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The Resurrection of Inside Moves

(First published in The Anderson Valley Advertiser, thanks to Bruce Anderson)

I wrote the novel that would become Inside Moves in 1975, just as the United States was finally pulling out of Vietnam. I was living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon, having been saved from an ignominious return to college by the sale of a short story to Cosmopolitan magazine. My rent was thirty dollars a month, so the nine hundred dollars from Cosmo was, to me, a vast fortune and would enable me to write two novels, two plays, and several short stories before the largesse was finally spent.

 The voice that spoke Inside Moves through me was that of a young man wounded and disabled in the Vietnam war. My first and finest literary agent, Dorothy Pittman, now deceased, showed the manuscript to thirteen publishers in two and a half years (this was before simultaneous submissions were permitted in the publishing business.) The book was declared a narrative tour de force by several of the first twelve editors to read the manuscript, each anointing the book “an impossible sell.” Cripples and Vietnam were not popular topics in those days.

Miracle Number 1

The book was eventually bought in 1977 by a young editor at Doubleday named Sherry Knox under the auspices of the powerful Betty Prashker. I believe this was the first novel Sherry ever purchased. My advance, minus Dorothy’s commission, was thirteen hundred and fifty dollars, which money lifted me out of dire poverty into semi-functional poverty in my garret in Seattle.

When I had rewritten the book to Sherry’s satisfaction, and my brother Steve had come up with the stellar title to replace my original title, The Gimp, the great minds at Doubleday decided to let Inside Moves die before publication. This is common practice in large corporate publishing houses when Sales decides they don’t want to push a book.

However, to minimally fulfill their contractual obligations, Doubleday listed the book in small print at the back of their Spring catalogue with this briefest of descriptors: “Inside Moves: story of friendship between two men in San Francisco bar, basketball sub-plot.”

 Miracle Number 2

An editor named Bill Contardi at the paperback house New American Library read the descriptor and asked to see the manuscript. He loved the book, showed it to NAL editor-in-chief Elaine Koster, and she offered Doubleday 100,000 dollars for the paperback rights.

 Miracle Number 3

When Dorothy called with news of the paperback offer, I was quite ill and in a very dark mood. Rather than rejoicing (we would get half of that 100 thou) I said, “Did they show it to the other paperback houses? They’re supposed to, aren’t they?”

Dorothy said, “Honey (she was from Georgia), this is a mahvelous offer.”

And I said, “They were going to kill the book. They should at least show it to other paperback houses. Maybe more than one will be interested.”

Dorothy reluctantly relayed my wishes to Doubleday. Some honcho (I can’t remember his name) called me and berated me, saying this was a wonderful offer and I was a fool not to take it. I explained to him that though I was grossly naive, I did know they had decided to kill the book, and since I might never get another chance in New York, I wanted them to show it to other paperback houses.

Miracle Number 4

So the honcho called Elaine Koster and asked for a few more days to consider her offer, and she countered with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of 150,000 dollars and the promise of a big bonus if a movie was made. Dorothy begged me to accept the offer, so I did.

 Miracle Number 5

Two weeks later, Bob Evans, having recently produced Chinatown, The Godfather, and Love Story, optioned the book for Paramount Pictures for 100,000 buckeroos.

 Miracle Number 6

I was flown to Los Angeles to meet with Bob Evans in his mansion. He wanted me to rewrite the entire novel per his directions. He wanted to eliminate the Vietnam connection and not have so many disabled characters. I refused. He was not happy.

 Miracle Number 7

Bob Evans hired Barry Levinson (before he became a famous director) and Valerie Curtin (then Barry’s wife) to write a screenplay of the book. They changed the narrator from a man crippled while serving in Vietnam to a failed suicide, but were otherwise faithful to the heart of the book. Bob Evans dropped the project.

 Miracle Number 8

Dick Donner, fresh from Superman I and before he made all his Lethal Weapon movies, got hold of the script and eventually made the film with independent money. The film starred John Savage, David Morse (his first role) and Diana Scarwid, nominated for an Academy Award for her role in this film.

 Miracle Number 9

I was on the set of the film (Echo Park imitating Oakland) for a week and got to watch them shoot scenes with dialogue intact from my novel, most of which ended up on the cutting room floor, and it was a huge thrill to hear good actors acting out my scenes.

 Sudden End to Miracles

The distribution company, AFD, went bankrupt just as the film was being released and the little beauty was barely distributed. And though the book eventually sold over a hundred thousand copies, and I subsequently published five more works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, I was never again (not yet, anyway) to have a place on the larger literary stage.

 Recent Resumption of Miracles

A month ago, thirty years after publishing Inside Moves, I got an email from a man in charge of preparing the DVD release of Inside Moves for Lionsgate Entertainment. At first I thought he was joking, but he was not. Two days ago, he and his assistant arrived at our house in Mendocino to interview me about the novel and how it became a movie.

I think the interview went well. Had I known Cliff was going to let me ramble and say whatever came to my mind, I might have waxed more dramatically, but all in all I felt good about what I said (and didn’t say) and Cliff said he was pleased. A very professional duo, David Chan the camera person, Cliff Stephenson the director/interviewer, spent twenty minutes setting up, mixing the natural light of the living room with two of their own lights, and they even backlit my hair slightly and powdered my impressive brow to reduce reflection.

