The Man Who Would Be Kong

Gorilla man Max Strauss stared at the obituaries page of the evening newspaper. His vision blurred with tears. The front section, heavy with stories about Watergate and Cambodia and record-setting inflation, lay discarded on the floor. He sat on the bed of his efficiency apartment, a fourth floor walk-up that overlooked an alleyway. Its walls were papered with yellowed Hollywood news clippings and once-glossy photos of small-time film actors outfitted in loincloths, space helmets, or animal costumes. The obituary photo he stared at was of a man with blunt but handsome features, a worldly grin, and a dapper fedora tilted a few degrees south.

Yearning for the comfort of something loved and long-familiar, the old man pulled his gorilla mask over his face, thankful for its intimate smells and darkness. His tears flowed through the mask’s eyeholes and down the black rubber skin.

The man in the obituary was Robert Armstrong, the actor who played Carl Denham, the impresario who captured King Kong.

· · · · ·

The next morning, in a nearly-completed Miami Beach restaurant four blocks away, another Carl, Carl Lipkin, yelled into his phone, arguing with a napkin purveyor. This Carl was an impresario, too.

His friend, Alessandra, perched atop a fifteen-foot ladder, squinted and puckered her lips as she applied the last daubs of paint to a blue and white star on the wing of an army biplane. She looked as tiny and vulnerable as Fay Wray had, lying on an Empire State Building ledge one hundred and two stories high, waiting for Bruce Cabot to arrive after the big ape fell. Alessandra was nearly done with her mural, which took up an entire wall of the main dining room. It was a panorama of the Miami Beach skyline, circa 1938, with a squadron of Curtis fighter planes flying high above a glistening ocean and Buck Rogers-style hotel towers.

Outside the restaurant, Max shielded his eyes from the fierce sun and knocked on the plate-glass window. He carried his gorilla head under his arm.

“No! I absolutely refuse to accept them!” Carl’s face was as disheveled as a wadded-up napkin. His knuckles had turned white from squeezing the mouthpiece of the phone. “Give them to the Salvation Army, for all I care! No, you did not show me a proof! I gave you clear instructions—it’s ‘Carl’s’ with a C, not with a K! Believe me, I know I’m supposed to be opening in three days! No … no! I’ll get them somewhere else!” He slammed the receiver down hard enough to knock the phone from the table. It didn’t get him his napkins, but it made him feel better. The old man with the gorilla head was still knocking on the window.

“Carl,” Alessandra called from the top of her ladder. “There’s an old man with a gorilla head knocking on your window. Maybe you should see what he wants?”

Carl was busy picking up the phone from the floor. He quickly glanced at the window. “Oh. That’s just Max. He can wait a minute. It’s not like he’s got anyplace else to go.”

Carl disconnected the cord and held the receiver in the air until the tangled plastic finished twirling. Then he went to the door and unlocked it.

Max shuffled into the restaurant’s doorway. The weave of his straw fedora, like the hem of his peach-colored slacks, was coming undone. His gorilla head, a mask stuffed with old newspapers, wasn’t in much better shape. Tufts of its fur had been falling out since the Charleston had gone out of style. One of its rubber nostrils had melted where Max had accidentally let it lean against his car window during a drive to a birthday party in Ft. Lauderdale on a hot afternoon. Max blinked rapidly while his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light. He looked around him, nodding with approval. His still-sparkling blue eyes lingered on the restaurant’s impressive centerpiece: a fifteen-foot-long black plastic arm emerging from artfully arranged “rubble” in the rear wall, grasping a blond-wigged mannequin in its huge fingers. The arm of Kong.

“So?” he asked, his voice rising with a Yiddish lilt that couldn’t hide a tinge of sadness. “Have you heard the news about Bobby?”

Carl gently took hold of Max’s arm and pulled him into the room, closing the door behind him. Air-conditioning was expensive. “Who are you talking about, Max? Bobby who?”

“Bobby Armstrong, that’s who! Don’t tell me you haven’t read the obituaries!”

The news took a few seconds to register. “Robert Armstrong … aw, jeez. When did it happen, Max?”

“It was in the papers yesterday. He died in his sleep. We should all go out that way, God willing!”

Carl stared at the floor and slowly shook his head. “Yeah, right …”

Alessandra had climbed down from her ladder. “What’s going on? Who died?”

Max faced her, trying not to stare at the gold hoop that pierced her left nostril or the orange streak in her long black hair. He extended his hand with gallant formality. “I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure, Miss—?”

She smiled and placed her hand lightly in his. “Alessandra.” She turned to Carl. “So who croaked?”

“Robert Armstrong. You remember Carl Denham in King Kong?”

Alessandra’s green eyes scanned the ceiling, as if the answer might be hidden among the track lighting fixtures. “Mmmm … no.”

“The guy who hired the boat that went to Skull Island? The one who tossed the gas grenade that knocked Kong out? You know—the movie producer character!”

Her eyes lit with recognition. “Oh! The asshole who almost gets everybody killed!”

“A prince of a man!” Max interjected. “One of the great actors of Hollywood! He really knew how to treat people, that Bobby did. A tragedy, a tragedy. There aren’t that many of us old-timers left, you know. That’s why I called the newspaper.”

Carl’s mouth fell open. “The Miami Herald?”

“Of course. What other newspaper is there?”

“Oh, Max. You didn’t tell them—?”

The wattles around the old man’s neck flattened out as his jaw stiffened. “Of course I told them! Why shouldn’t I tell them? I was his co-star! The biggest co-star he ever had!”

Carl rubbed his tired, irritated eyes. “So what did they have to say, Max?”

