Dante had no circle in hell for aspiring creative hacks, but in Eddie’s journey across scorched Earth, he encountered one after another of them — poor, desperate, jobless people, busking their meager talents for money — after having been nullified by a system that no longer needed them. He surmised it was all about karma, but had yet to determine the lesson these encounters were supposed to teach him.
One such was with Mayur Choudari, a young engineer from India. Eddie had picked him up hitch-hiking. He might have taken a routine job but he’d come to pursue the American Dream which, to him, meant not success per say, but success at something of his own. For him that was his Fly Show.
“What do you do with flies in your show? Eddie asked.
“I make them fulfill their destiny,” Mayur said.
Eddie looked at him curiously.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s better that you don’t know,” Mayur said. “You give it away, you’ll spoil the show.”
“But how do you sell it if you don’t tell people about it?”
“I tell the people who can buy the show.”
He was on his way to his next engagement, and Eddie, sensing a few bucks in it, and enchanted at the novelty of playing the Duke to Mayur’s Daufin, delivered him to his destination, the hill country Kingfisher Ranch. On the long drive leading to the hacienda, a structure that pre-dated the Texas Revolution, they passed an extensive windmill farm and occasional oil pumps.
The owner, a huge, gregarious man, graying at the temples, welcomed them at the door, which opened on a massive, timbered room. He introduced himself to Eddie as Gerhard Voelksman the Third, known to his friends as Gerry.
“Awful nice to meet you, Ed, haven’t I seen your face before? Good to see you, too, Mayur. I just can’t wait to see your show if it’s anything like what you described. Always did like something different. Gives a man some stories to tell. Always liked a good story to tell, you know what I mean, Ed?”
Once again, he scrutinized Eddie, who returned his look with a fearsome gaze that appeared to have been understood, then turned back to Mayur. “You can set up here, if that’s okay, and use the banquet table, too. We’ll sit the people on the floor so they won’t be in the way. Bring ‘em down to earth a little.”
Mayur begged Eddie to go outside and join the barbecue guests. He said there was nothing Eddie could do that he couldn’t do faster himself.
As Eddie went out to the patio to mix with the gathering throng, he savored the smoke from the barbecue pit, the kind dug out of the ground and filled with coals and meat and covered. Tables a catering truck brought in were set up under a tent.
The guests were wealthy ranchers mostly, so far as Eddie could tell, from the western cut of their bespoke suits and boots of exotic leathers. But their faces were open and honest and they had an easy way with strangers, even one dressed like a hired hand.
Eddie was back in his element, talking to everyone freely. “Ed Conover, so good to see you. Glad you could come for the show tonight.”
He worked the room like a politician, greeting virtually every guest with exactly the same line, for he knew that to pull off his chili contest, he’d have to part them from their money and pondered the way to do so.
Eddie thought he could use a patsy, someone to spread some rumors for him, so he picked out a woman who was working the crowd, waited for her to come his way, and introduced himself.
“Ed Conover, ma’am, so good to see you, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
“Cecelia Watson, I take it you’re not from these parts.”
Her face was cheerful but cover-girl vacant, and overly made up. She was someone’s trophy wife, scored from beauty contest stock many years before. She was dressed in black — like him — tailored jeans and slub silk blouse and a triple string of red coral.
“Awful nice of you, Cecile, to come for the show tonight. I do admire your taste in clothes.”
“Thank you for saying so, mighty nice party, too.”
“Just like Gerry to get this up, pull a little surprise on people. I’d hate to spill the beans about it but I hear tell it’s the hottest act to come along in years. They flew me in from the coast this morning just so as I could see it.”
“Is that a fact?” she said.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s a fact. That boy’s got them people thinking maybe they should do something with it. That’s why they’ve got me here working, to see what I can come up with.”
“See what you can come up with?” she said.
“Hollywood, ma’am.” Eddie whispered.
“Hollywood!” Cecelia shrieked, “you’re making a movie? Here? Tonight? In Cairo, Texas? You mean we’re gonna be in pictures? Where are the cameras? Where are the lights?”
“Well, not exactly, but soon enough. We’ve got to get it written first. That’s what I’m here for. Maybe I can arrange something for you. Fine looking woman like you. You really ought to be in pictures.”
“Oh, Mr. Conover, that’s so sweet of you to say. How long do you plan to be in town?”
“Just a few more days, ma’am. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I see someone I need to speak to.”
Eddie turned and shook some more hands, but those few words were all he needed. Within seconds the place was buzzing of Eddie and the picture show that he was making in Cairo.
“Have you met that guy, Ed Conover? They say he’s a writer from Hollywood.”
“Is that a fact? Somebody said he’s making a picture.”
“He’d better not be making them R-rated pictures.”
“Who’s making R-rated pictures?”