More interesting to me than my own memories was hearing how this DVD project came to be after so many years of deep freeze. Turns out Dick Donner has wanted to release this film (his favorite) in DVD since the advent of that medium but no one could untangle the corporate mess and discover who actually owned the film. When they concluded the owner was probably a British conglomerate that had eaten an earlier owner of the movie, and Lionsgate had a good connection with that behemoth, they decided to release the film. Initially they were just going to find a decent VHS copy, transfer to DVD, and bring it out with no extras.

As it happened, Cliff’s wife worked for Lionsgate, knew of Cliff’s love of Donner’s films, and asked Cliff if he wanted to oversee the project. He said Yes, and when he saw the quality of the print they were going to use, he said he thought Donner would be outraged. So began a hunt for a print of the actual 35 mm film, which they found in England. Not a perfect print, but better than any VHS. This was transferred to DVD, cleaned up, and then Cliff convinced Lionsgate to let him approach the extra matter for the DVD from the angle of how the movie went from book to screenplay to film. As they have gathered material, Lionsgate has gotten more enthusiastic, and they are now planning to do a somewhat snazzier release than originally planned. Feb 3, 2009!

I forgot all about trying to plug my soon-to-be-published novel Under the Table Books until the very end of the interview. Thirty years after publishing Inside Moves, I’m about to publish another novel about outcastes gathering to create an ersatz family. In Inside Moves they gather in Max’s Bar. In Under the Table Books they coalesce in an anarchist bookstore.

Who knows how much of what I said will make it onto the DVD? I suppose if I were really daring I would self-publish a new edition of the book to coincide with the release of the DVD, but I’m pushing the limits of my daringness (and bank account) these days. Cliff told me there is a surprisingly large cult following of the film and Lionsgate is expecting an initial response from that base to give the film a boost.

But the most fascinating part about these two very nice movie guys coming to our house (My wife Marcia was impressed with how down to earth they were) was my sense, and I mean this viscerally, that the same unseen powers that spoke the book through me and opened the way for the book to be written and published and made into a movie so long ago, had finally returned to my neck of the woods after a twenty-nine year exile (perhaps around Saturn.)

Or maybe it was just déjà vu all over again.

 

Todd Walton’s web site is underthetablebooks.com

 

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Of Water and Melons a harvest tale

Author’s Note: I wrote Of Water and Melons thirty years ago. I usually rewrite my stories dozens of times, let them sit for a month or a year, and then rewrite them again. But Of Water and Melons came out exactly as I present it here. When I first read the story to an audience, I was besieged by people wanting copies of the story. So the next time I read the story in public, I came armed with a dozen photocopies, and these were instantly snatched up, with several people insisting on paying for the story. Meanwhile, I eventually submitted the story to virtually every literary magazine large and small in America, and though I received many glowing personal letters from editors who loved the story, none chose to publish it.

On the twentieth anniversary of the birth of this tale, I read the story to an audience in Sacramento, California. After the reading, I was approached by the great poet Quinton Duval who said he wanted to bring the story out as a chapbook from his Red Wing Press, so that I might always have copies to share. My friend Vance Lawry did the lovely drawings for the chapbook, and copies are available, signed by the author, for five dollars from underthetablebooks.com.

 

Todd Harvest

 

Of Water and Melons

by Todd Walton

           It was an evening in the spring of the year the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped. 1932. I remember sitting on the bench at the kitchen table, wedged between my mother and my older brother Junior, eating my serving of potatoes as fast as I could in hopes of getting a little more. My four younger sisters were on the bench across from me, eating as fast as they could, too. My father sat at one end of the table, eating slowly, his portion assured, while my tiny grandmother sat at the other end, barely eating anything at all.

            We didn’t usually talk much during meals, our mouths being occupied with more important matters. Sometimes Junior would tell a good lie, or my sister Kitty would share some movie star gossip she’d heard from her friend Lynn who had a cousin in town with a radio, but usually we just ate whatever there was and then got as far away from the kitchen as we could because it smelled of food and we were still hungry.

            But that night we talked and talked, even my father, which was rare. We’d all of us been tense and worried about the Lindberghs and their baby. It didn’t matter that we got our news from the talk up at Delaney’s store where anything resembling the truth was hard to come by. The Lindberghs were real to us. It didn’t matter that they were rich and we were poor, that they could fly and we were stuck down in the dirt. We cared about them and we prayed every night for the safe return of their child.

            We must have stayed at the table until after midnight, worrying and wondering out loud to each other, and it was the first time I had ever really expressed my feelings to anyone other than God. I was twelve years old.

            My father was not a tender man. His life had been too hard for that. He worked from sunup ‘til sundown seven days a week, and he fell asleep in his big wooden chair every night listening to my mother read the Bible.

            I have no memory of him ever touching me, except once, though my mother told me he carried me everywhere before I learned to walk. A year or so before she died, I asked her if she remembered him touching me after I was a boy, because I have always had difficulty touching other people, and she said with her sweet Carolina accent, “Well, he beat you good a few times, so you must have been touching him across his knees. And there was that night we talked about the Lindberghs.”

            That night, after we had talked and talked about the baby and the airplane and the curse of wealth, my father came out to the little barn where Junior and I slept most of the year except when it was too wet or too cold. I remember hearing him come in, his big boots crunching the dry straw. He came close and knelt down beside me and put his huge hand on my forehead and it felt so good the tears just welled up and I began to sob.

