Friday, December 08, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part Five

Katerina dreamed of Wilf that night, and awoke sometime before dawn, certain that he was dead. But he wasn’t. Wilf was asleep himself, chasing rabbits in his own dream, chained to the basement wall of a house at the outskirts of the village. He had been captured a week ago by a villager named Hugo Prummler.
Prummler had often seen the dog running beside the Princess, the whole town had come to know the glittering spectacle of the frail young woman on the massive horse with the swift dog at their side. When he came upon the animal asleep in the shade of his bushes he took it as the answer to his prayers. The dog was valuable. The princess would be distraught at his absence, and after enough time, a week or two, perhaps as much as a month, when a reward had been posted, he would return the mutt to the grateful royal family.
And never work another day in his life.
For Wilf the days in Prummler’s cellar, broken by brief walks at dusk and before sunrise, were an unbearable torment. He had tried barking to gain attention, but the massive villager had beaten him until he stopped. He was afraid for his life; he could sense that this human was more brutal even than the bears he had glimpsed in the deep woods. They would kill him if they caught him, he knew that – but only for food. This man took a gloating pleasure in Wilf’s captivity that had nothing to do with any ultimate outcome. Even the beating was beside the point – the muffling effect of the earthen walls made barking completely inaudible to anyone not standing directly above the basement entrance. It was an unfortunate accident that Prummler had heard him at all. But he had kicked and punched the hapless dog anyway. To dominate another creature was Prummler’s true pleasure; it was an end in itself, and Wilf couldn’t understand it. There was no comparable emotion in the animal kingdom.
Still, all of that was almost beside the point. The worst part of the whole situation was that Wilf’s mission might fail.
He hadn’t just run away as an ordinary dog might do, lured by a strange scent or the temptation of a pack. There were gangs of wild dogs, abandoned by their owners, but they scared Wilf. He wanted nothing to do with them. Besides, as Princess Katerina’s favorite he had too much pride to roam the streets, eating garbage and chasing vermin for sport.
No, he had run away for a reason.
He had understood when Anders and the Princess talked about the Gryphillaria leaf – how no one but the dead herbalist could tell the difference between it and the poison plant, pormelusia. No one human, that is; he knew he could tell the musty, astringent smell of those leaves from ten feet away. It was possible that the pormelusia smelled exactly the same, but he doubted it. Perhaps it would to a human …or a horse.
But dogs knew better.
He didn’t want to argue or give anyone false hope so he just left, running for the woods, hoping he could return with the gryphillaria before more bad things happened and the Princess went away with the thick man who smelled like cold bacon fat. The King wanted her to mate with this creature. He couldn’t see the truth, but humans rarely did. Katerina sensed the man’s anger and cruelty. She needed to defy her father, and she could do it if she had the medicine she needed. But he was the only one who could find it for her.
No one else could help.
He had been too eager, though. He had run too far and fallen asleep in the wrong place and now he was trapped and the Princess might be married already. He wasn’t even sure how many days he had been here. His sense of time was no match for his sense of smell. The only thing he was sure of was that he had to escape.
He studied Prummler’s routine as best as he could. There was no chance of escaping from off the sturdy rope leash during the short walks in the walled garden, and the cellar itself had no windows or stairs to the main part of the house. The access to the outside was through a hatch beside the north wall. There was a latch that locked the bay doors and it made a distinctive double click as it closed. After some uncountable number of days, it became to clear to Wilf what he had to do. There were only two moments of opportunity each day – those few seconds when the hatch doors were open, and Wilf was off the leash but not yet chained to the wall. Prummler kept a firm grip on Wilf’s collar, but he had only one hand free. Long ago, he had seen one of the horses pull the bridle out of a stable boy’s hand with a twist of his neck. The image had stayed in his mind. A shadowy choreography began to move through Wilf’s mind, over and over as he lay curled at the furthest extent of the chain. He saw his actions and Prummler’s ever more clearly. And he began to think it could work. There was a lot he had to do, very little time to do it …and only once chance. If he failed Prummler would not allow himself to be so careless again.
For two dusks and two dawns he hesitated, waiting and watching, trying to be sure. Then, on the third day, he made his move. It was an uneventful ten-minute walk and Prummler had been drinking. Wilf knew the smell. And he knew it didn’t make humans faster or more quick-witted.
As Prummler was preparing to secure his collar to the chain, Wilf twisted his head as he had seen the horse do. It bent Prummler’s wrist in the wrong direction and he let go with a shout of pain.
This was it.
He bounded up the stairs and pushed the doors closed with a bang. He shot the bolt with a paw, pushing until he heard the double click, and then ran at the garden wall. He leapt, but it was too high and he almost tumbled over on his back when he landed. He jogged around the house. The front gate was lower. It meant jumping out into the dirt road that ran in front of the building. He might be seen. He might be trampled by horses. But the risk of Prummler’s wife or children seeing him was worse. He took a breath, ran hard at the fence and caught the top rail with his front paws. He pushed hard, snagged it again with his back paws and then he was flying through the air. He landed running in the empty road, and in another moment he was through an alley across the street, into she shadows and gone.
Half an hour later he was hitting his stride, panting as he ran – the loping, steady sprint that had kept him even with horses and left other dogs in the dust since he was barely more than a pup.
He might have reached the forest by midnight, if not for the rabbit trap.
Wilf didn’t know he was caught a trap; all he knew was that his right front paw exploded into a ragged red pain and he was brought up short, falling forward so that his head crashed into the ground and his back legs flipped him over. He tried to get up and the pain sheared through his leg again. He heard a hideous high-pitched screeching whimper and realized in a moment of utter terror that it was coming from him. He couldn’t stop the howl of agony and it kept pulsing out of him like blood from a torn artery, until oblivion flooded over him like black water and he lay unconscious, shaking and shivering on the packed dirt of the empty clearing.