“…feller in the black outfit, one with the crazy belt, he’s the one they’s talkin about, says he’s making a moving picture right here in Cairo.”
“…one of them R-rated pictures, I’d have a mind to run him out of town.”
“…movie’s not about Cairo, it’s about that guy putting on the show.”
“You mean to tell me it’s an R-rated show?”
A fat, frustrated looking blond grabbed Eddie by the sleeve, as he passed through the crowd on his way to the hors d’oeuvres.
“Give us the scoop, Mr. Conover, is Hollywood really as wicked as they say?”
“Some ways worse, some ways better.”
“You don’t have any gossip for us?” she inquired.
“Well, ma’am, we’re not really that much different from ya’ll. Most of that stuff we read in the papers just like you do here.”
“Come on, Mr. Conover, you don’t need…” she said.
“Please, just call me Eddie.”
“You don’t need to be shy with us. We know how it is out there.”
“Maybe there is just one I could tell you,” Eddie began, “it’s about this fellow called Gofer Aynis. He was -”
A group of irate citizens gathered around and glared at Eddie. The most vocal of their number, a stout, balding, middle-aged man, who appeared to be high on beatitudes, stepped forward and and poked him in the chest. “You the one making that R-rated movie? We don’t cotton to R-rated movies. Not in Cairo, Texas we don’t.”
It began to dawn on Eddie that he was among some hard-shell Baptists and ought change his tune. Thinking about the shenanigans he and his granddad pulled, and the sentiments of his audience — who no doubt believed in their hearts of hearts that the nation’s financial establishment was populated with Seraphim — he fabricated a metaphor and imagined himself on Sunset Strip instead of at Broad and Wall.
“Sir,” Eddie said, “I truly don’t know what you’re talking about. I swear I never said any such thing. I was just telling this good woman we’re making a fine religious picture about a Hollywood producer…” He gradually worked his speaking style into that of a TV preacher. “…the boss of Gofer Aynis Productions, that makes a lot of them art house movies. Yes sir, he was sinner, that man, making them double X-rated movies, triple X-rated you ask me, and skimming off most of the proceeds. Darkest heart I ever knew. But he done had a spiritual crisis and took to the hills awhile back, not only to hear The Word of The Lord, but to learn to resist the Devil’s temptations, and do his penance for his evil ways. He done met this man, Mayur, who sees the purpose in all God’s creatures. He says even the lowliest of us, if only blessed by the power of Jesus, and a righteous sense of the Good Lord’s will, can accomplish truly miraculous things, and tonight he means to demonstrate that even a common house fly, when blessed by the power of The Good Lord Jesus, is able to do unheard of wonders, and thereby spread The Word of The Lord, and he done showed that Gofer Aynis how his true purpose in life was cooking and serving that One True Chili, better than any you ever tasted, in honor of The Good Lord Jesus, and all he wants is the chance to make it for all the good people of Cairo, Texas. And so I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to please bear witness with this sinner, who stands before you here tonight, so ashamed of his sins was he that he could only speak of himself as if he were a total stranger, and a right lowly one at that, and how he found his true salvation at the hands of this man Mayur and his inspirational fly show. And that, ladies and gentlemen, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen, is what this picture is truly about, and if that sounds to you like an R-rated picture then I would submit that the Good Lord’s book is R-rated too.”
A small group of people came forward saying they’d been inspired wanting to know how they could invest, and to whom they should make out a check. Ever so piously, Eddie, raised his hands to stop them.
“My good people, from the bottom of my heart I thank you. And may your faith be forever rewarded. But I would not presume to partake of your good offices, even for this most holy purpose, without the means to provide you with the proper guarantees. A motion picture, after all, is a risky undertaking.”
The crowd saw that honest pilgrim, with his most beatific smile, standing there before them, refusing to take their money, and they just couldn’t help but believe, as Eddie could see in their eyes and faces, and knew he could deliver his closing lines.
“But there is still good work to be done right here in Cairo, feeding the goodly people a truly righteous plate of chili, just as the Good Lord intended. If you would like to contribute, so that all the good people might be fed, we’d be honored to accept your donations.”
They surged forward like stampeding cattle, checks and business cards in hand, asked him how much he could use, and told him to get in touch with them if he needed help with his movie deal.
“Just make it out to Edison Conover Ministries,” Eddie said.
Once he’d gotten the checks collected, and thanked each donor personally, Eddie excused himself from the crowd and went back inside. Mayur was by the banquet table laying out an exhibit of miniature artifacts. Eddie didn’t pay them much attention. Instead, he showed Mayur the checks and told him he ought to give his show a good Christian twist.
“There’s nothing these born-agains love more than a flimflam man for Jesus,” he said.
“Funny you should say that, partner. Looks like you got a damn good haul.”