            Then he caressed my face and said, “Sonny, I heard you was afraid though you didn’t say so and I want to tell you that one of the blessings of poverty is that nobody ever gonna want what you got. Nobody ever gonna want to kidnap you.”   Then he put his hand on my shoulder and waited a long time for me to stop crying.

            And finally I said, “So it’s good we’re poor, huh Papa?”

            “No,” he said sighing, “we’re too poor yet, Sonny, but I got me an idea how to make some money.”

            “Not so much,” I said warily.

            “No, just enough so we don’t have to hurt no more from wanting.”

            “What’s your idea, Papa?”

            “Well,” he said, taking his hand away forever I think, “old Grove Adee up to Chesterton grew a half acre of watermelons last year and made a hundred dollars ‘cause nobody else knew to try. Now they were saying up to Delaney’s he made five hundred, but I rode out and saw him myself and he said they give him a dime for each melon and he made close onto a hundred dollars, fifty anyway.”

            “Who bought’em?” I asked. The sums were too vast for my young mind to comprehend. A dime was a good deal of money in 1932. A dollar was a fortune to a boy of twelve, especially a poor boy living way back in the hills.

            “From into Charlotte,” my father said. “Came out in a truck and took’em all. Told him folks were paying two bits and more in town.”

            Now we had thirteen or fourteen acres of land. Thirteen if you asked Chester Parch, fourteen if you asked my father. The disputed acre, fortunately, was not a good one and neither farmer was eager to work it. But as a thing to bicker over, it was fine. Chester was a blasphemer and a drunk and he smelled bad, so it was just as well we had reason to feud with him. His daughter Cassie was the first girl I ever kissed. Forbidden fruit, Cassie’s lips.

            Of the remaining thirteen acres, four were prime, and five carried decent pasture in a wet year. The other four acres were steep and rocky and we worked them because they were there, not because anything good would grow from them. We had an ornery cow who gave us bitter milk, several dozen hens whose eggs we sold, three or four hogs we couldn’t feed, numerous cats to kill the more numerous rats, a dog to sound the foxes coming for the hens, a cross-eyed mule named Toby, and two parakeets in the kitchen for my mother and grandmother and the little girls to fuss over.

            When my father proposed to plant two of our prime acres in watermelon, my mother strenuously objected. By that I mean, she said that if my father planted so much as one watermelon seed in our prime ground where we grew our corn and beans and potatoes, she would make life even more miserable than it already was. How she would accomplish this she didn’t say, but I realized much later in life that she was probably referring to lovemaking and the suspension of those privileges.

            My mother was barely five feet tall, and slender all her days. There was a blue sheen to her skin, and my sister Kitty said that was proof we were descended from royalty. In most things my mother deferred to my father. He carried nearly twice her weight on his long, skinny frame. But when it came to keeping her family from starving, she outweighed him with her will. Those four acres of prime ground were all that kept us alive. In the depths of winter we would need all the beans and potatoes and corn we could coax from the soil. Watermelon was a silly whimsical thing, an illusion, and besides it wouldn’t keep, so she was against it, with the Bible and an empty root cellar to back her up.

            But they finally compromised on an acre of the prime, and three of the steep and rocky. I know for a fact it was the purchase of a sewing machine, on time, from the Sears catalogue, that swung her around to my father’s way of thinking.

            And so he bought the seed. And we planted four acres of watermelon. By hand. Every two yards we would dig up a few square feet of soil, mix old manure into it, and sculpt a little hill into which we would put four seeds an inch under the surface. Then we’d build a little moat around the hill and fill that moat with water.

            Now this water did not come out of a hose. I didn’t know what a hose was until I was seventeen. No, this water came out of buckets. Two of them. Carried by me and Junior and my father. They were big buckets, too. Full of water, each one weighed well over thirty pounds. Depending on which hill we were watering, the trip from the spring could be as short as twenty yards, as long as an eighth of a mile.

            That was the summer I got strong. Real strong. That was the summer I got so hungry after a day of hauling water that I could have eaten all the food intended for the nine of us and still gone away hungry. So I started hunting.

            Now I suppose all country boys hunted back then, and every pot appreciated a squirrel or a rabbit killed now and then by a boy being a boy. But when I say I started hunting, I mean I set out to kill in order to survive, so I could carry water all day, so those melons would grow and the men would come in a truck and give us money so we wouldn’t have to hurt anymore from wanting.

            This meant I had to get up early, before breakfast, which meant before sunup. It meant I had to have things to kill with, and since I didn’t have a gun, I had to use a slingshot, rocks, clubs, snares and my bare hands. It also meant I would have to kill, which was a sin, but worse than that it went against my nature. I did not and do not like to kill things.

            But I did. I set out each morning, my stomach growling, and I did whatever I had to do to bring home meat. One day the best I could do was six little blue eggs I found in a nest while I was climbing a tree to get at a squirrel. And one morning I brought home six nice rabbits I’d clubbed one by one as they were returning to their burrows at sunrise.

            Then there were the night watches. We took turns, Junior, my father and I, patrolling the fields to keep the varmints from destroying our crop. Every third night I’d walk the land, guarding all the plants, but mostly the melons, because they were magical, whereas the corn was real and therefore less important to a boy of twelve.