“What do you think? They were thrilled to hear from me! They sent out a nice reporter lady to talk with me yesterday afternoon. And a picture-taker. I posed with Mr. Kong here.” He held out the gorilla head for Alessandra to look at. “So don’t miss the paper tonight. And one other thing, Carl. You may be getting an important phone call.”

Carl wished he had a glass of water. Scotch would be even better. “Oh, boy. What kind of phone call?”

Max smiled. His dentures gleamed. “I can’t tell you yet. It’s a big surprise! But a good surprise!”

Alessandra eyed the old man with new interest. “Wow! I never met such a big celebrity before! Hey Carl, how come you never told me you knew Mr. Max here?”

“That’s Mr. Strauss, my dear. Max is my first name.”

Carl tried to remember where he had stashed the aspirin. His shirt was beginning to stick to his back. “Uh, jeez, with everything going on, I guess it just slipped my mind …”

Max put the gorilla head down on a table and draped a thin arm around Carl’s shoulders. “Carl. I must tell you something. When I first met you, when I first saw what you try to do here, I thought, ‘What is this meshugge boy doing? Tearing up a nice cafeteria like that?’ But now, I must tell you, I look around at what you have done, and I am proud of you.” He gestured for Alessandra to come closer. “Let me tell you young people something. You know what is the most important goal in life? Listen to me. The most important goal is to do one very, very good thing. Like me. More than forty years ago—forty years!—I starred in a very, very good movie. An important movie! What I did in that movie, people remember it forever. It gets in their hearts. I was a monster, a thirty-foot-high monster, but I make them cry for me. And that one thing, that one movie, it makes everything else okay. All the crummy, lousy pictures I was in, those chapter serials, just to put some food on my family’s plates. Like you, Carl. Maybe you worked years in Burger King to save up money for this place, huh? Is that where you worked? But now you have this restaurant, this beautiful restaurant, to show for it, and it makes it all worthwhile. Right?”

He gave Carl’s shoulders a squeeze. Carl pushed his glasses back up his nose. He couldn’t think of a word to say.

Alessandra handed Max back his gorilla head, first smoothing its matted fur. “That was a wonderful story, Mr. Strauss.” She smiled gently. “I hope I find my one very, very good thing. It’s why I came down here.” Alessandra had moved down from Manhattan two months before to help her friend Carl with the renovations needed at his newly purchased restaurant. Painting was her first love, so she had jumped at the opportunity to create a mural inside the building.

Max patted her hand. “You’ll find it. I’m sure you will.” He bowed slightly, then shuffled toward the door. He placed a hand on the gilded knob then started as he remembered why he had come. “Oh! Carl! I almost forgot!” He hustled back to the proprietor and placed the gorilla head in his hands. “Here! You’ll want this for your restaurant, won’t you? As a loaner, of course. I’ll need to borrow it back for my jobs. You can put the whole suit on display, if you want. It was too hot today to schlep the whole thing over here, though.”

Carl grimaced as the mass of ancient fur and rubber landed in his hands. He handled the mask like it was a dead muskrat. “Oh, Max, no—I can’t accept this from you! It’s, uh, far too valuable for me to be responsible for it! What if, you know, some little kid should run out the door with it? It’s not like I can ever replace it for you.”

Max shrugged his shoulders. “Okay. Suit yourself.” He accepted the gorilla head back. “If you don’t want to have the original King Kong suit on display in your restaurant, who am I to argue? You’re the businessman, not me.” He winked at Alessandra, then at Carl. “I’ll be seeing you!”

Alessandra watched him leave, a proud jauntiness in his slow stride. She turned to Carl. “I can’t believe you passed up an opportunity like that!”

“What? To put his mangy old gorilla suit on display in here? You must be kidding!”

“But you heard what he said! That’s the original King Kong suit!

“Oh, come on, Aless! Don’t you know anything about movies?”

“Don’t get all testy with me! And what don’t I know?”

Carl smacked his palm against his high, sweating forehead. “King Kong was an eighteen-inch-tall model!”

Alessandra sucked in her breath. “He was a midget?

“No, not a midget! A model! Like—like a toy, a puppet! He was animated, moved bit by bit between frames of film. I thought everybody knew this! Everybody but Max, that is.”

Alessandra’s jaw drooped. “You—you mean, he wasn’t …”

Carl sighed. “No. He wasn’t. What he is is the biggest bullshit artist in Miami Beach!” He bit his lip. His voice was immediately softer. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called him that. He isn’t a bullshitter. You want to know the most pathetic thing about it? I really think he believes his own story. Over the last forty years, somehow he’s convinced himself that he played King Kong.”

“Was he in the movie at all?”

Carl shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe as an extra. Maybe he played one of the natives or a train rider that gets squashed. Who knows? I did a little research after I met him. Far as I can tell, Max was always a gorilla man in Hollywood. There were a bunch of them. Guys who owned their own gorilla suits. Producers of Grade Z movies loved them, ’cause they could hire a stuntman and a gorilla suit at the same time.”

“What kind of movies was he in?”

“A bunch of jungle serials. Republic Studios made lots of them during the forties. The only feature film I was ever able to trace him to was something called The Lemon Drop Kids Meet a Brooklyn Gorilla.”

Alessandra made a face. “Was it awful?

“Honey, awful is too mild a word. Actually, Max was the best thing in it.”

Alessandra pulled herself up onto a bar stool. “So how did you meet him?”

