Here’s another story MP3: “The News“. This story is part of both Under the Table Books and the audio CD I Remember You.
Here’s Todd reading the first four chapters of his novel Inside Moves.
We’ll be adding mp3 audio files of Todd reading several of his stories for your listening pleasure. Here’s the first: “The Beggar” from Buddha in a Teacup.
Exact Equality Redux
I first wrote this essay a few months before the election of Obama. I posted it on my blog and had several responses, some angry, some supportive, and one that suggested I preface the piece, as I am now doing, with the disclaimer that this musing is intended to ignite your thinking about gender equality and our current socio-economic reality without making any claim to certainty about any of the ideas contained herein. You may call that a cop out, but if reading this piece inspires you to ponder the possibility of a connection between the feminist movement and the more recent (last forty years) machinations of the vile male oligarchy that currently rules our nation and much of the world, I will feel justified in sharing my epiphany.
I recently came upon this quote from Mark Twain. “No civilization can be perfect until exact equality between man and woman is included.”
Not his most erudite aphorism, but certainly thought provoking. Many feminists consider Twain to be a prototypical American misogynist, yet Twain called his novel Joan of Arc his most important work; a novel he was compelled to self-publish at the height of his fame because no publisher would touch it. What were the publishers afraid of? Or to put the question another way, what did the ruling elite find so threatening about Twain’s account of Joan of Arc?
The novel depicts France in economic ruins at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the nation ruled by a horribly corrupt Church and monarchy (essentially one and the same bureaucracy) with much of the country occupied by foreign troops and brigands. There is seemingly no hope for France’s salvation until a young woman rises from the lowest ranks of society to set the nation free.
To write this book, Twain learned to speak and read French, spent years studying the life of Joan of Arc, pored over the historic records of her time, and went to France to retrace the steps of Joan’s life and study the original transcripts of Joan’s heresy trial that led to her being burned at the stake. In his novel, Twain depicts Joan as intuitively brilliant, mysteriously strong, and endlessly resourceful. He suggests that Joan’s phenomenal strength and wisdom derive from a deep and loving connection to the earth and through direct communications with God. Twain’s Joan has no interest in personal success or proving herself the physical equal of men. She is pragmatic, honest, and wholly intent on making life better for all her countrymen.
At the heart of Twain’s quotation is the expression exact equality. I find his inclusion of the adjective exact to be the most original part of his proclamation, though a hundred years ago in America the entire remark would have been revolutionary.
The feminist movement that gathered momentum and grew large in the 1960’s and 70’s addressed social, economic, and sexual inequalities, with exact equality an ideal to be strived for, though certainly never realized. As far as I am aware, the feminist movement paid little attention to spiritual equality, and this, I think, proved to be a disastrous oversight—not that there was ever a comprehensive plan guiding the movement. When I speak of spiritual equality, I am not referring to women struggling to gain the right to become ministers and rabbis and priests in the various patriarchal religious systems, but to an active recognition of the common humanity of men and women transcendent of gender.
Today, fifty years after the feminist movement burst into the mainstream, the corporate media—which I view as our contemporary version of the omnipresent Church of Joan’s time—is more pervasive and dominant than ever and uses every means imaginable to control our bodies, psyches, and spirits, while the American economy is largely in ruins and our nation is now ruled by a totally corrupt oligarchy of wealthy crooks. And I wonder if there could possibly be a connection between the feminist movement and the subsequent ruination of our society by the male overlords, if you will permit me to give those shadowy villains a medieval moniker. I wonder why, with all the fabulous momentum of the gay, feminist, and civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, has equality between men and women, let alone exact equality, eluded us, and is, by many measures, rapidly regressing to the inequality that defined our society barely two generations ago? Could this moral decline be intrinsically related to the feminist movement and the backlash (see Susan Faludi) sparked among the corporate elite and reflected in the machinations of our government and media? I think so, and I think Twain’s Joan of Arc, in a roundabout way, posits a credible explanation for why, at least in part, this may be so.
Disclaimer: I grew up with two brilliant older sisters, a brilliant mother, and a not-so-brilliant but oppressive know-it-all father. I knew from an early age that women were easily the equal of men in every way except in terms of brute strength, and I saw how the creativity and intelligence and sensitivity of women was a threat to the supremacy of men who were in no way equal to such women. That is to say, my family reflected the greater reality of our male-dominated society. I identified more with my mother and sisters than with vader, thus I grew up a champion of women despite the societal stigma against such championing.