Tomas Gunderson had wanted a dog all his life. He was only twelve years old, but it seemed like a long time to him. His parents had often explained why it was impossible, and by the time he was ten he could see that their explanations made sense. They weren’t farmers, they had no sheep to herd, no sleds to pull, to fowl to retrieve from the water. They had nothing worth stealing and thus no need for a watchdog. A pet was an extravagance they couldn’t afford. “Just another mouth to feed,” was the way his father put it. Tomas was uncomfortably aware of how much he was eating these days; he could see his parents wince slightly every time he asked for a second helping. He didn’t want to make his parents feel worse than they already did, so he let the subject drop. He hadn’t mentioned it since the previous winter when the neighborhood mid-wife, who often took in stray animals and knew how to care for them, had offered his family a handsome retriever whose sores she had healed with herbal poultices. His coat was glossy now, he was well-behaved, energetic and happy. She called him her ‘miracle dog’.
But Tomas’ parents had no interest in old lady Braden’s ‘miracle’. Tomas’ father made some remark about the cur’s appetite being restored also, and that was that. So Tomas had given up on the idea of a dog, and it was the last thing on his mind this cool, damp August morning, as he played Knights and dragons with his friends in the fields beyond his house.
He was tacking in a wide circle around the makeshift dragon castle they had built the week before out of deadfall and twigs when he heard the whimpering. He knew instantly what had happened – some large animal had been caught by one of the ugly rabbit traps that the Schmidt family set out. They harvested dozens of the little animals a week and made the most of them. Royalty purchased the coats and mufflers Mrs. Schmidt stitched together, and of course the meat had gotten them through many a long winter. But Tomas had come upon the mangled creatures before and it was so horrible to him that he actually refused a rabbit fur cap he had been given on his last birthday. His family was one of the poorest in the village; the gift was wildly extravagant. His father was furious – the hat was too small for anyone else to wear and could not be returned. But Tom held his ground. He wanted no part of the rabbit slaughter.
The animal caught in Schmidt’s trap today was a black and white speckled hunting dog, lying on its side with its right leg cocked at a strange angle to reduce the pressure of the trap’s teeth. The dog was barely conscious. He had lost a lot of blood.
“Hey, boy,” Tomas said. “Hey boy, you okay?”
The dog lifted its head a little and despite the pain it must be feeling, managed somehow to wag his tail. It slapped the ground a couple of times.
“Good boy,” said Tomas. “You wouldn’t bite me now, would you?”
He walked slowly toward the dog, getting down on his knees as he got closer and shuffling forward that way. He extended his hand for the dog to smell as Mrs. Braden had shown him how to do. The dog licked his hand with great effort, and though Tom never took his eyes from the dog’s face, he could hear his tail beating the ground more strongly, now.
“All right,” he said, “We’re going to get you out of that trap right now. It’s going to take a few seconds and I have to go real slow, okay? I don’t want these teeth closing again.”
He worked his fingers under the latch of trap, and caught the curve of metal, his fingers laced between the jagged sections. He eased the metal bolt out of the hasp and felt the pressure of the spring on his hand. He was going to cut himself if he wasn’t careful. He pulled it back slowly, feeling sick to his stomach at the strength of the snare, and the force with which it must have come down on this poor creature’s paw.
Finally he had it open. With his other hand he eased the dog’s paw onto the ground. Then with both hands he bore down on the jaw of the trap. He was on the verge of resetting it. Shutting his eyes, he let go. The trap clanged shut again. The noise jolted him and obviously scared the dog. But no more rabbits would be caught here – at least for the next few days.
He bent to pick up the dog. “I think you’re going to be okay,” he said softly as he gathered the little hound in his arms. “I know a lady who knows how to take care of hurt animals. She’s fixed up ones that looked a lot worse than you. And she’s really nice. Come on, don’t be scared, it’s a just a little way.”
Wilf wasn’t scared. He knew the boy and the lady would help him. He licked the boy’s face happily -- if he healed quickly enough, if he was brave and swift enough, he might still save the princess.
He still had a chance.
And that was enough for him.

