over and done with. Or maybe he plans to keep me at this until I literally turn to dust, in which case, maybe a jeweled urn. I won’t hold my breath.
The pleasantries dealt with, I start right in at Neal’s beckoning. Neal determines the set list, and he commands me what to sing. Songs are all in the ol’ noggin, of course–or, given my lack of a brain pan, maybe my soul–so I don’t need to know ahead of time. The skittish band starts to play, and off I go. We’re starting with Alright, Okay, You Win, and I think of the time sweet, kind Peggy Lee gave me a ride back to my hotel after my manager refused to give me a lift. Hate to do this to one of Peggy’s tunes, but I have no choice. The man says what to sing, and I sing it as well as a dead man can.
I finish the first song and am sort of pleased to realize it kind of came out okay. Neal has tried lining my dried-out throat with every viscous substance he can think of to try to improve my sound. Don’t know what he used this time, but it got me through a song. A stagehand brings me a tumbler of scotch and I toast to the audience, a puppet on strings, and toss it back. It pours right out the bottom of my chin, the entry wound of a mobster’s bullet I caught over some unpaid debts, and the crowd laughs its ass off. Neal never gets tired of that gag.
“How we doing tonight, folks?” Even under Neal’s spell, the rage in my hoarse voice is barely masked. I really wanted that scotch. I really want it every time. The crowd whoops and hollers at me, their rotting dancing monkey. And my waist bends involuntarily into a deep bow.
“Boy I tell ya, I haven’t been to Chicago in a long time, but I see the girls are sure still pretty here. Whaddya say, ladies? Old man like me have a chance?”
Neal has me tug my collar, loosen my tie, in mock bashfulness while the audience’s women are divided fifty-fifty between jokey cheers and undisguised revulsion. Ratio’s gotten a little better since back in the day, I hate to say.
Then the band kicks up again, and we’re off into Body and Soul. My thoughts are free to wander while Neal makes me do whatever he’s gonna make me do, so I let them. Revenge is a popular topic.
When Neal first brought me back, he clapped his hands like a kid on Christmas morning, told me he was my biggest fan. That I was underrated. Hell, I was in a lot of pain, my soul forced back into a rotten body not fit to take it, but it was the best review I’d gotten, and I was glad for it. I didn’t realize what Neal had planned.
“You were never appreciated in your time, but I have all your records,” the little pimple-necked freak told me. “It’s time the world appreciated Tony Russo, and I have just the angle.”
He was letting me speak freely then, so I told him to go to hell. He laughed.
“That attitude is what got you thrown in the pier with a bullet in the back of your brain. You should maybe be more of a team player this time around, don’t you think?”
“No dice, kid. Let me go. Got a lot of torment to get back to, if you don’t mind.”
I stand by that sentiment. Whether it’s hell or Neal, torment is torment. But the company’s a whole lot better than hell. A lot of my idols are down there.
“I wanted to treat you like a partner, Mr. Russo, but I don’t have to. The show’s going to go on. See you at the bijou.”
Things went dark. Next thing I knew, I was behind the curtain at the Lancaster theatre, first place I ever performed, little place in Vermont. My big comeback. He made me open with That Old Black Magic, and I’ve wanted to kill him ever since.
The pattern hasn’t changed, ever since that first show: finish a performance, then Neal waves his hand and things go black. I wake up again in a box, Neal getting stagehands to position me behind the curtain in a new theatre, in a new town, over and over. The nutjob honestly thinks people are here for the music, and not the freak show.
All this time I’ve been singing, and now the show is over. If he keeps me revived too long, I’ll fall apart, so it’s over and done with pretty quick. The audience goes wild. Thank you, Chicago, you’ve been a wonderful audience.
Things go dark again, and as my vision fades, I can see Neal’s outline, cloudy, his fingers greedily flipping through a wad of bills, counting up the night’s take. I spend my last moment in the waking world thinking about how great it would be to chew my manager to bits and get my due. One thing about Neal’s mostly-bologna speech was bang-on: show business hasn’t changed a bit.