Addendum to disclaimer: My novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, is full of powerful female characters. The publisher, Bantam, one of the large corporate agencies of cultural control, was aghast at the strength and independence of my female characters and asked that I tone them down to make them “more acceptable to the reading public.”
Bantam or any of the current corporate publishers wouldn’t know what to do with Twain’s Joan of Arc, for she is so incredibly strong that by today’s standards she is a super hero, with one notable exception: her feats were real and historically undeniable. I note that Twain’s Joan is not called by God to liberate women, but to liberate all those suffering under the yoke of cultural and spiritual oppression. Modern feminism, while justifiably excoriating the patriarchal systems underpinned by the world’s major religions, unfortunately made villains of men in general and thereby alienated a vast army of potential male allies. Millions of men who loved women, truly loved women as people and women, were so often characterized as sexist pigs, agents of the patriarchy, and much worse, that they either turned against their accusers or became indifferent to women’s liberation. And the real enemies of women (those dastardly overlords) gleefully capitalized on this painful schism and used it, I believe, to hold our society back from an equality of the sexes that would have ushered in a new age of social dynamism and egalitarianism. Women striving for equality were, in essence, characterized by the popular media as men haters, which characterizations resounded in the collective unconscious.
Twain’s Joan of Arc did not misplace her enmity. She recognized and connected with the souls of all people, men and women, and was thus able to rouse a depressed and severely wounded population to oust the foreign occupiers. Indeed, so formidable was Joan’s power and influence, so threatening was she to the corrupt status quo, that very shortly after her miraculous military victories, the Church moved swiftly to convict her of witchcraft, sorcery, and alliance with Satan. How else to explain the miraculous successes of a mere woman?
My favorite part of Twain’s novel is the trial of Joan of Arc, wherein despite terrible privation and unspeakable cruelty at the hands of her captors, Joan daily repulsed the verbal and intellectual attacks of the most brilliant minds the church could muster against her. Joan’s triumph is recorded for all time in the transcripts of her trial. Unable to surpass Joan’s astonishing and inexplicable grasp of the most esoteric aspects of religious law, her enemies resorted to starving her, torturing her, and forcing her to sign a false confession so they could at last burn her at the stake. She was nineteen when the Catholic hierarchy killed her and shortly thereafter canonized her.
Some fifteen years ago, a wise woman said to me, “So now we’ve got women’s retreats and men’s retreats, everybody getting in touch with their inner woman and their inner man, which is all well and good, but the real revolution comes when men and women unite their spirits to experience our larger purpose here. As long as we define ourselves first as men or women, and only secondarily as human beings, we are too easily divided and conquered.”
John Trudell, the potent American Indian thinker, frequently invokes this same idea. Unless we think of ourselves first and foremost as human beings, and men and women and black and white and Indian and European second, the overlords will use these divisive self-perceptions to keep us from uniting. We are all earthlings, not Americans or Germans or Iranians or Africans, but human.
Exact equality between man and woman may seem an impossible idea. Men and women cannot be exactly physically equal. Indeed, the latest research strongly indicates that men and women have very different operating systems installed in our cranial computers, so to speak. I make the assumption Twain was speaking of spiritual equality, and exact equality means that we all have exactly the same value; each of us is priceless. Until we reshape our social institutions and our personal behavior to support this very reasonable concept of exact equality, our civilization will never approach perfection. In spiritual union, I and Thou become We. Inseparable. Exactly equal.
Todd’s novel Under the Table Books will be published on May 18.
The only difference between samsara and enlightenment is attachment.
My friend Iris hails me at the Mendocino post office and says, “You know how my car got stolen from my driveway, so I had to get another one? Well, the police found the one that got stolen. In Ukiah. They ticketed it every day for a week until some genius ran the plates and found out it was stolen.”
Iris lives in the hills a couple miles off the beaten (paved) path and always leaves her keys in the car since it seems highly unlikely anyone will venture up the long dirt road to her dog-infested driveway and steal her old car. But someone did.