Carl fixed her a seltzer with a splash of lemon juice. He poured himself an imported beer. “He almost hit me over the head is how we met. I had just started working on this place, and I looked out the window and there’s this old guy out there having some kind of fit. I thought maybe he’s choking or having a heart attack or something, so I ran outside to see if I could help. Well, it’s not a fit he’s having, it’s a temper tantrum, and the only thing being attacked was me.”

“Sweet old Mr. Max? I can’t imagine him attacking anything. Except maybe a bowl of borscht.”

“He almost had me for lunch. Actually, that’s what it was all about—lunch. He thought I’d had something to do with closing down the cafeteria that used to be in this building. Katz’s Cafeteria. Well, the place had closed two years before I set foot in Miami Beach. The sense of time, I think it’s one of the first things to go. Anyway, to keep him from having a real heart attack, I invited him inside. I figured maybe I could calm him down, y’know, tell him about our Early Bird specials. I was trying to be friendly; I didn’t want him organizing neighborhood protests. Gray Panthers, that’s all I needed …” Carl shuddered, then took a deep gulp of beer. “I showed him my drawings of the place. Aless, it was uncanny—in an instant I went from being Hitler to Max’s favorite grandson. The whole story spilled out of him in thirty seconds.”

“And you never, y’know, told him what you know about the movie?”

Carl glared at her. “What do you think? I didn’t have the heart. It’s eating me up inside, this business about him calling the newspaper. Someone’s bound to know the real deal. Once word gets out, some mean bastard’ll come running down here to rub Max’s nose in the truth.”

The phone rang. Carl spilled half his remaining beer on his newly varnished bar. “Shit! Wipe that up, would you, Aless?” He grabbed the phone. “Carl Lipkin Enterprises. Hello?” Alessandra didn’t bother wiping up the spill. Watching Carl’s face was much more interesting. “Yes, we’re opening in three days, we’d be delighted—” Then the caller stuck a pin in Carl’s balloon, and the air fizzled out of his outsized smile. “Uh, sure. We can accommodate you. Tonight at seven would be fine. Good-bye.”

Carl hung up the phone. He shuffled back to the bar like a condemned man, covered his face with his hands, and groaned. His elbows rested in the spilled beer. He didn’t seem to notice.

Alessandra quietly set her drink down. Gingerly, she touched Carl’s shoulder. “Carl? What was all that about?”

“Max.” With his hands covering his face, it sounded like Mmaaaggs.

“That was Max on the phone?”

Carl lifted his face. “It wasn’t Max. It was about Max. He called WSVN. The NBC affiliate. They want to interview Max. Here. In the restaurant. They’re sending a camera crew by tonight.”

Alessandra thought about her mural and Carl and Max being on television. “Oh?” Then she thought about it some more. She put her arm around Carl’s slumped shoulders. “Ohhh.”

· · · · ·

Max arrived at 6:45 P.M. In his gorilla suit. Carl was dressed in an expensive Italian ensemble, mauve, with a matching Kong-on-the-Empire-State-Building tie. Alessandra wore her prettiest Slavic peasant dress, the one that laced up the front.

The camera crew arrived early. The reporter was a handsome young black man whom Carl vaguely recognized. As they set up their lights, Carl admired the twelve-foot-high, stainless steel sculpture of the Delano Hotel, Miami Beach’s tallest Art Deco tower, that had arrived at the restaurant just that afternoon. The next day, it would be installed in the fountain in the middle of his foyer. No doubt about it, his establishment was shaping up to be a real showplace. At least my place’ll be shown on television, Carl told himself, his stomach lurching.

The reporter clipped on his miniature microphone. The video camera began to hum. Max dropped to a crouch and started scratching himself. “This is Mitch Darby,” the reporter intoned, every syllable perfect, “and we’re here this evening at the soon-to-be-opening Carl’s Restaurant. I have with me owner Carl Lipkin, and Max Strauss, the man who portrayed the original King Kong.” He turned to Max, who was energetically bobbing up and down. “Mr. Strauss, would you mind taking off your mask? I’m sure our viewers would like to see what you really look like.”

Max complied. His face was flushed from the heat, but his smile was unwilted. “Hello! Hello!” Standing up straight, he bumped into the stainless steel tower next to him. “Carl! This isn’t the Empire States Building!”

Carl smiled weakly. “I’ve explained that to you, Max. It’s the Delano Hotel. You know, the one on Collins Avenue.”

The reporter stuck his microphone in Carl’s face. “I was wondering about that myself, Mr. Lipkin. What is the connection between Miami Beach and King Kong?”

Carl cleared his throat. “Carl’s Restaurant is based on a unique concept. As you probably know, the character who captured Kong was named Carl Denham—”

“Portrayed by the recently deceased Robert Armstrong?”

“Uh, right. And the man who founded Miami Beach was also named Carl. Carl Fisher. What I’ve done is to amalgamate two great Carls into one: Carl Denham Fisher. The story you see told in the murals around the restaurant is that, when Kong is captured, he isn’t put on display in New York. Carl Denham Fisher brings him back to Miami Beach. He chains Kong up in the middle of the old dog track.”

Darby eyed the tall sculpture. “And he meets his death atop the Delano Hotel?”

“That’s right. About our menu—”

“A fascinating concept.” He swiveled smoothly around to Max. “And you, Mr. Strauss? Are you pleased with this new restaurant concept?”

Max bobbed his head vigorously. “Oh yes! Yes! The food here will be just as good as the food at Katz’s Cafeteria. Everyone should come. And Carl tells me I can eat for free at the Sunday Early Bird for as long as I live!”

Darby smiled for the camera. “Mr. Strauss, what was it like to portray King Kong?”