I wake up to darkness, and muffled noise. I’m still in the box, but I know the show’s basically about to begin. Not long after I shake off the cobwebs, I feel the box jostle as a couple of teamsters put it upright, so I can be let out and put into position. The lid of the box comes off and there I am in front of a mirror, so Neal can show me his sartorial choice for the evening. Idiot. He put me in a leisure suit.
A leisure suit. I honestly don’t know if he really is a fan, or if he hates me for some reason and he’s trying to offend. He’s dressed me up in a sky-blue suit with a yellow, huge-collared shirt. His wardrobe choices are all over the place. The man has no style, and it’s honestly one of the most unforgivable things about him. This is the way you dress a singer who washed up in the ’60s and is trying to stage a comeback in the disco era. I know the look well–I missed the era itself, but Neal showed me plenty of video after he raised me, videos of my idols who were forced to keep up with the times, videos of guys like me who started looking older and stupider and glitzier as the years went on. And now here I am, rotting to pieces.
In a leisure suit.
I try to listen in on the chatter backstage, since it’s the closest thing to human interaction I get besides my forced cajoling with the crowd. The kids who work this show aren’t squeamish about me, but something’s agitating them.
“There’s a lot of weird interference, I can’t figure it out.”
“Well, that doesn’t make any sense. Maybe the inputs are set up wrong at the sound board. Go check.”
“You go check.”
“Fine, I’ll check the board, you check the headset. Yeah?”
I don’t know what they’re getting at. A girl dressed head to toe in black, looking greyer and gaunter than me, shows up in my peripheral vision and starts monkeying with something at my remaining ear. I didn’t notice it before, being so infuriated with the suit, but now I see it: a little thin beige thing, wrapped around my ear and sticking out in front of my mouth. Neal doesn’t seem to be around, so I know my strings are cut for the moment.
“Hey, doll. Where are we?”
“Great town. Love this town. Whaddya doing?”
“You’ve gone wireless, Mr. Russo. Welcome to the modern age. It was a necessity, unfortunately.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, I can’t blame you for not being observant, your eyes look pretty cloudy to me. By the way, I’m Anna. Shake?”
She sticks out her hand to take mine, and I raise my arm. Then I notice I end at the wrist. On both arms.
“You’re not holding up so well anymore. They snapped off in transit. No more sashaying around with a mic on a stand for you, man.”
“Well, shit. Listen, would you mind if I bummed a smoke?”
“Sorry. I vape.”
She smiles at me pityingly, finishes her fussing with the headpiece, and takes off. Neal appears. I look at him as angrily as a guy with little control of his face can manage.
“Hey Tony. Ready to knock ’em dead?”
Neal raises a hand and my jaw locks up. But then something loosens.
Neal looks frightened for a second and looks at his hand. He shakes his fingers like he’s trying to get grime off them, then tries again. My jaw snaps shut again. He has me wiggle my arms and dance a little jig to be sure his mojo is still working, and while he can do it, I can tell something’s off. My body isn’t responding as forcefully as it usually does.
“Sorry if you had a bad rest, Tony, but there’s no need to be vulgar. C’mon, man. Show’s about to begin. Let’s make this performance the best one yet!”
He waves me toward the curtain and I shamble off, standing on the little X taped to the ground. The earpiece buzzes incessantly, crackling away under some interference. If I actually had to perform it would bother the hell out of me, but since the song and dance is all autopilot, I have the joy of fixating on it completely.
The curtain rises and the band strikes up, opening with You Make Me Feel So Young, making me flirt with women in the front row, my stump wrists gesturing at them. Some of them actually take part in the roleplay. I start thinking these people are insane, but then I remember the way people stampeded to get as close to Elvis as possible and think hell, maybe that hasn’t changed either. Anything to get close to a star.