“Was the car damaged?”
“Not at all,” she says, smiling in amazement. “Just ran out of gas. And here’s the cool part. The thief left the key on the seat along with my fanny pack and my really good binoculars. He only took a little cash and my Swiss Army knife. Oh, and he left his empties: a vitamin C drink and an Odwalla Smoothie.”
“He went through your stuff and selected what he needed?”
“That’s what I thought, too,” says Iris, nodding. “I have this vision of a guy living on the edge and really needing to get back to Ukiah. So he borrows a car he doesn’t have to hot wire, leaves it at his destination, and takes what he needs to enhance his survival. The police are hot to catch him, but I hope they don’t.”
For some reason, Iris’s story brings to mind the last time I was audited by the IRS. I’ve been audited twice for the only times in my life I made more than thirty grand in a year. When I asked the young auditor why they were wasting their time auditing a small fry like me rather than rich people, he said, without batting an eye, “Because rich people have really sharp accountants and tax attorneys. We have much better luck going after you do-it-your-selfers.”
They go after us. The vulnerable ones. The ones who can’t afford expensive money jugglers.
I enter the post office and find a notice in my box from Blue Cross, recently renamed Anthem (as in Anathema), informing me of a forty percent increase in my monthly payment. The notice contains no explanation of why my premium is being raised so dramatically, and since I have never used my health insurance except as a psychic buffer against the fear of losing everything should a medical catastrophe befall me, I can only assume the sickening spike is simply extortion. They know it is highly unlikely I can get health insurance elsewhere, so why not go after me?
This extortion letter puts me in mind of a cartoon several people sent me eons ago when I was a neophyte on the writer’s path. In the cartoon, a well-fed, well-heeled fellow is showing off his mansion, tennis court, swimming pool, and bikini-clad trophy wife to an envious guest. The caption reads: “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the Great American Novel, when it suddenly occurred to me: Why not write the great American extortion letter?”
And that cartoon always puts me in mind of another favorite sent to me by at least twenty people: Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse typing, “Dear Sirs, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, you’ll just have to come and get it.”
But I digress.
I go from the post office to Corners where I purchase two tomatoes, a little bag of cashews, a loaf of bread, a dozen mushrooms, a chocolate bar, and a hunk of sheep cheese for a grand total of sixteen dollars. As I find myself (just for fun) calculating a forty per cent increase in my total, I overhear two Cornerites discussing the sudden absence of certain products due to the growing number of companies going out of business. (Do-it-yourselfers, no doubt.)
The sad truth is that we are at the very beginning, not the middle or the bottom, of an economic decline unlike any we have ever seen in our lifetimes. I walk out of Corners imagining thousands and millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens reduced to states of desperation in which an unguarded car containing a bag or two of groceries would prove irresistible.
As if on cue, a homeless man I know greets me at my truck. “Hey, man,” he says, smiling hopefully. “Recognized your pickup. Haven’t eaten in two days. Help me out?”
I give him two pieces of bread, half my cheese, and five dollars, and then I calculate forty per cent of five dollars and give him that, too.
“It’s grim, man,” he says, eating ravenously. “Fuckin’ meltdown, man.”
Not quite ready to go home and write outraged letters to Blue Cross and my corporate congress people and corporate state legislators, I decide to chill by getting a sandwich and going to the beach. As I wait for my ham on rye in the lusciously warm Mendocino Market, I read a newspaper article about Obama’s plan for a Bad Bank in which the government will take over all the toxic investments of the criminals who bankrupted the nation. By the government’s own calculations the Bad Bank will add a trillion dollars or more to the swiftly mounting national debt. Obama says he hopes this Bad Bank will get the few remaining banks (run by the same criminals who created all the toxic investments) to start lending money (gotten from the government at zero interest) to small businesses and people for six to ten per cent interest.
And I wonder: Why doesn’t Obama’s government lend the money directly to the people? Why go through extortionists? Why doesn’t Obama’s government take over Anthem Blue Cross and put that mob of crooks and sadists out of business for the good of our nation and democracy and his daughters’ futures?