            There were hot, muggy afternoons when I simply could not stay awake. I would lie down wherever I happened to be weeding, and I would sleep a hard, dreamless sleep until I woke on my own, or the flies or my brother roused me.

            And it seemed God loved us. For though the Lindbergh baby died and my sisters cried when they heard the news, our melon plants thrived and set ten thousand blossoms. And one night, when the moon was full, my father borrowed a shotgun from the Widow Davis and he and Junior killed three starving deer coming for the corn, and for the first time in my life I ate until I could not force another piece of meat into my mouth.

            Oh how those melons grew, even in the rocky soil. It was as if every ounce of water I poured into the ground was sucked directly into the melons, for they seemed to swell as I emptied my buckets around them.

            Then a week before the melons turned fully ripe, my father saddled our old mule and rode the thirty miles into Charlotte to arrange for the sale of the melons. All of us, even my mother, had counted the melons. There were over two thousand of them, none weighing less than twenty pounds, some weighing as much as fifty.

            I remember my mother leading our prayer at supper that night, the night my father was gone. I remember her sweet, sad face, her eyes so bright, as she exhorted us to pray for his safe return. I remember her voice so vibrant and full of hope.           

            Late the next day my father returned. I ran down the road to meet him. I was going to ask him what had happened, but something told me not to. He was slumped forward in the saddle and did not look like himself.

            At supper that night my father said, “There will be some trucks coming next week.”

            I wanted to ask if they would be paying a dime for each of our melons, but I could not. The words were in my throat, but I could not release them.

            My father said, “It seems that lots of farmers planted watermelons this year. All over the state. I saw a good many patches on my way to town.”

            This was his way of telling us we would not be getting a dime for each melon.

            The next day I went to the spring and dipped my buckets. My arms had grown strong, my legs muscled, my chest was thickening up. I lifted the buckets easily and turned away from the spring toward the field, and my father was there, just a few feet away, watching me. He looked so sad, so deeply hurt.

            “Put the buckets down,” he said.

            I set them down and looked at him.

            “Better to let them ripen up dry,” he said. “Gives them a better taste. More of the soil, less of the water.”

            I remember wanting to hug him, to tell him it was okay we weren’t going to get a dime each. I wanted to tell him that this summer of hope was worth more than a year of easy living, but I was twelve and didn’t know how to speak my feelings.

            “We’ll just get to weeding the new corn,” he said, turning away from me.

            I remember standing there, my arms itching to feel the weight of the full buckets, watching him walk away from me, and I remember thinking, I will remember all this someday and try to tell somebody about my father and the summer we tried to get rich with watermelon.

            A week later, five big trucks came rumbling up the dirt road to our farm, and in each of the trucks there were three men. They had short knives with hooked blades for cutting the melons from the vines. The boss man walked out into the field and picked the biggest watermelon he could find and brought it over to my father. My father held the melon, closed his eyes and busted it over his knee. Then he cut a piece out of the deep red heart and handed it to the man. The man put the piece in his mouth, crunched down on it and swallowed. Then he looked at my father for a very long time, and then he nodded and the men got to work.

            My father and Junior and I worked with them. We cut the melons, carried them to the trucks and handed them up to the men who stacked them. I realized as I cut and carried the melons that I knew each of them. I could look up into the trucks and remember from which vine each of the hundreds of melons had come. It seemed to me I could even remember each of the thousands of buckets of water I had poured into the ground to give these big green things life. And there were some melons I didn’t have the heart to take from their vines, so I left that deed to the others.

            At sundown the trucks were stacked high with melons and there were still a few hundred more in the field. Then the trucks rolled down the road out of sight. And then we cracked open ten melons and ate only the hearts, and nothing before or since has ever tasted so rich and sweet and pure.

            After supper that night my father said, “Well, I have a story to tell. It’s a…well, it’s a kind of fairy tale I guess you’d say, and if you don’t mind, Mother, I’d like to tell it before we commence to reading the good book.”

            We gathered in the other room. I remember the dazed expressions on my sisters’ faces, because my father rarely spoke and he had never told a story, let alone a fairy tale. I was dazed myself. I looked at Junior. He was frowning. My mother and my grandmother both looked worried.

            Then my father sat in his big chair, took a deep breath and began, his voice charged with emotion. “Now once there were a poor family in the hills of North Carolina and they hadn’t any money and it was hard on them all for lack of it. So one day the father hears of this farmer making money from watermelon over to Charlotte, so he decides to grow some, too. And he does. But when he goes into Charlotte to sell his crop, he hears everywhere he goes that this year there’s more watermelon then anyone knows what to do with. Some people say they can’t give it away, not even for a penny, and him having planted an acre of his prime that might have been corn.”

            I remember he paused at this point in the story and looked at each of us, looking longest at my mother. His face was red, the veins in his neck were swollen, there was sweat on his brow.

            I wanted to say, “Papa, don’t tell no more. It don’t matter. We’ll do just fine. Me and Junior will get jobs. Me and Junior will hunt deer. We’ll do fine. Don’t tell no more.” But I just bowed my head and prayed to God the man gave him a penny each anyway, to cover the seed and the shovel I broke and maybe a little more.

            “So he was worried,”  said my father. “He was worried and he had a hurt in his chest from it because he wanted to do right by his family but now he didn’t see how he could.”