I’m about to launch into the second verse when my knees give out from under me entirely. My entire body goes slack, and the band cuts out abruptly, understanding this isn’t part of the show. There’s some muttering among the audience but then I rise to my feet again. I can’t turn around to see what Neal’s doing backstage. The band starts to play again, a few more words come out of me and then a sharp peal of static from the headset actually makes me wince without Neal’s permission. Boom, down again. The band stops once more.
This time, Neal comes out onto the stage. Even in my condition, I come off classier than him. The man is wearing denim cutoffs, for Heaven’s sake.
“What the … why won’t you–” Neal is flicking his fingers at me like he’s Merlin trying to turn me into a toad, and nothing’s happening. His magic is failing. He grabs me himself, trying to heave me to my feet.
“Just a little technical difficulty folks! Nothing to worry about. Tell ’em, Mr. Russo.” He jabs at my chest playfully, like we’re old pals.
I don’t have much of a brain left, but my mind is pretty sharp for an old, dead guy. The static in the earpiece, Neal’s wonky witchcraft … something about the wireless gizmo at my ear is interfering with whatever he does to make this all happen. I’m still alive, but he can’t control me.
He can’t control me. Nothing’s stopping me. And he’s hugging me right now.
I plunge my teeth into the ample flesh of his neck and he screams. He scampers backward but only succeeds in falling on his back, with me right on him. I chew as hard as I can, hitting an artery eventually, his rich, greasy blood spurting right down my throat. Neal cries out for help but nobody moves. Not the band, not the teamsters, not the crowd. Everyone is silent.
I graduate to chewing pieces right off of him, savouring the muscle tissue, eating like I’ve been treated to a buffet at Caesar’s Palace. Neal goes still and I remember myself. I get myself upright, using my stump forearms to get my torso straightened out and then gingerly lifting up onto what’s left of my feet. Neal’s magic is fading and the interference on my headpiece has cleared up. Sometime during the whole incident the theatre mostly cleared out. There are maybe five, six folks out there out of the thousand seats that were filled when I got started. I gesture at the stagehand, still standing there with the tumbler of scotch for Neal’s dumb gag, and the kid shakily holds it up to my lips, eyes wet. I signal him to feed it to me, and to the kid’s credit, he manages not to spill. I get to drink it, finally. I look out again at my expectant crowd.
Say something, Tony. They’re here to see you. Be cool.
I look at the crowd a second, then back at Neal, and point to myself with an exposed wrist joint, as if I’m a kid whose mom just accused him of stealing a cookie.
“What? That?” I jab an arm in Neal’s direction. “Well c’mon, can you blame me? Look at how he dressed me! I mean sure, the necromancy is one thing, but this suit is a crime against God, let me tell ya.”
I get exactly one laugh, a great big belly-laugh, from a guy in the back. I point to him and crack a smile. The guy’s laughter fills the whole theatre, and I bask in it. I luxuriate in it.
“Thank you, New Orleans. You’ve been a wonderful audience.”
Things are going black as the last of Neal’s magic fades, returning me to the great beyond. I take the deepest bow of my life.
Everyone wants to go out with a bang–and they’re gonna be talking about this show for years.
Tony Russo is a professional vocalist who has toured the continental United States seven times–four while alive, three while undead. He released four studio albums during his brief career as a living performer, all of which received tepid reviews. He was murdered in 1964 and passed into obscurity until his re-animation at the hands of a die-hard fan in the late 2010s. He has resumed touring, against his will, though a part of him still wants to knock ’em dead.
Darren Ridgley is a journalist and speculative fiction writer residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His work has previously appeared in the Fitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal Subcultures anthology published by Mad Scientist Journal, as well as magazines including Polar Borealis, Fantasia Divinity, and Empyreome.
Justine McGreevy is a slowly recovering perfectionist, writer, and artist. She creates realities to make our own seem slightly less terrifying. Her work can be viewed at http://www.behance.net/Fickle_Muse and you can follow her on Twitter @Fickle_Muse.
“There Will Be No Encore” is © 2017 Darren Ridgley
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Justine McGreevy