By the time I get to the beach my thoughts have frazzled into a snarl of anger and sorrow. I think of my recent three-minute eye checkup that cost a hundred and ten dollars, my auto insurance going up as the truck gets older, gas prices rising as crude oil prices fall, baseball players making twenty million dollars a year, movie stars making twenty million per movie, and millions of people without sufficient food or health care, and I’m too upset to eat my sandwich.
So I set the tasty comestible on a driftwood log, take off my shoes, and go wading in the shallows to cool my blood. And just as I’m starting to let go of the sorrows of the world, a great outburst of shrieking and crying turns me around in time to see three gulls and a raven fighting over the last few scraps of my sandwich.
by Todd Walton
Michael Perry, gruff and unkempt, smiles at his four-year-old daughter Cecily and says, “Please be my little songbird just a few more times and we’ll have Christmas tonight in a motel room with television and a bathtub and…”
“A tree?” asks Cecily, her eyes growing wide at the thought of a tree lit with colored lights. “With tinsel and angels?”
Mildred Kittredge, seventy-four, proud and prim in a dark tartan skirt and a well-pressed white blouse, looks out the big picture window in her living room, and frowns at the scruffy fellow pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk across the street, his cargo a dirty little girl sitting atop a pile of cans and bottles. Mildred describes the ruffian and the child in angry shouts to her husband, Ted, who is playing a video game in his study down the hall.
“Long brown hair. Fortyish. Six-feet tall. Blue jacket. Dirty jeans. Old tennis shoes. No socks. Are you listening to me, Ted?” She waits for her husband to reply, furious that these derelicts continue to come down her street after all her calls to the city council. “The little girl has curly brown hair like Shirley Temple. Her face is filthy. Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. Pink pants. I can’t see her shoes. She’s in the shopping cart. Did you hear me, Ted? They’re obviously homeless.”
“Yes, dear,” says Ted, a tall man with snowy white hair. “I’ll put the lights up before they get here.”
“Before who gets here?” asks Mildred, stamping her foot. “There’s a horrible man with an unsanitary child across the street. They’re going up to the Morgan’s front door, and the Morgans, as you know, are in Paris for the holidays.”
“Before the kids arrive,” says Ted, putting down his control stick, pleased with his new high score. “No need to get so upset. I’ll put them up right now.”
“I guess nobody’s home,” says Michael, pushing the cart away from the big brownstone. “Maybe next door.”
“I’m cold, Daddy,” says Cecily, hugging herself. “Can I have my jacket?”
Michael fishes in the duffel bag for her filthy blue jacket. “I’ll wash it, honey. Next chance we get.”
Cecily puts on her jacket and wrinkles her nose at the musty smell, though she’s glad to be warmer. “Thank you, Daddy. Maybe they’ll have a Laundromat at the motel.”
“I bet they will,” says Michael, feeling as hopeless as he has ever felt—his daughter the only reason he goes on living.
Julia Smiley, wearing her red sleigh bell apron over her forest green dress from Neiman Marcus, stands at the enormous butcher-block island in the center of her colossal kitchen. She’s sprinkling green and red sugar glitter on her white snowman cookies, trying to keep her mind on presents and ornaments, rather than think about her long gone husband.
“Jingle Bells,” she says lifelessly, which reminds her to put on the Johnny Mathis Christmas CD her mother sent to cheer her up.
The doorbell rings. Julia licks her fingers, washes her hands, and checks her face and recently permed hair in the little mirror she keeps over the sink for just these occasions.
“I’m still good looking,” she murmurs, frowning at her pretty face. “But I’m not at all sure about this perm. Maybe I’m ready for long hair again. Maybe…”
The house shakes as Lois, Julia’s sixteen-year-old daughter, hurtles down the stairs to answer the door with Arthur, fourteen, following close behind, shouting, “It’s not your stupid boyfriend. It’s probably for me.”
Julia clears her throat and tries not to cry as she imagines their father standing at the door, ashamed and chagrinned, ready to give the marriage another try, done with his ridiculous affair with that woman barely half his age.
“Mom,” says Arthur, coming into the kitchen, resplendent in his madras jumpsuit, his frothy blond hair in his eyes. “There’s some weird bums at the door.”