            I looked at my mother. Her head was bowed. She was praying hard, her lips moving silently, her hands on her knees, her knuckles shiny in the dull kerosene light.

            “So,”  said my father, “he went to the last wholesaler in Charlotte where he hadn’t gone yet and the man there laughed at him and said, ‘They are plowing melons under all over this state. I cannot give melons away.’ And so the farmer was going to leave, but something made him stay and say, ‘Listen here. I’ve tasted these so-called watermelons they’re plowing under all over the state, and if I’d grown those poor excuses for a melon I’d plow them under, too, even if they was going for two bits apiece.  But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about God’s watermelon.  I’m talking about the sweetest, juiciest, firmest watermelon in creation!’”

            We all sat there, holding our breaths.

            “Well,”  said my father, “this seemed to interest that feller just a little. He asked where this patch of melons was and the farmer told him. ‘Too far,’ he says. ‘Wouldn’t make enough to pay for gas.’  ‘Listen,’  says the farmer, ‘if you come out there and you taste a melon and you don’t want to give me a round dime each, I’ll pay you for your trouble.’ ‘A dime!’ says the man. ‘A penny maybe.’  ‘A dime,’ says the farmer, though he’d a took half a cent.

            “Well, that wholesaler stomped around his warehouse, scowling and cursing and threatening, but finally he says, ”If I come out all that way and I don’t want’em for a dime, it’ll cost you twenty dollars for the trucks and the men and all.’

            “Well what do you think that farmer did?”

            “He said come on out,”  said Junior, looking at my father in a way I’d never seen him look before.

            “Yes, he did,” said my father, nodding slowly. “But it wasn’t going to be for a week yet, and so he rode home on his mule wondering how he was going to tell his family. And he decided he mustn’t say anything until the men came.“

            “And then they did,” I said.

            “Yes they did,” said my father. “And then that wholesaler went out into the middle of the patch and cut himself a melon and brought it to the farmer and the farmer prayed to God to make that melon the best melon there has ever been, and then he busted it open and that feller tasted it, and then he told his men to go ahead and harvest the crop.”

            My mother looked up then and opened her eyes. She stared steadily at my father and said, “Whatever possessed you, John? Whatever did?”

            “Fear,” said my father. “And love.”

            A dream I thought. Of not hurting from want. Of just once eating only the heart of the melon and throwing the rest away.

            “How much money did he get?” asked my sister Kitty, her little lips trembling. She was nine.

            “Well,” said my father, relaxing into his big chair, “he got his dime. A dime each.”

 

            That night I dreamt they kidnapped me and took me away in a big truck. My father turned out to be Charles Lindbergh. He chased us in his airplane, but they took me down into the dark swamp where the airplane couldn’t follow. They took me to a room full of dead rabbits and deer and locked me in. I couldn’t breathe. I was suffocating. I woke up suddenly and found myself half-buried in straw. Junior was nearby, sleeping soundly.

            I got up and went out into the night. I walked slowly through the trampled vines to where the hundreds of unpicked melons slumbered. I lay down beside one of them and embraced it like a lover. And then I heard a sound and held my breath. I thought it was a deer, but it wasn’t.

            My mother and father were coming out to the melons, too. I am not sure why I didn’t reveal myself, but I did not. Nor did I ever tell them that I lay there, staring up at the stars, wet as tears, listening to them make love, sweet tender love, and that it was the happiest moment of my life.

 

 

 

 

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The Gravity of Should

I dropped out of college thirty-eight years ago at the age of nineteen. 1969. My fear of being drafted and sent to Vietnam was erased overnight by a blessed medical deferment for rheumatoid arthritis. My parents were crushed by my decision to leave school. My father was a doctor, my mother a lawyer. They had expected me to follow in one or the other of their footsteps, or at the very least become a college professor.

I began my career as a writer in the first grade. Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up—and people of my parents’ generation were always asking children that question—I would answer, “A writer and a baseball player.” When my spinal condition forced me to abandon baseball in high school and I took up acting, my answer became, “A playwright actor.”

When I dropped out of college and announced my intention to pursue a literary career, my parents reacted as if I’d lost my mind. My mother quickly came to the conclusion I had chosen the wrong college and that my cure lay in starting anew at another university. My father diagnosed my condition as depression to be treated with psychotherapy and anti-depressants. And I soon realized that if I was ever going to find my own way in life, I’d better get out of Dodge.

So I loaded my backpack and hit the road.

&

1971. September. Dusk. Rain about to fall. I was hiking along the road that traced the border between Vermont and New Hampshire—my destination Canada. I chose this road because I liked what it did on the map, sewing, as it were, the two states together.

I hadn’t spoken to my parents in almost a year. I was planning to call them a few weeks hence from a tavern in Montreal on my twenty-first birthday—drinking my first beer as an official American adult.

This road through dense forest—most of the leaves just beginning their change from green to burgundy—was not much traveled by anyone inclined to pick up a scruffy young guy with a battered backpack. And so at day’s end, I found myself fourteen miles from the nearest village and seven miles from the nearest campground.