Max’s eyes strayed from the camera to the nearly completed murals on the wall. “It was wonderful. The greatest thing I ever did.” His expression became intensely thoughtful. “You know why my Kong came out so good? Because him and me, we were practically the same person. Oh, I wasn’t brought to America like he was, in chains. But I came over in the dark hold of a big boat. And when I got here, the American girls—they were so beautiful. I wanted to kiss every single one I saw. But I couldn’t, you know. I was an immigrant. I didn’t speak English. And people could be so mean. There were days—I don’t like to think of them now—when I wanted to smash trains and throw people out of windows, just like Kong did.”

Max was silent for a few seconds. The reporter frowned. “Can you tell us how the special effects were done? They were pretty amazing for the nineteen thirties.”

Max came back to earth. “Sure! Like when I was climbing the Empire States Building. What they did was, they built a big model of the building, only they laid it flat, on the ground, see? And they turned the camera sideways. That made it easy for me to climb. Now, when they needed a shot of Miss Fay Wray in my paw—Miss Wray, she was a queen!—they built a great big gorilla arm, just like that one back there, and they wrapped the fingers around her. If it was a far-away shot, they gave me a little doll of Miss Wray to carry around. And the dinosaurs—”

A man behind the cameras slit his throat with his finger. Darby picked up the signal. “Thank you very much, Mr. Strauss.” The reporter turned back to the camera. “This is Mitch Darby for Channel Seven News.” The hot lights clicked off. Darby shook Max’s fur-gloved hand. “Thanks so much. My kids really love your film. They’ll go bananas when they see this later tonight. Just one thing, though. Somewhere I got the idea that King Kong was just a little model.”

Max didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, that rumor?” He made a dismissive wave with his paw. “That’s jealous old Gormon talking.”

Carl moved closer. He had never heard this part of the story before. “Gormon?”

“Yeah, Gormon, that gonif! Another gorilla man, like me. He wanted the part, too. But he didn’t get it. So he runs around Hollywood the last forty years, the evil yenta, spreading this rumor that Kong was a little toy. A little toy!” He harrumphed. “Could a little toy make people believe in Kong, the way I did? Gormon. May bugs infest his food! May he never have a good night’s sleep!”

The camera crew finished loading the last of their equipment into their van. Darby took a final look around the restaurant. “Great looking place you’ve got here. Thanks again.”

Carl watched the van drive off down Washington Avenue. It hadn’t gone so badly. Max had done all right. Maybe everyone in Miami was an ignoramus when it came to movies. Maybe.

· · · · ·

The next day was inspection day. Not Carl’s notion of a fun day. He followed the health inspector around the restaurant like a stray dog, unsure whether this quiet stranger would toss him a biscuit or turn and kick him in the ribs. Another stranger walked through the front doors, this one with a bulging file underneath his arm. Carl reluctantly broke away from the health inspector.

He dabbed the sweat from his forehead, using a Karl’s-with-a-K napkin. “Hello! Can I help you, sir?”

“I hope you can.” The stranger had enormous, bushy eyebrows, like Leonid Brezhnev’s. He smelled a little like spoiled milk or cat urine. “I’m looking for Max Strauss. He around here?”

“No. He’s not. Who are you?”

The stranger pulled a press card from his expandable file and shoved it under Carl’s nose. “I’m Pete Zucker. Miami Herald film critic. You have any idea where this Strauss might be?”

Carl’s stomach turned as sour as the reporter’s odor. “No. Maybe he’s at his apartment? Not that I know where he lives—”

“I already checked there. He wasn’t home.” Zucker took a cursory glance around the restaurant, bustling with last-minute carpenters. “Nice place you’ve got here. Maybe I’ll come by for lunch sometime. You give a discount to journalists?”

“I hadn’t thought about that yet.” Carl wiped his palms on his chinos, leaving visible wet streaks on the combed cotton. “Look, what do you want to see Max about?”

“You read this article yet?” Zucker pulled a long clipping from his file and handed it to Carl. “It’s from last night’s Herald. Makes me ashamed to be working for that rag. If that brainless bimbo Louise Popner had just checked with me before she jumped on this ‘story,’ she wouldn’t be having to print a correction tomorrow.”

Carl looked up from Max’s smiling newspaper photo. “A correction?” Suddenly he wished he were back in Manhattan, hawking tie-dyed sneakers from a stall on St. Mark’s Place again. “Uh, is that, like, really necessary?”

“We’re a reputable newspaper, not the National Examiner. Of course it’s necessary! Hey, you got a glass of ice water around here?” Carl fixed him a glass. Zucker chewed the ice. To Carl it sounded like breaking bones. “Every couple years, another old guy pops up, claiming to have ‘played’ King Kong. I knew Robert Armstrong’s death would flush some fakers out. It just burns my ass when somebody tries to steal credit from Willis O’Brien, the animator. That O’Brien, he was a genius, and today practically nobody recognizes his name. It’s you I’m kinda surprised at. Looking around this place, I’d figure you know your movies. Why did you ever let this bum in the door?”

“Look, he’s really a very sweet old man—”

Out of the corner of his eye, Carl saw the last thing he wanted to see. It was Max, wearing his best Bermuda shorts, a stack of newspapers under his arm, about to enter the front door. Carl scoured his brain for some way to warn him away. But before he could think of anything, Max had already strolled inside.

Zucker caught the look on Carl’s face and turned toward the door. His fingers clenched around his thick file. “You’re Strauss, aren’t you?”

Max smiled, revealing freshly polished dentures. “Yes! Max Strauss, at your service!” He extended his right hand. “Who am I having the pleasure of meeting?”

Zucker’s hands stayed at his sides. “Pete Zucker, film critic for the Miami Herald.”