Julia’s feelings of forgiveness dissolve into rage as she grabs her rolling pin and storms through the house, determined to drive the invaders away. But the scene in the doorway is so arresting—a sad little girl standing atop a heap of cans in a shopping cart—that Julia lowers her rolling pin and gazes in wonder as the beguiling waif takes a deep breath and belts out that quintessential Christmas song:
Chess nuts rosing on an open fire,
jack fross nipping atcher nose
I know it’s been said many times many ways
Merry Chrissmuss Merry Chrissmuss
Merry Chrissmuss to you.
Lois, who loves movies starring bold little kids, is deeply smitten with the singing child and bursts into applause.
Arthur, who favors anti-hero comics and mildly obscene rap music, finds the little girl’s rendition of the old tune sufficiently bizarre as to warrant an approving nod. And Julia, having for several months walked the fine line between functional depression and irrational despair, is stricken to the heart by the darling little girl, and bursts into tears of aggrieved compassion.
“I’m calling the police,” says Mildred, aghast at what she imagines to be going on across the street. “They’re making a horrible scene at the Smileys, and you know Mr. Smiley isn’t there anymore, so…”
“How does this look?” says Ted, standing on the highest rung of the eight-foot ladder to place the big bubbling star atop the towering spruce. “Or do you prefer the kinetic angel? The one that changes colors and has the spiraling halo?”
Mildred grabs her phone and punches 911. “Hello, yes. This is Mildred Kittredge. I’m at 7472 38th Street. Not avenue, street. There’s a man breaking into the house across the street. With a shopping cart.”
“Really?” says Ted, climbing down from the ladder. “At Julia’s?”
“That’s right,” says Mildred, looking out he window. “Breaking and entering even as we speak.” She hangs up and glares at Ted. “Since when is she Julia to you?”
“They just seem to be talking,” says Ted, remembering the thrill of that recent afternoon when he met Julia in the rose garden at McKinley Park, purely by chance, next to the fabulously fragrant red Mamie Eisenhowers, how they walked home together and she cried about her husband leaving her, and he comforted her. “I wouldn’t say he’s breaking in. They’re just…”
“You have to say that,” says Mildred, storming out of the room. “Or the police won’t come. You have to say there’s violence underway or they ignore you.”
“But honey,” says Ted, following her into the kitchen. “Why call the…”
“Don’t honey me,” says Mildred, seething. “You’ve been talking to her, haven’t you? Ever since her husband ran off with that harlot. Haven’t you? Admit it.”
“She’s our neighbor,” says Ted, feeling terribly sad. “I say hello to her occasionally. We…”
“You probably talk to her more than you talk to me,” says Mildred, turning away. “Don’t you? Admit it.”
Michael—wishing he’d shaved more recently than a week ago—steps into the doorway, gives Cecily a peck on the cheek, and turns to face the Smileys. “Thanks so much for the applause, but we’re just a bit down on our luck right now, and what we really need is…” He stops speaking and his jaw drops. “I…I…”
“What?” asks Julia, flustered to be the object of such a penetrating gaze. She impulsively touches her hair and wipes the corners of her mouth in case cookie crumbs are clinging there. “What is it?”
“You…you’re Julia,” says Michael, overwhelmed by a flood of memories. “Julia Payne. Class of 1978. Castlemont High.”
She squints at him, sensing she knows him, but seeing no one she recognizes. “Yes, but…who are you?”
A huge tear rolls down Michael’s cheek and he forces a laugh to stem the tide. “I’m Michael Perry. We…we…”
“Michael?” she says, forgetting all about her husband and her children and her hair. “Michael.
“Holy Jesus!” says Mildred, closing her eyes at the unimaginable. “She’s kissing him. Has she lost her mind?”
Ted does not close his eyes. Julia’s passionate embrace of the bedraggled man is one of the most beautiful things he’s seen in all his seventy-six years. “They aren’t kissing,” he murmurs, his heart pounding. “She’s hugging him.”
Mildred opens her eyes. And though she is loathe to admit it, Julia and the vagrant do seem to be embracing in much the same way she and Ted embraced on that long ago day when Ted finally came home from the bloody war, and they clung to each other for hours and hours, fearing to ever let go.
Now squad cars arrive, one two three, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Six officers leap from their vehicles and unbutton the straps holding their guns tight in their holsters.
Michael and Cecily turn to face the police, hands held high in surrender.