When I left college and stepped away from the financial support of my parents, it never occurred to me that roaming would become my way of life. I assumed I would settle in a hospitable town, find a job, make friends, and get down to writing. But whenever I endeavored to do that, I would—in fulfillment of my father’s diagnosis—become depressed and lose all hope of finding my own way. Only when I took to the road again did my despair give way to happiness, and after two years of vagabonding—making my living as a laborer on farms, a dishwasher in towns—I was content to keep on roaming.

The rain began to fall, so I declared aloud that if I didn’t get a ride in the next ten minutes, I would step off the highway into the woods, find a relatively level space to pitch my tent, and hunker down for the rainy night. I had a bag of nuts and raisins, an apple, an orange, and a good hunk of cheese. I had a little propane stove on which to boil water, a brass teakettle, bags of black tea, and a flask of peach brandy to transform my tea into a sleepy time dessert.

Suddenly a car appeared—a big new car—with a middle-aged woman in the passenger seat frowning out at me as they rolled on by.

I watched the car disappear.

The trees surrendered their nascent colors to the dying light.

I was about to leave the road and enter the woods, when the big new car returned and stopped beside me—the driver’s window sinking down to reveal a deeply worried man.

“Where are you going?” he asked, choking on his words.

“To the campground,” I said, bringing forth a map from my hip pocket. “Little Woods, I think it’s called.”

“Yes,” said the man, glancing at the woman beside him. “Little Woods. I’ll turn around. We’ll take you there.”

They were obviously uncomfortable about giving me a ride—both of them rigid with fear—and as I settled into their plush backseat, I wondered why they had stopped for me.

“Thank you so much,” I said, glad to be out of the rain. “Not much traffic on this road.”

“No,” said the woman.

The rain gathered force and drummed hard on the car.

“I chose this road,” I said, hoping to break the ice by revealing my whimsy, “because I like the way it crosses back and forth so many times between New Hampshire and Vermont. You don’t find many roads like this.”

“Our son…” the woman began.

“Don’t,” said the man, cutting her off. “Please don’t, Agnes.”

“Why not?” she asked, beginning to weep. “Maybe he’s seen him. Maybe…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s impossible.”

A flash of lightning.

Their son, I imagined, was a runaway—a young man who left home rather than be crushed by the weight of propriety—the gravity of should.

“I want to tell him, John,” said Agnes, beseeching him. “It’s important to me.”

“Why him?”

“He’s…Jeffrey is probably hitchhiking, too. He’ll understand what Jeff…”

“Oh for God’s sake,” said John, gritting his teeth. “Just get it over with.”

And this is what Agnes told me as we rolled along the country road in their new car—the last of day giving way to the first of night.

“Our son left home eleven months ago. He’s eighteen now. Jeffrey. Jeffrey Adams. He’s about your height and he wasn’t so skinny as you are, but I suppose now he might be. He has blond hair and he wears glasses, black frames. His grades were going down and we thought he might be smoking marijuana. He’d always gotten straight A’s and suddenly he got a B in Chemistry and a C in Math, and he started staying out later than he was supposed to and hanging out with…with hippy kids. So we grounded him. We explained he needed to keep his grades up so he could get into college or otherwise he’d get drafted and go to Vietnam, and he said if that happened he would just go to Canada. As if that was the easiest thing in the world to do. Just go to Canada and never come home. So we took him to a psychologist, but it didn’t help. He said he wasn’t smoking marijuana, but his grades kept going down. So John told him if he didn’t make more of an effort we would send him to a military academy and when John said that…”

“Enough,” said John, striking the dashboard with his fist.

“Let me finish,” cried Agnes. “Why won’t you ever let me finish?”

“I hit him,” said John, glaring at me in the rearview mirror. “Okay? I slapped his face and told him he was a quitter and a coward and a cop out. Because he is.”

A moment later, we came to the Little Woods campground—a half-dozen picnic tables scattered here and there in sparse woods. John parked beside the dilapidated outhouse and kept the engine running.

“Thanks again,” I said, opening the door. “If I run into Jeffrey, I’ll tell him you were looking for him.”

I’m not looking for him,” said John, gripping the steering wheel. “Coward. Traitor.”

Agnes got out of the car, opened an umbrella, and followed me to my campsite. She held my flashlight for me while I put on my rain poncho and set up my tent.

When I had my backpack stowed inside my tent, she said, “We…I want to give you some money.”

John beeped his horn. Agnes flinched.

“Thank you,” I said, trying to think of something to say that might help her. “You’re very kind. I was down to my last dollar.”

She handed me an envelope containing a twenty-dollar bill she’d been saving for someone who reminded her of her son.

“He loves you,” I said as her hand touched mine. “But the system has gone wrong. The bad guys have taken over. Jeffrey doesn’t want to be part of the killing machine. That’s why he left. Not because he doesn’t love you.”

Agnes nodded solemnly. The rain came down. John beeped his horn again and again and again.

She said, “He’ll hit me for doing this, but I don’t care. I had to do something for our child.”

 

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The Double

              

        I still find it hard to fathom that there are men walking the earth who resemble me so exactly that even their close friends can’t tell us apart. But ever since I was a teenager, and until quite recently (I’m approaching sixty), I have had several remarkable experiences of being taken for someone I am not. These were not incidents of mistaken identity at a distance. No, these were encounters with people—complete strangers—who saw me up close, studied me, spoke to me, and swore that I was the person they thought I was—a person they knew intimately. And when I told them I was Todd, and not Mike or Paul or Huey or Jason, they thought I was either joking or lying. Furthermore, they told me I possessed this other person’s voice and physical mannerisms to such an uncanny degree, that if I was not the person they believed me to be, I must be his identical twin—or his ghost.