“Just tell them about God’s purpose for them,” Eddie said, as he totaled up the checks. “Must be a couple of thousand here. We should do this again some time.”
Mayur demurred with a grin.
Eddie looked over the artifacts laid out on the table. Museum of Fly Powered Aviation, it said on a small brass plaque. Mobiles of tiny antique planes hung from the candelabra, biplanes and triplanes from World War One, Spitfires and P-38s, dating back to the Second War, all built to the scale of houseflies.
Gerry Voelksman entered the room wanting to know if Mayur was ready. Mayur gave him a thumbs up. Gerry ushered his herd of guests towards the banquet table, to show Mayur’s Museum of Fly-Powered Aviation. Eddie circulated among them, listening to their comments.
“Do you believe these photographs?”
“What’s it supposed to be, a flight crew?”
“They’re just a bunch of houseflies.”
“Have you ever seen anything so bizarre?”
“What the hell’s Gerry up to now?”
“Have you ever seen anything so bizarre?”
“What the hell’s Gerry up to now?”
“You know how Gerry is, sometimes you just have to humor him.”
“How’d he get them to pose like that?”
“Must all be dead or something.”
“Look at these tiny aviator suits. They’ve all got six sleeves in them.”
“You got to admit the detail’s good.”
“This is just too strange for me.”
“And here’s that Iwo Jima statue, done with plastic flies.”
“Why that’s sacrilegious, doing that to our boys. Man should be shot if you ask me.”
“Relax, dear, it’s just in fun.”
“Such things shouldn’t be done in fun.”
When Gerry announced the show would begin, the gathered before the staging area, a lightweight folding table on which was placed a model airport, complete with lights and rotating radar, control tower and firehouse, all built to housefly scale. Several small model planes, made from balsa wood, were laid out on the tarmac. Tiny model cars and trucks were parked around the buildings. Pedestrian areas were laid out with strips of fly-paper, to which stuck dozens of insects.
Close by was another table, this one with an aquarium on it. A model aircraft carrier, with a few small planes laid out on deck, was floating on the surface. People were scratching their heads all around. But the host preempted speculation by asking the crowd to be seated.
“You’ll have to sit on the floor, so as not to be in the way.”
Gerry waited for everyone to sit.
“And now ladies and gentlemen may I present, scientist, aviator, showman, shaman, all the way from Bombay, India, the one and only Mayur Choudhary.”
Mayur appeared as if from nowhere dressed in a white lab coat with an aviator scarf around his neck and covered with a leather flight helmet, vintage World War One.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am Mayur Choudhary, from India, at your service, please. I appear before you tonight to announce a great discovery. To explain the genesis of this revelation, I was working one night in the laboratory constructing a plastic model in preparation for a lecture my superior would deliver the following day…
Oh my, Eddie thought, this is going to be a soporific.
…but I was much bothered by the buzzing of a fly, which thwarted all my efforts to swat it. It happened to land on a piece of paper and appeared to be stuck to something. My best surmise was a drop of model airplane glue. This presented a perfect opportunity, so I raised my hand strike him. But the fly beat his wings most furiously and lifted off the counter with the paper still attached to his tail and flew about the room. That was my epiphany. If flies can carry more than their own weight, I thought, maybe they can carry payloads, too.”
“Payloads?” Eddie thought, “what have I gotten myself into? What if he’s a terrorist?” The crowd seemed to share his unease. Many of them looked towards Gerry, who appeared very much at ease.
“Being a humble lab assistant, who came to this country to make his fortune, I devoted my life to breeding flies and teaching them to fly…”
There was a murmur of disapproval. “They already no know how to do that,” a voice called out from the crowd.
“You get a government grant for that?” another voice called out.
Eddie flashed the sign of the cross and Mayur caught his meaning.
“Being a deeply religious man, I sensed the power of the Lord upon me…”
As soon as he mentioned the Lord the crowd seemed to settle down.
“…and I knew that I would be serving Him if I could only use this knowledge to help these creatures find their true purpose in life and make an object lesson of them for those who have lost their way. Are there any questions before we proceed?”
“What do the animal rights folks say?”
“They confine their interest to animals. Flies don’t have a lobby yet.”
“But when they do, don’t you think you’ll become a target? How will that effect your experiments?”
“I’ll just tell them to bugger off.”
Mayur took a tube of airplane glue and carefully placed a drop on the nose of a small balsa wood airplane that looked like a Lear Jet. He then drew the jar from the side pocket of his lab coat and a set of pincers with spongy points from the breast pocket. He carefully removed the top so as not to let the flies escape, reached in and carefully pinched a fly.
“You must be very gentle with them,” he said.