“Oh, a newspaper man!” Max smiled even more broadly. “What a coincidence! I was just out, seeing my friends, giving away these newspapers. Here, Carl. I got one for you! And one for Miss Alessandra! Is she here?”

Carl shook his head. The movement made him slightly queasy. “She’s on her lunch break, Max.”

“Oh, well! I’m sure I’ll see her. Carl, I have to tell you, my phone has been ringing off the hook! Everybody in town wants me for their kid’s birthday party! I’ll be booked until next Rosh Hashana!” He beamed. “So how come this newspaper man is here to see you? He’s doing a story on your restaurant, I hope?”

Zucker lit a cigarette despite the “No Smoking” signs. “Actually, Mr. Strauss, it’s you I was looking for. I want to talk with you about your favorite movie. King Kong.”

Max’s eyes lit up like a Fourth of July fireworks display. “Oh, of course, of course! So much attention I’m getting lately! Let me tell you, that Bobby Armstrong, he was a prince—”

Zucker held up a hand. Something in his face, in the harsh way he flicked an ash into a water glass, made Max stop. “Hang on a second, pal. I want to show you some photos. You like looking at photos? Most old folks do.”

Carl could see the growing confusion in Max’s face. The old man’s smile began to fade. “Uh, sure. Sure!”

Zucker laid his file on the bar. He pulled out a set of 8 x 10-inch photos and a couple of thick hardbound books. Carl quickly read one of the titles. Movie Magic: the Secrets Behind the Classic Films. The film critic slapped a photo down on the bar. It was a picture of a technician kneeling next to a scale model of a skyscraper, manipulating the arms of a foot-and-a-half-tall gorilla figure that was clinging to the building.

That’s King Kong, Strauss. Not a man in an ape suit. An eighteen-inch-tall animated model.”

“That—that must be a picture from a different movie …”

“Come on, pal. Name me another film where a giant gorilla climbs up the side of a building.”

Max glanced quickly at Carl. The old man’s eyes were the eyes of a frightened child. “Uh, maybe, maybe they used a little model like that for some shots. For far-away shots. Some of the things they needed Kong to do, they were too hard for me …”

Zucker took a quick drag off his cigarette. He was enjoying this. “So which scenes were you in, Strauss? The scene where Kong shakes the sailors off the log? The scene where he fights the Tyrannosaurus?”

Max nodded vigorously. “Yes! Yes, those were the ones! I did those!”

Taking his time, Zucker flipped through Movie Magic until he arrived at the pages he had dog-eared. More black and white photos. Model-maker Marcel Delgado posing with the little Kong and a three-foot-long log studded with model sailors. Willis O’Brien, his brow furrowed, adjusting the little Kong’s fist so that it appeared to crash into the jaw of a twenty-five-inch-tall flesh-eating dinosaur.

The color drained from Max’s face. Suddenly, he looked even older than his seventy-four years. “It was Gormon.” He stared at Carl with pleading, tear-filled eyes. “Tell him, Carl. Tell him it was Gorman. Gorman had those pictures made. Tell him.”

Carl leaned heavily against the bar. He wished the island of Miami Beach would open up and swallow him. “It was Gorman.” His voice was as flat and dismal as the Everglades swamps.

Max belched. It was a terrible sound, like everything inside him was breaking up. He covered his mouth with a white, liver-spotted hand. “I’ve gotta go, Carl. I’ve … I’ve gotta go.”

The newspapers fell from his limp arm as he walked quickly toward the door. Alessandra was just coming back from lunch.

“Hiya, Maxie! Saw you on TV last night. You looked good! Hey—hey, Max? What’s the matter?”

He rushed past her into the hot street. Alessandra cast a questioning glance at Carl. He wouldn’t meet her gaze. She turned and pushed back through the door. “Hey, Max! Wait up!”

Zucker stubbed out his cigarette on the side of his glass and pushed his books and photographs back into his file. “Huh. Didn’t think the old guy would take it so hard. All I wanted was for him to stop lying.”

Carl stared at the crushed cigarette floating in the glass of water. “You prick. You stupid, malicious prick. Don’t even think about coming here for a discount lunch.”

· · · · ·

Max was still trembling as he untaped his clippings from the walls of his apartment. He fought down queasiness as he sorted them, then smoothed their curled edges and carefully placed them in labelled manila envelopes.

Someone knocked rapidly on his door. “Max? Open up! It’s Aless. I want to talk with you!” There was a pause before she knocked again, even more insistently. “I know you’re in there, Max! I can see the light from under the door. Please open up.”

Max didn’t make a sound. He continued removing photos from the walls. Carl might want these pictures, someday. After a few minutes, Max heard Alessandra retreat from his door. Her footsteps faded. His photographs faded. Everything was fading away.

Max felt the queasiness rising again. His left arm ached. He walked to the black-furred costume mounted on an old seamstress’s mannequin in the corner of his room. He reached out with his right hand and stroked its fur.

“You’ve always been the strong one, my friend,” he said. His lips felt numb. “I need your strength now.”

· · · · ·

Opening night finally arrived. Carl rented an elegant black tuxedo. Alessandra borrowed a gown and heels. The paint on her murals was barely dry. The dining room glowed with pink and turquoise neon. Water jets spurting from the fountain surrounding the stainless steel Delano Hotel glistened like the welcoming spirits of deceased movie stars. Carl and Alessandra stood at the waiters’ station near the back of the room, under the giant gorilla arm, watching the staff cater to the needs of well over a hundred diners.

“This is so great,” Carl effused. “Half of SoHo must’ve hopped a plane to get down here. And there’re plenty of locals, too. So my business won’t dry up after this weekend. And they all said Miami Beach was dead!”