Notes on Plot

While writing my new novel Abutters (sequel to Owners)I've been wondering about the whole process of plot construction, keeping a journal, trying to make a record of my thinking on the subject. Plot doesn't get talked about much. It tends to be dismissed by the literary set ... most of whom have probably noticed somewhere along the line that devising plots feels a little too much like work. Better to dismiss the whole business as hack writing and get on with the prose poems about city light in winter and losing your virginity in the tenement basement, or whatever.

Someone once remarked that one of my dad's scripts was 'contrived'. He said, "Yeah. I sat down and contrived it."

But how exactly? That's what interests me.
Hence these notes ...

This is a classic plot strategy: when you hit a hole, a spot where the people are behaving in ways that sabotage your intentions … go with it. Follow their actions. See where they lead. It’s your unconscious telling you something. And there is often good story material in following the natural impulses of your characters.

The fatal nemesis of any plot is coincidence. Any gesture of intention – no matter how far fetched – is preferable to coincidence. Your job is to make the preposterous intentional gesture believable, using physical detail and emotional history, quirks of character and every other tool you possess. Because however hard it may be, making a coincidence function as part of the narrative engine is impossible. For instance … does Beaumont just wait around for the girl to arrive on island? That would be lame. Does her arrival give him the idea? Then what was he doing here in the first place? Her showing up just in time to give Beaumont’s victim the perfect motivation for a crime feels dubious and lazy. The only way out is to make Beaumont RESPONSIBLE for her coming to the island. How? Well …What if he had gone to her first? Tracked her down methodically as he circled Krakauer … hacked into the e-mail – suddenly he becomes this creepy red-neck computer geek; and he could have been that all the way back to desert storm … fixing things, including cars and computers … a sort of idiot ( or Snopes-)- savant.
So what if he found out about the land sale, found out that they needed one more partner? … Then he would be just one incidence of identity theft from being that needed last partner and luring the girl to the island. Which would make the whole land fraud thing a potential bust anyway, since one key part of it was fake. It would also allow Henry a way into Beaumont … since he could start with the identity theft, and track Baumont backward from there. This also allows for some interesting research and discussion of identity theft itself. Maybe that has been his specialty … that and writing computer viruses. And improving linux in small ways.

It seems baroque and bizarre … but it beats the girl just showing up. All you really have to do is go back and shore it up, and armor it with enough fact and detail and atmosphere so that the reader buys it.

Characters & plot:
Let characters expand to explain their behavior as dictated by the events of the story. The character is literally formed by the plot and his evolving role in the events of the book. He becomes who he has to be – a creature of narrative fate. It’s a type of destiny you can actually believe in: not God’s plan … just the writer’s contrivance.

Plot – trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t have the box. You don’t know what the picture is supposed to look like and you’re cutting the pieces yourself.

The necessity of non-plot related stuff: Lisl Hennig in Deigton. The details that breathe life into the plot. Stray comments, weather, ruminations, observations, minor characters.

Tip of the Iceberg theory –
Knowing the right detail to deliver sideways, with an attitude, convinces more than reams of exposition, and allows you to venture, briefly at least, into areas where you know nothing and have no direct experience. You are not putting a particular tool, or location or skill-set into the book … all you are putting there are words. Choose the right ones, give them the correct casual, opinionated delivery (familiarity breeds contempt … describe the most gorgeous city in the world in terms of the ever worsening dirt and traffic and you will be more convincing that the most detailed guidebook) … and it will be plausible.