Mayur attached the fly to the nose cone. First it beat its wings, attempting its normal takeoff, but found it couldn’t fly. Its next move was to run for cover and it headed down the runway, dragging the plane behind it, picking up speed as it went. When it found it had no more running room it took a leap of faith and was airborne. There were oos and ahs from the crowd as the plane made a smooth take-off. It rose slightly, then sharply, climbed like a rocket in fact, six or seven feet in the air, stalled, flipped over in an Immelman turn, and dropped to the floor in a tailspin. Cries of dismay could be heard from the audience. Mayur reached for his ambulance and pushed it to the end of the runway. He then bent over and retrieved the plane.
“The pilot is still kicking,” he said, to collective sighs of relief. Mayur went on talking.
“As you can see, the technology is still rudimentary. I believe some genetic engineering would help. I hope to produce a species of flies able to carry these little buggies as much as a hundred feet or more.”
“What applications do you foresee for this technology?” Eddie inquired.
“Military applications mostly. For delivering biological warfare agents, using germs that infect on contact. All we’d need is for someone in place to let them loose near the target. Think how cost efficient, all these willing little soldiers, expendable as teenage boys, no need to pay them, house them, clothe them, feed them, air condition their tents in the desert, or bury them when they die. It’s the ultimate weapon of capitalism -”
“You some kind of socialist?” a voice in the crowd cried out.
“Lighten up, dear,” a woman’s voice was heard to say.
Mayur didn’t miss a beat.
“…and who wouldn’t snatch them up, just out of curiosity. Think how many evil regimes we could eliminate in this way. I approached Defense and the CIA, but they laughed at my naivete and said there was no constituency for it.”
“And a damn good thing too, by gum,” another voice said.
“Where’s the profit in it?”
Mayur then showed his audience a plane modeled after the Concorde, with long, narrow, swept back wings that hugged the fuselage. He placed a large fly on the nose cone and watched as it charged down the runway. Its trajectory was flatter than the previous craft’s. It soared over the heads of the audience and landed softly on the carpet behind them, a flight of approximately twenty five feet. The crowd applauded the valiant effort.
“We’ve got Naval Aviators too,” Mayur said. “He picked up another craft that looked like an A4 fighter.”
“The first few times I tried this it was a big disappointment. The pilots couldn’t get up the necessary speed and they would fall off the deck into the water. Just like on the real ships, it needs a catapult to launch it, and it took some doing to make one on a toy model such as this, but I finally succeeded in doing so with tiny winch and a rubber band.”
Mayur attached his pilot to the plane and set it down on the deck, and carefully slipped the fuselage into the catapult track.
“I had to modify the angle of the deck in order to get the plane airborne as well. Okay ready, here we go.”
Mayur pulled the trigger and the plane shot forward and skyward, banked and turned, to crowd’s amazement and half circled the room before the little pilot collapsed of exhaustion and the plane nose dived to the floor. The crowd applauded wildly.
Mayur picked up a fourth plane, bigger than all the rest, with a wide wingspan, an extra tall elevator, and a small hump in the fuselage that marked it as a 747. Unlike the other models it really dwarfed a fly.
“This one’s always an adventure. It’s my most ambitious project, too big for one pilot to fly alone. I use it to teach these buggers teamwork. Notice the five engine platforms, one on the nose cone, two on each wing.”
Mayur placed it on the runway, fastened it down with a piece of tape, dropped glue on each of the platforms and proceeded to station his pilots. He tried to make sure they were close in size so they might be equal in strength. When he had it all together he pulled away the tape. At first the plane rocked from side to side as one fly or another tried to lift off, then it turned this way and that as one or another attempted to run. Mayur passed his hand over the plane to stir a little breeze and make them all react at once. The plane shook one more time then lumbered forward down the runway, gathering speed as it went. The take-off seemed uncertain, the plane rose gradually into the air, banking as it did so, went wing over wing in a barrel roll and headed downward into the crowd, landing in an elderly matron’s lap.
“Aaaarrrgggghhh!” the kind of scream that women use for spiders, rats, and centipedes.
“Get this thing off of me,” she shrieked.
“Please, calm down, Mayur said, rushing to her aid, It isn’t going to hurt you.”
“What if it’s got germs?” she shrieked.
At that, the short, fat, balding born again stood up and yelled, “It’s biological terrorism.”
People were climbing all over each other trying to get away from the old woman.
“Stop!” Gerry yelled. He said it with such authority that everyone froze as he continued.
“What’s wrong with you people? This man has given us an evening of enchantment, something to talk about the rest of our lives, and this is the way you treat him? You should be ashamed of yourselves. I want ya’ll to applaud him, and thank him for the memories.”
Mayur didn’t get any tips that night, but he did get an envelope stuffed with cash, and he and Eddie ate barbeque, at the banquet table, away from the guests.