Pink Peony – a story by Pat McConnell

Pink Peony

Each time he read the New York Times, it was like a stiletto to Woody’s heart.  The film review was merciless.

Be a-Freud. Be very a-Freud

Woody Allen’s new movie ‘Vienna Vacation’ is yet another European travelogue cum comedy that is as clichéd and sickly as a Sachertorte with chocolate fudge ice cream.  Ignore it unless you want indigestion. A young woman (played by Anna Paquin) is knocked down on a Vienna street while running away from her two-timing fiancé. She wakes up, not in a hospital, but in the late 19th century office of Dr. Sigmund Freud (played by the director himself).  There follows sixty minutes of the usual Woody Allen fare, sex and psychoanalysis, with a running gag about the beautiful Ms. Paquin being chased in her Freudian slip. Woody’s search for his lost libido in the Vienna Woods was just not funny, he did it much better in Sleeper. And whoever thought of casting Matt LeBlanc (Joey of Friends) as both the two-timing lover AND Freud’s nemesis Dr. Carl Jung should go straight to therapy. Someone (his producer) should take Woody aside and tell him – enough of the travelogues already. Come Home!  But Woody will probably go his own way as usual. He is just another Yid kid with a big Id.
[As the house magazine of the Upper East Side, the Times felt able to use certain racial epithets in the same way Gangsta rappers use the N-word.]

After re-reading the review, Woody tore up yet another copy of the Times, packed his overnight bag, put his new script in his backpack and took a cab to LaGuardia for his flight to Hollywood to ‘see the studio’. He hated LaGuardia, LA and, most of all, the studio suits – schmucks in tux he called them. Woody was hoping to put the finishing touches to the script for his new film, Warsaw Wedding, when he got to his hotel. But the flight was delayed because of a hurricane on the East Coast, diverted because of tornadoes in the mid-West and stalled because of forest fires near LAX.  ‘Good job there’s no climate change or we would be here to eternity or at least the end of a David letterman monologue’ he joked with the cute stewardess.   Woody disembarked at LAX in the darkness and found that the airline had lost his luggage – ‘Don’t worry Mr. Allen we will send it to the Beverly Wilshire for you, if we do find it’.  Because of the delays, his studio limo had already left so Woody jumped in a cab, ‘Beverly Wilshire, please and hurry.  I need to get there before my luggage’.

As luck would have it, the young cab driver had just arrived from Pakistan the previous day but, due to the magic of Global Positioning, he was able to get into his uncle’s cab and go anywhere in LA next day.  Anywhere that is except Beverly Hills. Woody knew he was trouble when he saw the sign Compton.  ‘Stop, we’re lost. It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be in Compton when it happens’ he recycled a quip. ‘GPS – no Urdu’ said the young driver tapping the device and shrugging his shoulders. Woody glimpsed a neon sign with the word Budweiser on it and shouted ‘Hey, go over there, I’ll get out and call another cab from that bar’. He paid the driver the 350 dollars on the meter (they had been driving for an hour) but refused to give a tip.  The driver took off before Woody noticed he had left his backpack and script in the cab. ‘Could it get much worse?’ he thought.

The sign above the tavern flashed Hotel Cal_forn_a and as Woody entered he saw a faded bar with a few dozen elderly customers and a miserable barman ‘Thank God’ said Woody,’ Just like New York’. ‘Can I have a Manhattan and hold the cherry’ Woody ordered.  ‘Sure, You have a Manhattan, I’ll have the Bronx and Staten, too’ quipped the barman.  ‘Very good’ said Woody, scribbling the joke in a little black book that he always carried with him.

‘Hi, my name’s Woody, did you know some of the neon lights are blown on your sign?’  ‘No, they are not blown, I took them out myself’ said the barman ‘I took them out because there is no I in Cal_forn_a – geddit.  In fact, there is nothing but I in California, most egotistical place on Earth, it’s meant to be _ron_c, geddit? My name’s Jack by the way, Jack Kerouac, I’m a writer’ He proffered his hand which Woody felt was unusually cold and clammy but he shook it anyway.

Before Woody could ask any more questions, a jukebox cranked up and a slight, stooped old lady took the karaoke microphone and started to sing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ in a vaguely familiar voice.  ‘Hey, that’s her’, stuttered Woody. ‘Yea, that’s Judy Garland, a real lush but she can still belt out a good tune’ said Jack.  After the applause had died down, a portly gentleman took the mic and started to sing ‘If I were a Rich Man’.  Woody was dumbstruck.  ‘Yea, that’s Zero Mostel’ said Jack, ‘best Tevye there ever was. He was the very best Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway but they chose that other schmuck for the movie.  Zero was heart broken’.  ‘Yea, I know’ said Woody ‘I directed him in The Front. My name is Woody Allen’. ‘Never heard of ye’ said Jack.