Three more notes:
The first is the analogy of the airplane flight and the O’Hare layover. You have three hours between flights, and you spend them in a hard plastic seat next to a snoring fat guy and harried single mom with three kids, trying to read a book and settling for someone else’s discarded Time magazine. It’s tempting to think that you’re stuck there going no place, listening other people’s flights being called. But in fact, you’re still traveling. The whole trip winds up taking ten hours instead of seven, but that’s all it is – a ten-hour cross-country trip. The waiting between flights is as essential to your eventual arrival as the time in the air. It’s the same way while you’re piecing together the structure of a book, arranging and re-arranging all the elements, letting characters expand to fill the new roles that the story requires, catching logic holes and filling them, following odd digressions that lead to transformational ideas, which in turn require basic revisions in the original concept. It’s time consuming but it’s fun … maybe too much fun. Still, it’s essential. It’s the time on the ground that prepares you for that take off and the smooth flight, cruising through the intricacies of the narrative at 30,000 feet. You’re not producing any pages – except pages and pages of notes, probably. So it feels fallow and it’s anything but.

This relates to the second analogy. Devising the plot, however detailed and cunning, is only part of the process. It’s like building a house. It’s not enough to have a weather-proof shell, and all your plumbing and electrical finished – even the wall board and the plastering don’t do it. The place is solid and level, it passed all its inspections, but it’s generic: an item of architecture. You have to paint it and furnish it and cook meals in the kitchen and eat them in the bed. You have to throw parties and clean up after them, come home after a trip and smell the stale air, and fill the shelves with books … you have to live in the place, long story short. You have to let the reality of it enclose you, you have to make that reality animate from the inside out. It’s the same with a plot. Hammer it together – fine, that’s the hard part. But then you have to live with it, let it become real for you … however far fetched or even preposterous it might be. When the house becomes a home, when the plot becomes the truth of your characters’ lives … then you have a new address … or a book.

The third note has to do with accepting and even embracing the haphazard way plots come into existence. Things that seem part of a carefully calculated master plan in fact develop almost at random. The whole first scene (below) in the Muse takes place because I realized the story could not start on the day Debbie arrived on Nantucket. The chronology was screwed up. If Kennis was to get a call about a bombing, Zeke would have had to have been at work for a while, setting his plan up, laying the groundwork. That’s not a one day deal. So … I still needed Debbie’s arrival to kick things off (because after all, it does); and I needed a time lapse. Can you show a quick scene and then jump ahead two weeks? Yes … if you can pull it off. That’s the maddening beauty of the novel form. The only rule is … make it work. If it works, you can do it. The only limits are your own.
Still… how exactly? First of all, stay in Henry’s POV … “The next time he noticed her” leads you into another scene and then a door opens up. You can use that scene to establish things in action you were just going to talk about before. And then a scene you should have figured out from the start lurches into being because of bandaid for a botched piece of chronology. And this isn’t some bizarre anomaly … it’s standard operating procedure. It seems like luck … it’s certainly not the straight line from point a to point b that you’d like … but perhaps these scenes are in fact already organized; the trick is finding your way to them, and linear thinking rarely works.

Why a plotted externally driven book is of an intrinsically lesser quality than a character driven story: the withholding of information closes you out of various characters’ minds. In fact wherever you are closed out of a character’s thought processes in a plot driven novel, a red flag should go up. A good reason why many detective novels are written in the first person … you can’t get into anyone’s head, by definition. A book where you are artificially removed from certain characters … because to hear their thoughts would wreck the plot … its based on a kind of narrative dishonesty. But the lie is embraced by the reader for his own pleasure. It reminds me of my Dad’s analogy between writers and prostitutes. They do their work first for their own pleasure … then for the amusement of their friends – and then for money. It seems that a john embraces the false intimacy of mercenary sex in the same way that the reader accepts the false presentation of situation in a detective yarn. For diversion, for fun, to while away an idle hour. This is hardly Kafka’s view of real literature – “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
But you don’t always want that.

Sometimes you just want to ice-skate.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Animal Kingdom, Part Four