            I was a junior in high school—1966—when I was first mistaken so completely for someone else. I was coming out of Discount Records in Menlo Park, California, when an immaculate two-door 1956 Chevrolet, black top, gray bottom, pulled up beside me, and the driver rolled down his window to say, “Hey, Mike. Listen to this. Something doesn’t sound right.” Then he gunned his engine. “See what I mean? Carburetor?”

“I don’t know who you are,” I said, shrugging politely. “And I don’t know anything about cars.”

“Mike?” he said, incredulously. “You’re not Mike?”

“I’m sorry. No.”

“Wow. You look just like him. Clothes and everything. And you sound like him, too.”

My outfit—blue jeans and T-shirt and high-top tennis shoes—was not particularly original in that era, and so I thought no more about this encounter until a week later when I came out of a guitar shop in Redwood City, and another 1956 Chevy, baby blue bottom, white top, white wall tires, pulled up beside me.

“Mike,” said the driver. “Can I come by a little later? Fucker’s missing. Listen.” And then he revved his engine, too.

“I’m not Mike,” I said, shaking my head. “Apparently I look like him, but I’m not him.”

The guy shut off his engine, got out of his car, and confronted me. He was big, and he scared me. “What the fuck you talkin’ about, Mike?”

“I’m not Mike,” I said, holding up my hands in surrender. “And I don’t know anything about cars. Nothing.”

He squinted at me. “You trippin’?”

“No, I’m…not Mike. My name is Todd.”

He frowned deeply. “You’re not Mike DeCamilla? Sequoia High?”

“Todd Walton. Woodside High.”

His jaw dropped and he gazed at me open-mouthed for a long time, as if waiting for me to…become Mike.

“Somebody else with a car like yours, only a different color, thought I looked like Mike, too. Black top, gray bottom.”

“Saxon,” said the guy, nodding. “He told us about you. Mike and me and…we thought he was…fuck, man, you not only look like Mike, you sound like him. Exactly.”

In retrospect, I wish I had asked this guy to introduce me to Mike, but I was so intimidated by him, I didn’t think to ask. And the next person who thought I was Mike was the last person I would have asked to introduce me to Mike.

I was in Discount Records, a favorite hangout of mine in the early days of Folk Rock, a place away from our parents where three of us could cram into a listening booth and blast Buffalo Springfield until the clerk banged on the glass and told us to turn Bluebird down.

I was flipping through the Jazz records, looking for a new Herbie Hancock, when a young woman with bleached blond hair, heavy makeup, and big blue eyes brimming with tears, approached me and whispered, “Mike?”

I shook my head. “I’m not Mike. Some people think I’m Mike, but I’m not.”

“I knew you’d be here,” she said, her jaw quivering. “In the Jazz section. I knew it.”

“I’m not Mike,” I said, wanting to console her. “Is he…your boyfriend?”

She gaped at me, shocked. “How can you say that? How can you be so cruel?”

“Because I’m not Mike,” I said, smiling sadly. “I’m Todd. Do you see that guy at the counter buying a record? That’s my friend, Dave. And he will tell you that I am not Mike. You want to go ask him?”

Then she, too, squinted and frowned at me. “You look exactly like him,” she said, nodding. “But now I can see you’re not him. Sorry.”

Shortly thereafter I grew a mustache and was never taken for Mike again.


Nine years later—1975—I was living with my girlfriend in a garage in Eugene, Oregon. We were poor as church mice. I love that expression for all its implications. Anyway, one evening we decided to cut loose and go to a café and split a cup of cocoa. This is not fiction. In the year I lived in Eugene, my girlfriend and I went out twice, and going for that cup of cocoa was one of those times.

We entered the student-run café, ordered our cocoa, and sat at a small table, feeling quite decadent to be spending a dollar on cocoa when we might have more prudently spent it on groceries. But we were young and impetuous and wanted to have some fun. Business was slow, only a few tables occupied.

“That guy keeps looking at you,” said my girlfriend, glancing sidewise at a man sitting with a woman across the room from us.

I turned to look at the man, smiled at him, and then said to my girlfriend, “He seems harmless enough.”

“He’s weird,” she said, whispering harshly. “He’s staring at you.”

My girlfriend and I were not on the best of terms, our relationship doomed for the umpteenth time, this cocoa date a last-ditch effort to inject a tiny bit of levity into a life of poverty devoted, for my part, to the practice of learning how to write. And so I took her complaint as part of her ongoing assault.

“Just ignore him,” I said, sipping our cocoa. “Please?”

“Paul?” said the man, calling to me. “Paul.”

“Oh, great,” said my girlfriend, rolling her eyes. “Now he’s talking to you.”

I looked at the man again—early thirties, fine leather jacket, expensive shoes, black curly hair—only this time I didn’t smile, and the poor guy jumped in his seat as if I’d struck him. Then he turned to the woman he was with, a striking brunette, and looked at her with terror in his eyes.

“Let’s get out of here,” said my girlfriend. “This is totally freaking me out.”

“Can we finish our cocoa?” I was furious. “I can’t handle the garage right now.”