Sergeant Kelly, sensing nothing serious, leads the parade of gendarmes. “Okay, okay,” he says, nodding deferentially to Julia. “What’s going on here? This guy bothering you, ma’am?”
“No,” says Julia, stepping in front of Michael, shielding him. “These are my friends. They’ve come to visit for Christmas.”
Mildred is extremely distressed. Throughout the long afternoon, as her two sons and two daughters arrive with her nine grandchildren, and all through Christmas supper and the opening of gifts, no matter how hard she tries, Mildred can think of nothing but that horrid man and the dirty little girl in the house across the street.
“What’s wrong, Mother?” asks Janet, the eldest of Mildred’s children. “You seem so tense.”
“She just…took him in,” says Mildred, clenching her fists and glaring in the direction of Julia’s house. “A complete stranger. Just…took him in. It’s inexcusable.”
“But why is that bad, Grandma?” asks twelve-year-old Philip, sorely disappointed she won’t allow him to go across the street to visit Arthur. “Maybe like the policeman told Grandpa, maybe Mrs. Smiley knows him. Maybe they are friends.”
“She couldn’t possibly,” says Mildred, barely able to keep from screaming. “How could she?”
“Mom,” says Jonah, her oldest son and the spitting image of Ted. “It’s Christmas. Maybe she’s feeling generous. ‘Tis the season and all that. So don’t worry about it.”
Ted watches the outdoor Christmas lights come on at Julia’s house, her azaleas and camellias twinkling with hundreds of little golden lights. “The officer said they were old friends visiting for the holidays. Maybe their car broke down. Maybe…”
“Of course she said he was an old friend,” says Mildred, shaking with rage. “They would have arrested him if she’d told the truth. She’s lost her mind. She’s watched too many of those stupid Hollywood movies where homeless people turn into saints and millionaires. She’s delusional, and now we’re all in danger.”
“Of what?” says Jonah, grimacing at Mildred. “We have them seriously outnumbered, Mom.”
“Don’t try to joke me out of this,” says Mildred, clenching her teeth. “That woman has lost her mind, and she’s endangering her children and us, too, letting a miscreant like that stay in our neighborhood. It’s an outrage.”
Lois is giving Cecily a bubble bath. Cecily peeks through her mask of bubbles and asks, “May I have some more hot, please?”
“Of course,” says Lois, trembling at the miracle of the child in their tub.
“Are we staying here tonight?” asks Cecily, pretending to be a mermaid, holding her legs together and swishing her imaginary tail through the warm water.
“I think so,” says Lois, feeling all sorts of motherly feelings she’s never felt before. “I’ll ask my mom.”
“I hope we do,” says Cecily, her eyes widening with excitement. “Because you have a chimney, and chimneys are what Santa uses for getting into houses with his presents. We were going to a motel, but they don’t have chimneys or fireplaces like you do, so there’s a much better chance Santa will bring what I wished for my father if we stay here.”
“What did you wish for?” asks Lois, holding her breath.
“New shoes,” whispers Cecily. “His are all worn out and we catch pneumonia if we go barefoot in the winter.”
Fresh from his shower, Michael is shaving with Julia’s razor and trying to think of a reasonable explanation for why he and Cecily are homeless. But the tangle of his past resists untangling, so he abandons his quest for an easy answer and says to his reflection, “I’ll just be honest. I’ll just…tell her the truth.”
Arthur is on the phone ordering pizza. “Yes, we’d like an el grande vegetarian with extra mushrooms and mega garlic, and we’d also like one of your humongo Christmas specials, the Chicago deep-dish Turkey ‘n Stuffing. Is it possible to get extra cranberry sauce on that?”
Julia is in the laundry room, washing everything in Michael’s duffel bag, weeping at the paucity of his belongings. She remembers how handsome Michael was when he took her to the senior prom and she wore her first and only strapless gown and all night long she worried her dress would slip away if she danced too fast and her breasts would come free for all the world to see. “So I only danced the slow ones, and he danced the fast ones with Mona Felix who was wearing practically nothing and wanted to take him away from me.”
“I can’t stand it any longer,” says Mildred, rising from her chair and striding to the front door. “If the police won’t do their job, I’ll do it for them.”
“Honey, no,” says Ted, looking up from the jigsaw puzzle he and the grandchildren are assembling—dolphins leaping over turquoise waters. “What are you doing? Wait.”