“Max should be here,” Alessandra said quietly.

Carl winced. “I know. I know! I’ve tried calling him. He won’t answer his phone. You went to his apartment. He wouldn’t come to the door. What more could we do?”

Alessandra’s lips puckered into a tight frown. “I’m still mad at you for letting that dick work him over.”

“Jesus Christ, Aless! What was I supposed to do? Kick Zucker out as soon as Max walked in? He just would’ve caught up with Max some other time.”

“You could’ve stuck up for him better. I think that’s what hurt Max worst of all. That you let Zucker knife him like that.”

Underarm sweat began staining Carl’s silk shirt. “Look, Aless. You weren’t there, okay? So please, just shut up.”

A commotion rose from the tables closest to the door. Carl swiveled around. He nearly wet himself. “Oh no. No. Not tonight …”

A gorilla shambled into the dining room from the sidewalk outside. Or, rather, a man in a threadbare gorilla suit. He rose on his haunches, beat his chest, and emitted a surprisingly convincing bellow.

Carl moved toward the door. He felt like he was running in a nightmare, pumping his legs at full speed, but his feet were caught in invisible peanut butter so he wasn’t moving forward at all. “Oh no. Max. No, Max. No!”

But Max had already sloshed through the fountain. Every one of the one hundred and thirty-seven diners had turned to watch. Max began climbing the Delano Hotel. It was shaped like a ziggurat, so he found the handholds he needed. He climbed with astounding energy and agility for a septuagenarian.

Carl and Alessandra reached the foot of the fountain. “Max!” Carl cried, looking like a drowning man in the blue neon light. “You can’t do this to me! Come down here! Come down, or no Early Bird Special! Ever!”

Alessandra kicked her shoes off and stepped into the fountain. “Max! Oh God, be careful!”

The man in the gorilla suit was halfway to the top of the Delano Hotel when he heard her voice. He paused and looked down at her. But it wasn’t Max who stared out of the mask’s frayed eye holes. It was Kong.

· · · · ·

Kong had nearly finished his arduous climb. Hundreds of feet below him, the water glistened, inviting him deep into its inky depths. He swung his mighty arm and roared his defiance. The water would not have him. Not yet.

The music suddenly grew ominous. From a great distance, a low humming reached his ears, like the humming of giant insects. Four flying specks climbed over the horizon. They came closer. Closer. They were birds, strange birds like Kong had never seen. Birds with four stiff, unmoving wings.

Kong was nearly at the top of the steep, angular mountain. The flock of strange birds circled around him. Challenging him. He brandished his terrible fangs. He had killed great birds before. He had broken their beaks. Ripped their wings from their bodies. He would vanquish these arrogant birds like the others.

But he could not fight with the Precious One in his paw. She must be safe. Kong had fought many battles so she would be safe. He stared at the little Precious One. She squirmed in his paw, leaving her heavenly scent on his fingers. Her soft, soft hair was as black as his own, but with a streak of fire running through it. His chest filled with strange longing. He wanted to eat her, to lick her, to smell her. To be her. He put her down on a ledge, laying her down as gently as he could. He sniffed his fingers. But only once. He had work to do.

He climbed to the very top. One of the four birds left the flock and swooped down toward him. Kong roared. He raised his arms high, ready to crush the foolhardy bird. The bird chirped at him. Very loud. Very fast. Kong felt something prick his chest. He lunged for the bird. It swerved away. He missed. The bird made a circle in the sky and rejoined the flock.

A second bird dove at him. Again the loud chattering. Again the invisible pinpricks. This bird was braver than its wingmate. It flew closer. Kong anticipated the sweet taste of its reptilian flesh, the saltiness of its blood. His reaching fingers clipped its wing. The wing disintegrated at his touch, and the bird immediately began to fall. Kong waited for its death cry. There was none. It fell silently until it hit the edge of the mountain. Then it blossomed into orange flames, and small pieces of it fell into the water far below.

Kong beat his breast in victory. He was pleased the Precious One had seen this. Even here, in this new and unhappy place, he was king. But the remaining birds were not cowed. One by one, they made their cruel passes at him. The stinging in his chest was no longer prickly, like the little sticks thrown at him by the men on his island, but a sharp burning, like the fang bites of a great reptile. His breathing was harder now. He rubbed the many hurting places on his chest. His fingers came away wet.

The birds seemed to fly faster now. He lunged more desperately, leaning dangerously far over the precipice. But his foes remained frustratingly out of reach. Their buzzing, their murderous chatter mocked him. We are the rulers here, they seemed to boast. Not you. He gathered his breath for a roar of defiance. But all he could manage was a bewildered, pained snarl.

The burning in his chest had become an inferno. Kong wiped his sweating, bleeding brow. His vision was clouding, narrowing. His fading gaze fell upon the Precious One. Weakly, gently, he reached for her. She uttered her small, soft cries, the sounds that excited him so. He brought her close to his face, so that he might sniff her delicate scent again. He fondled her with his forefinger, saddened that he marred her beautiful whiteness with drops of red from his ragged fingertip.

The birds hung back, circling. They would not attack him so long as he held the Precious One in his paw. Perhaps, if he continued to hold her, they would fly away …? He became dizzy. But his mind was suddenly clear. He would not endanger the Precious One. Hiding behind the beloved was not the way of the warrior, of the king. He placed her down on the ledge again.

Kong refused to look at the birds, even though their buzzing told him they were swooping close again. His huge eyes, full of longing and regret, remained focused on the Precious One. The music swelled. It was drowned out by deafening chatter. Kong clutched his neck. Blood dribbled from the corners of his mouth. His grip on the mountain’s slender spire began to weaken.

