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.