“We could go to the library,” she said, plaintively. “Look at art books. Read the paper. Play the card catalogue game.”

So we got up to go, and the man and woman jumped up and hurried over to us.

“Paul,” said the man, reaching out to me. “It’s Jeff. And Rachel. You know us, don’t you?”

“My name is not Paul,” I said, instantly convinced the guy truly believed I was someone he knew—someone named Paul. “My name is Todd.”

“Why?” he asked, searching my face. “Why did you change your name? So we couldn’t find you?”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, looking first at him and then at Rachel, “but I didn’t change my name. I thought about it, but I never did. I’m Todd, not Paul.”

And Rachel said, “That’s exactly what Paul would say. You are Paul, aren’t you? The way your hands move when you talk. Your eyes. You’re Paul.”

I shoved my hands in my pockets. “I am not Paul.” I turned to my girlfriend. “Would you confirm that, please?”

“He’s not Paul,” she said, sneering at me. “He’s definitely Todd.”

But Jeff and Rachel were still not convinced. So we stood there for a short infinity while they struggled to accept the apparently unbelievable proposition that I was not Paul.

Finally, Jeff said, “I’m Jeff Kovacs. We lived together, Paul and Rachel and Andrea and Colin and Fritz and Sarah and I. In Ithaca. New York. You…Paul disappeared five years ago. No word since. You, Paul…it destroyed us. And if you’re not Paul, you’re his identical twin.”

“When was Paul born?” I asked, bringing forth my driver’s license. “I was born in 1949. I’m twenty-six.” I handed Jeff my license. The photo, in which I resembled a mafia hit man, was two years old.

“Oh,” said Jeff, looking from the license to me. “You’re not Paul. I’m so sorry.”

Rachel took the license and looked from the mug shot to me. “Even so, you could be Paul.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Jeff, bowing his head. “Seeing you is like seeing him again.”

 

In 1979, I was visiting my sister in Los Angeles. She lived at the end of one of those narrow little canyon roads in the hills behind UCLA, and just down the hill from her place was an outdoor sculpture studio adjacent to a lovely Spanish hacienda—red-tile roof, turquoise window frames, bougainvillea climbing the white walls. The large stone sculptures were the work of the woman who lived there, Anna Mahler, the oft-married daughter of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. My sister said that Anna enjoyed her neighbors visiting her sculptures, so I went down to have a look.

As I was engrossed in looking at the sculptures, Anna, a handsome woman of seventy-five, came out of her house, gave me a startled look, and said, “My father. You look exactly like my father when he was a young man.”

 

On a funnier note, some years later (circa 1985), I was walking down a dimly-lit hallway in a Sacramento restaurant en route to the men’s room, when a woman came toward me, stopped suddenly, and gasped, “Oh my God, you’re Huey Lewis. Oh my God. I am such a huge fan. Oh my God. It’s you.”

“I hate to disappoint you,” I said, feeling oddly flattered, “but I’m not Huey Lewis.”

“I totally understand,” she said, placing her hands together and bowing to me. “You must get hassled to death. Could I get your autograph?”

“I’m not Huey Lewis,” I said, shaking my head. “Bad lighting.”

“I won’t tell anybody,” she said, coming closer. “May I kiss your hand? The Power of Love is my favorite song in the whole world.”

“That’s great,” I said, allowing her to kiss the back of my hand. “But I’m really not Huey Lewis. Truly.”

“I understand,” she said, turning my hand over and kissing my palm. “But this is the chance of a lifetime for me.”

“I’m not Huey Lewis,” I said, pulling my hand away and darting into the men’s room.

When I came out of the john, the woman was waiting for me, and she had another woman with her. And this other woman emphatically shook her head and said, “That’s not Huey Lewis. That’s Elliot Gould.”

 Most recently, whilst pondering the peaches in Corners of the Mouth, Mendocino’s finest grocery store, a woman with long white hair sashayed up to me, smiled mischievously, and gave me a very friendly hug. “Jason,” she said, with mock indignation. “When did you get back from India? Why didn’t you call me?”

“I’m not Jason,” I said, looking into her eyes. “And I’ve never been to India, and I’m pretty sure you and I’ve never met.”

She took a step back, held her breath for a long moment, and said, “I’m sorry. I thought you were Jason. You look just like him. You even have his body.”

“Well,” I said, selecting my peach, “I apparently look like lots of people. Or lots of people look like me.”

“Now that,” she said, pointing at me and laughing, “is exactly what Jason would say.”

 

Todd Walton only looks in the mirror when he shaves and right before he brushes his teeth. His web site is underthetablebooks.com

 

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Playing for Capra

The following memory was first published in The Anderson Valley Advertiser. Many Thanks to Bruce Anderson for his continuing support of my writing.

 


 

Playing For Capra

Marcia and I recently watched a new Israeli movie entitled The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago, a larger story with far too many unhappy chapters. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, for all his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of the powerful mogul Harry Cohn, Capra only made the movies he wanted to make, which were almost never what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, and so burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he, too, was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about these very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960’s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard Capra was going to speak at a showing of It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. But just as Inside Moves was about to be released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people there, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry now that digital technology has replaced film and the secrets of the black and white masters are largely lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction, and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Speilberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra couldn’t take it anymore. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable, compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, then get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved these characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.