The music, rich with stringed pathos, built to a crescendo. But Kong couldn’t hear it. His ears were filled with wind and the call of the distant sea. He took a final look at the world below him. How could the world hate one of its own creatures so?

Kong’s world narrowed to the pressure of the spire on his loosening fingers. He barely sensed the cruel birds’ coup de grace, the talons that pierced his neck and exploded his jugular vein. Only the tips of his fingers touched the spire now. The merciful wind brought a last hint of the Precious One to his nostrils. He let go.

The dark waters could have him now.

· · · · ·

Max landed in the fountain with a tremendous splash. Alessandra screamed.

The entire room went silent, save for the buzzing of a few shorting-out neon tubes. Then, one by one, the customers began clapping. The applause was scattered and uncertain at first but soon grew in strength and sincerity until it filled the dining room.

Aw jeez, Carl thought. They figured it for an act. What would Carl Denham do in a spot like this? He stepped onto the rim of the fountain and waved his arms over his head. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, the show’s over. Please return to your meals. Please. Free desserts for everyone! Tonight only. Compliments of the house.”

Alessandra had pulled Max from the fountain. She struggled to pull the wet gorilla mask away from his face. “Carl! Help me!”

Carl knelt beside the unmoving old man. He tried to feel a heartbeat through the dripping fur. “Jesus Christ. You think he’s alive?”

“How the hell do I know? I’m not a doctor!” She leaned over Max, placing her ear close to his mouth, trying to sense his breathing.

“Look,” Carl whispered. His adrenaline rush was gone. The sickly feeling of nightmare was creeping in on him again. “My car’s just outside. Let’s carry him out of here. I can get him to Mt. Sinai in maybe five minutes.”

What?!” Alessandra looked horrified. “We’ve got to call an ambulance—”

“Aless, I’ve got a hundred fifty paying customers here. I can’t have paramedics barging in?-”

Fuck your paying customers! Call the emergency line, Carl! If you don’t call for an ambulance, I’ll never speak to you again!”

She pinched Max’s nose and began administering CPR. Carl blinked and ran for the phone.

The waiting room smelled of disinfectant, boredom, and fear. A Metro-Dade police officer, his gut hanging over his gunbelt, approached Carl. “Look, buddy,” he said, raising his pen to an incident report clipped on a battered clipboard, “I’ve got a few questions I have to ask. Number one. Did you hire that old guy to take a swan dive in your restaurant?”

Carl shot the cop a glance that would’ve withered concrete. “What do I look like? A lunatic? If I had wanted a spectacle like that, I would’ve hired a twenty-year-old stuntman. Not a seventy-four-year-old grandfather. I would’ve had a net. I would’ve spent a fortune on permits.”

The cop raised an eyebrow. “So you’re telling me he did this totally on his own? He went nuts or something?”

Carl scowled. His glasses slithered down his nose. “Right. It was Alzheimer’s.” His voice reeked of sarcasm and self-loathing.

Alessandra punched Carl in the shoulder. Hard. “It wasn’t Alzheimer’s! Don’t you say that about him! It was—it was—I don’t know what it was. It was just Max.”

A nurse emerged through the double doors. “Are you two Mr. Strauss’s next of kin?”

“Uh, no, we’re just his friends,” Carl answered. “Max doesn’t have any family in Miami. I think he has some in California. Maybe some in New York, I think.” He tried desperately to read the nurse’s face.

“Can you help us get in touch with them?”

Alessandra’s eyes, surrounded by haloes of smeared mascara, opened wide. “Max—is he—?”

The nurse took Alessandra’s hand. “I’m very sorry. We did all we could. But he broke his collarbone and fractured his skull in the fall. Also, he suffered a massive heart attack.”

The only words Carl heard were I’m very sorry. Dull, generic words. I’m very sorry. What a flat, meaningless epitaph for a man like Max. No “I guess the airplanes got him.” No “‘Twas Beauty killed the Beast.” Just standard-issue words for a little man who wanted to be something so much bigger than he was.

Alessandra was crying. Carl wanted to cry, too. He searched inside for the lever that would let his tears flow and found nothing. Something inside him was missing.

· · · · ·

Something was missing. Willis O’Brien stepped back from the intricate, rabbit fur-covered figurine and rubbed his forehead with his palm. He was so close to the end now. Another few weeks of animation work and it would be a wrap. He should just push ahead, get it done. The RKO executives were clamoring for this picture. Even in the middle of the Depression, they knew they had a hit on their hands. He had these last few climactic scenes all figured out, completely storyboarded. But something was stopping him in his tracks.

He stepped away from the hot arc lights. In the last twelve months of working under those lights, he had lost fifteen pounds. He filled a cup with water from the cooler. Why was he getting jittery fingers now, after so many months of confident work?

Kong stood atop the miniature Empire State Building. Willis stared for a long time at that sculpted face, those expressively flaring nostrils, glass eyes tinier than the smallest marbles. Marcel had done a brilliant job with the models. His Kong could be made to mimic all the expressions of a human face. So many possibilities. So many damned possibilities.

Willis had watched all the rushes. Kong was convincing. His animated movements looked natural. Powerful. Many of the scenes, especially the fight scenes with the dinosaurs, were thrilling—the best work Willis had ever done. Kong was a mighty presence. He was a brute, a monster, a bigger-than-life terror. Audiences would be nailed to their seats.