Woody’s eyes had now become accustomed to the gloom and he looked around the bar.  The room seemed to be full of people that he had known and even worked with but he was sure they were all dead, or at the very least doing some great method acting.  There was Peter Sellers talking about his role in What’s new Pussycat with Natalie Wood. ‘Mine’s a G&T old boy’, called out Peter. ‘Martini, stirred not shaken’ said David Niven from Casino Royale. Milo O’Shea winked back at him, ‘Who’s got a Purple Nose of Cairo now, mine’s a Guinness’ he ordered.  Sydney Pollack shouted out ‘Yea, you’re the writer, make mine a cocktail waitress’. At that Marshall McLuhan popped out from behind a nearby poster ‘Boy, if death were only like this’ he opinionated.

‘Hi Woody, remember me’. He heard a soft, golden voice whisper in his ear and turned to see a beautiful young woman with a tear-stained face and slightly smeared bright red lipstick.  As Woody looked hesitant, she spoke ‘It’s Margaux, Margaux Hemingway, Remember me?’  ‘Of course, I cast you in Manhattan, we had a thing, short but sweet’, Woody said.  ‘No you shlemeil, that was Mariel, my sister.  You tried to get me for the part, but I was away in Europe.  That bitch took my part and you never knew it wasn’t me.  And you even had a thing with the skinny whore.  But for her, I could have been an Oscar contender’ she wailed and wailed drowning out the karaoke at which Billie Holiday was crooning ‘Did I Remember’ from one of Woody’s soundtracks.

Jut then the bar door opened and two men entered, one of whom Woody recognised as his cab driver. The older man spoke ‘Mr. Allen, ten thousand apologies, my nephew Aziz doesn’t speak English, but I just got him an Urdu GPS, he’ll be OK now.  I have your backpack and I will take you to your hotel, no charge’.  Woody turned to the bar to say goodbye but it was dark and empty – no barman, no stars and no karaoke.

By the time Woody got to the Wilshire, it was already 3 am. ‘Welcome, Mr Allen, your bag is in your room’ said the check-in clerk ‘Do you want anything?’ ‘Yes’ said Woody ‘Can you send a typewriter, a sheaf of paper and a large Pellegrino up to my room?’  Woody did not unpack but started to type straight away.  It flowed from his fingers, pages and pages of a new story.  As the first sun cracked through the LA fog, Woody turned to the empty title page.  He suddenly thought of the flower on the cheap dress that Margaux had draped round her lovely body and typed PINK PEONY. Woody then rang room service for a soy chai latte and an organic cranberry bagel – no cheese.  He showered, dressed and after drinking his chai, picked up a limo to the studio.

The room was full of little suits and a big suit, the Producer. ‘Hi Woody’ said the Big Suit ‘Do you want the bad news or the good news?’  Without waiting for a response, he ranted ‘Would you believe that those sonofabitches at the Polish Travel Ministry have pulled funding for Warsaw Wedding because of the crappy reviews of Vienna Vacation’.  He picked up the pages of six months of Woody’s life and dropped them in the trash.  ‘No need to worry, I’ve got a new idea’ said Woody and started to tell the suits of his new story.

‘It’s about a Broadway star (gay of course) whose agent rips him off (no it’s not a documentary).  Completely broke, he is thrown out of his East Village apartment, so he takes off for Hollywood where his younger brother lives’. As Woody tells the tale of his Quixotic hero’s descent into despair, the suits lighten up and even smile. ‘Great – Woody’s come home’ they heaved a contented sigh to themselves.  ‘The rough title is Pink Peony’ Woody ended ‘Pink for gay of course, Peony the flower of shame’.  There was a spontaneous burst of applause. ‘Woody that’s wonderful’ agreed the Big Suit ‘Let’s do it.  Come on, come on let’s get going, team, this has to be in cinemas by Oscar nominations next year’.

As they said goodbye, the Big Suit remembered ‘Forgot to tell you the good news.  Cate Blanchett really desperately does want a Best Actress Oscar but doesn’t want to do the nun thing to get it. She is even willing to work with you.  You can change the lead character for her, surely? But Hollywood is so expensive, let’s go somewhere cheaper, how about San Fran?  And Woody, really, the title? Alliteration is so palpably passé’.

The studio limo spat Woody out at LAX amongst a crowd of grey faceless suits trudging morosely towards another red eye to the East Coast. But as they plodded homeward, Woody saw coming toward them a swarm of bright-eyed kids, smiling, beautiful, fresh faced with nothing but hope and bad suitcases.  They had just disembarked from planes arriving from places like Topeka, Tucson and Tuscaloosa and every one of them was sure they had reached heaven.  ‘Maybe among them’ thought Woody ‘there will be another Frances Gumm or Marion Morrison who just needs a name change to make them a star’.  He hoped so.

As Woody approached the check in counter, a song suddenly popped into his head. ‘Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly’ he hummed.  For the first time in months, Woody smiled.