But Mildred will not be deterred. She hurries down the front walk and marches across the street; Ted and their children and grandchildren following in confused disarray.
Arthur answers the pounding on the door, shocked to find Mildred and Ted and their myriad descendents gathered on the front porch.
“Bummer,” he says, making a goony face. “I thought you were the pizza.”
“I am not the pizza,” says Mildred, wondering what Julia has done with that frightening man. “I am your neighbor, and I’m very worried about what’s happening in this house.”
Julia joins Arthur in the doorway, her face free of the sorrow that has masked her for years. “Merry Christmas, Mildred. Ted.” She smiles sublimely. “Are you out caroling? It’s so cold and clear. We’d love to hear a song. Come in. Come in. We’ve just turned on the tree lights.”
“We won’t come in,” says Mildred, trembling with anger. “Not until that man is gone. How dare you harbor that kind of person on our street. I don’t know what sort of mental problems you’re having, but I…”
“You mean Michael,” says Julia, seeing her fearful self so clearly in Mildred’s eyes. “He was my high school boyfriend. The first man I ever really loved.”
“First man you ever loved,” gasps Mildred, swept away into a vivid memory of
Christmas eve in Philadelphia, Mildred and her younger sister Claire just returned from sledding on Brower’s Hill.
They are having cocoa by the fire when someone knocks on the front door.
They run to answer, expecting friends with gifts, but it’s Father with his cap crushed in his trembling hands, his eyes bloodshot and full of tears, his lips quivering, desperate for a drink.
“Mama says we can’t let you in. Mama says you don’t live here anymore.”
“Oh, please my darlings, it’s so cold out here and I…”
“No,” says Mildred, slamming the door.
Now Michael appears with Cecily in his arms, his long hair brushed back from his handsome face. He smiles at Mildred and says in his rich baritone, “Isn’t it amazing? Finding each other after all these years.”
And without thinking, Mildred bows to him, deeply humbled by the seamless confluence of her tragic past and the miraculous present. “I…I don’t know what to say. Forgive me, I…”
“Please,” says Julia, drawing Mildred in from the cold. “We’ll have egg nog and wine by the fire, and cocoa for the children.”
“And I’ll sing,” says Cecily, leaning out from her father’s arms to kiss the old woman’s cheek.
“And we’ll sing along,” says Ted, slipping his arm around Mildred’s waist, lest she trip and fall.
Midnight. Mildred stands at her bedroom window, looking up at the Christmas moon still nearly full. She hears Ted coming up the stairs, and she wonders if he’ll notice the nightgown she’s wearing, the translucent cotton thing she used to wear long ago when they made love with abandon and the children came into being every two years, and they could imagine no end to their passion for each other.
Ted enters their bedroom saying, “The doors are locked, the children fast asleep.” He sits on the edge of the bed and takes off his shoes. “Quite a day, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” says Mildred, smiling at Julia’s house. “Quite a day.”
“Full of surprises,” says Ted, wanting so much to touch his wife, but fearing she will push him away as she has for so long now.
Mildred turns to her husband and opens her arms to him.
Michael and Julia sit at the kitchen table, searching their minds for anyone else from the olden days they might reminisce about. But there is no one left to keep them from speaking of their own lives now.
“The last time I saw you,” says Michael, sipping his tea, “was Christmas of my first year of college. I dropped out my sophomore year and never came home again.”
“Mitzy Eiger’s party,” says Julia, remembering her blue paisley dress, her daringly short hair, the peace symbol earrings she never let her mother see. “You had a moustache and all the girls thought you looked so dashing.”
“Ah, yes,” says Michael, touching his upper lip. “My Zapata phase.” He looks at Julia’s hand and sees the deep trace of her vanished wedding ring. “And you were engaged to good old Joe Phelps, so I didn’t even try to kiss you.”
“I broke up with him a few days after that party,” she says, barely remembering Joe. “I wish you had. Tried to kiss me. Who knows what might have happened?”
“So…where did you go after that?” He smiles shyly. “What did you do?”
She takes a deep breath and says, “You first.”
He takes her hand and gives it a good squeeze. “No, you.”
Todd Walton’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com
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
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”