Maybe that was the problem. Willis didn’t want Kong to be just a brute, a vicious giant animal. If audiences left with that impression of him, his relationship with the Fay Wray character would be utterly unbelievable. Kong had to be a noble brute. His death atop the Empire State Building had to be the stuff of tragedy. Or else the film would be an empty thriller, a piece of schlock.

Maybe what I’ve got is stage fright, Willis thought. I started out as a palooka, a fighter; not an actor. Not a poet. I gave Kong all my boxing moves. But can I give him a soul?

He placed his fingertips on Kong’s skull. I look like I’m trying to give him a blessing. His fingers trembled slightly, ruffling Kong’s fur. Who is there to give me a blessing?

A knocking at the door broke his nervous concentration. Grateful for an excuse to break away, he walked across the studio to the door and opened it. “Yes?”

Two men stood in the doorway. One was Mike Halloway, a production assistant. The other was a small, dark haired stranger, a man in his thirties who anxiously rubbed his hands together and smiled obsequiously.

“Mr. O’Brien,” Halloway said, “sorry to disturb you. This here’s one of the extras. He’s been bugging me for days. He wants to see the `big gorilla’ in the worst way. Is it okay by you if he takes a look around?”

Willis rubbed the back of his neck, trying to work the tension out of the muscles. “Sure. It’s okay. He can come in. I was ready to take a break anyway.”

The small man stepped gingerly into the studio, staring with wide eyes at the multitude of miniature jungles and cityscapes. Willis shut the door behind him. “So what’s your name, fella?”

The visitor’s hands remained shyly at his sides. “Maximillian Strossenberg, sir. I have been in Hollywood for a year only. This is my first job in the moving pictures. The others … they tell me you are the one who does the magic. The one who acts as the big gorilla.”

“Now who told you that?”

“Everyone, sir. All the actors. They all say, `Willis O’Brien, he is the man who plays Kong.’ So of course, I want very much to meet you.”

Willis found himself smiling. “A bunch of folks been pulling your leg, fella. There ain’t nobody plays Kong. Not me or anybody. C’mere. Let me show you something.”

He led Max to the corner of the studio where the four-foot-high model of the Empire State Building’s top stories stood. He pointed to the articulated miniature that was posed on top. “There. That’s Kong.”

Max stared at the miniature gorilla for half a minute. Then he turned to Willis and shyly smiled. “I hope I do not insult you, sir. You are a very important man. But I think you are the one who `pulls the leg.’ Kong is fifty, a hundred feet tall! He makes the elevated train of Manhattan fall off the track. I know! I am a man who falls with the train.”

Willis rubbed his neck again, not sure whether to be amused or irritated. “Trust me, Max. That there is the genuine Kong. I move him a little bit at a time, and I take pictures of him, and when I shine those pictures on the screen, you’ll believe he’s a fifty-foot-tall son-of-a-bitch, the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood. Least if I can get past this damned mental block, you will.” He stared up at the eighteen-inch-tall figure on top of the miniature skyscraper and sighed. “Look, Max, I’ve gotta get back to work.”

Willis led his visitor back to the door. Max followed reluctantly, sad to leave the cavern of wonders so soon. “I still do not believe it,” the extra said earnestly as he stepped through the doorway. “But if you can make a tiny doll a giant, if you can make a thing with no more life than a rock breathe and walk and love a woman, then you are a great man, Mr. O’Brien. You are a great, great man.”

Willis wasn’t feeling remotely like a great man. But the little foreigner’s naive sincerity was touching and somehow comforting. Willis smiled and extended his thick, well-muscled hand. His visitor returned the smile and, after a slight pause, the grip.

Willis watched the extra walk away. He had felt something pass between them with that brief handshake. Exactly what, he couldn’t say; a quicksilver current of sympathy, a melding of past and future into an instantaneous spark of knowledge that faded as quickly as it had flared. I know how that man will die, Willis thought. Then, shaking his head, he wondered where those queer words had come from. Seconds later, he’d forgotten the words themselves.

He closed the door and slowly walked back to the miniature set in the far corner. He again placed his fingers on the soft rabbit fur that lined Kong’s skull. At last, there was nothing to do but begin.

With his first manipulation of the figurine, Willis felt the tension in his neck begin to ease. He moved the airplane models a quarter of an inch closer to Kong, then exposed a frame of film. The camera clicked. His calloused fingers touched Kong’s face, creasing the brow, pulling the lips away from the tiny fangs. He clicked the camera. His hands returned to Kong. The beast’s muscles rippled, his lungs expanded, he bellowed his defiance. The camera clicked.

Willis’s fingers began to manipulate the model rapidly, moving almost with a will of their own. His mind began racing ahead of his hands. He could see everything that would happen, like a magnificent moving painting. He thought of Michelangelo. Michelangelo had been a sculptor and a painter. He thought of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” the exquisite sadness on Mary’s face. He thought of Kong: a huge, dark immigrant to a strange new land, a creature without language, shunned and feared by everyone he met. Denied the touch of beauty. Humiliated. Kept apart from the one thing he loved.

Willis watched his fingers move Kong. No. He watched Kong move. The blessing he had hoped for had come. Tonight’s rushes would be all he had prayed for. And tomorrow’s. And the day after’s.

So this is what it is to have a muse, he thought. He marveled at its touch. He didn’t know where the spirit had come from. But he was thankful it had come.

The End

(This story first appeared in SCIFI.COM in 2005.)

2 comments

  1. plwinkler says:

    I really enjoyed this. Thanks for writing it.

    • Andrew says:

      PL, thanks so much for your kind feedback. “The Man Who Would Be Kong” is one of my favorites of the stories I’ve written; I’ll always be very fond of it. I’m pleased you enjoyed it.

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