That was the incident that made the King decide to speed up the wedding plans. Torvald would never have full control of Katerina until they were married. That was obvious now.
The next day he called her into his chambers after breakfast (She attended the meal as always; but as usual, now, she ate nothing).
“I have something to show you,” he said.
“Can it be quick, father? I’m tired.”
“It’s ten O’clock in the morning! How can you be tired?”
“I didn’t sleep last night.”
“When you are married you’ll sleep well.”
She looked down.
The King pulled a teak wood case with leather straps from a high shelf. The key was on a chain around his neck. He pulled it over his head and unlocked the small chest. Then, with a flourish, he opened the lid. Katerina gasped. It was full of gem stones, gold bracelets and rings, hammered silver set with rubies. Some of the finer pieces she recognized. They had belonged to her mother. She lifted out one pair of emerald earrings, two tiny gems, each set simply in a slender ring of gold. These had been her mother’s favorites, austere and beautiful, just as she was. Katerina put them on, glancing at her father nervously. But he smiled at her.
“They’re yours,” he said. “They are your dowry.”
She reached into the pile of dense cool jagged metal and smooth stones. There were no portraits of Katerina’s mother in the house; the furnishings she loved had all been recovered or removed to the royal storehouses. The King had burnt her clothes, even the wedding dress that she had always wanted Katerina to wear at her own nuptials. The Queen’s favorite china was gone, also; some said that the King had smashed it all in a seizure of grief soon after her death. One of the servants had actually seen him that night, lumpy and pathetic, sitting on the flagstones under the full moon, sobbing in a sea of shards.
It was all cleaned up by the next morning. Of course it didn’t help him forget. The new plates and cups just reminded him of his futile tantrum and the loss that had ignited his temper.
Katerina picked up a filigreed bracelet. This was all that was left of her mother – a few baubles locked away in a leather-strapped chest.
“Torvald’s family is very pleased.” her father continued. She looked up at him.
“Then the transaction is complete.”
The King shook his head. “So hard. So cold.”
“You barter my body and my mother’s private treasures for land and soldiers. But I’m hard and cold.”
“The marriage will be good for you also, Katerina.”
“But I don’t understand. There is such immense wealth in that box. Why not just buy the land? Why not just hire the soldiers? Why do you need me at all?”
He shook his head. “You have much to learn. Treasure does not secure loyalty. Money doesn’t bring dynasties together. Only the ties of family can do that.”
She stared at him. “I will never be a part of Torvald’s family. Despite whatever words I am forced to mouth.”
“But your son will.”
“And if I have a daughter?”
“Then you will give her a brother.”
She was almost enjoying herself now. It was easy to be defiant when you didn’t care. “Some women give birth only to girls.”
“You will not be one of them.”
She laughed. “So. The King has spoken.”
“I don’t like your tone.”
“Well, I don’t think God likes yours very much, either. Telling him what the sex the babies have to be. He banished his favorite angel to Hell for the sin of pride. I can’t imagine what he’d do to a mere King.”
“I was not presuming upon the dominion of the Lord. I was merely expressing my faith in him.”
“I will never bear Torvald’s children, Father.”
“You will.”
“Then he will have to take me by force. And I can fight, you know that. You taught me. He might lose his manhood before he can impose it on me.”
“This is idle talk. It wearies me. The wedding is set for two weeks from today. The exact nature of your wedding night is between the two of you. Arrange a fitting with the dressmakers. I want you looking your best for the occasion.”
“Father – “
“Don’t mistake your position. You have privilege and luxury. You bathe in warm water and eat plentiful food. You have rank and nobility. You have power. What you do not have and will never have is freedom. We are both prisoners here, Katerina. We are chained by our duties and obligations, as much as any of the peasants who toil in the fields. I had to learn that fact at an early age. Perhaps you will finally learn it on your wedding day.”
“But, father – “
“Go. You have many arrangements to organize. Your mother isn’t here to take care of the details, so you will have to manage by yourself. Five hundred people will be in attendance and there will be no embarrassments this time. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, father.”
“Yes, father, yes you understand me, I know that cunning trick! Will you obey me? That’s the real question.”
“I will do my duty, father.”
He stared at her for a long moment, not quite ready to trust her unexpected surrender. She was looking down at the floor. When she glanced up he saw there was no trace of humor or revolt in her eyes.
She was beaten; he had broken her to his will.
The only lingering question was -- why did that long-awaited victory give him so little satisfaction?
Katerina went to the stables that night, partly to check the bowl of food she always left for Wilf, but mostly to see Lochinvar. Her father had understood her perfectly, had actually watched as the last struts of her will collapsed under the pressure of his quiet rage. She was just rubble, now. There was no point to fighting the marriage, as there was no point to marrying the loutish Torvald. Nothing mattered and everything was the same. But the thought of summoning the will and the strength to perform the obligations her acquiescence demanded made her weep with fatigue. It was like having to knot the noose and build the scaffold for your own hanging.
She told all this to Lochinvar as he stood in his stall, gently pushing at her head with his own. She knew what he wanted but it was impossible.
“I don’t even remember being happy,” she said. “It’s just something I’ve heard about, like falling in love or having children. You hear them gush about it and you just feel excluded, like you’re not even completely human – no offence.”
“None taken, Princess. I don’t want to be human. None of the animals do. It seems like … too much trouble. Too much thinking and not enough running. No, I’m one hundred percent horse and I like it that way.”
“It’s true. You’re all horse, Lochinvar. You’re a good boy.” She stroked his neck. “Sometimes I wish I could just … stop all this, stop being me, stop being human. Be like Wilf, be happy. Be part of the animal kingdom.”
“That’s a strange term. Kingdom. We have no King.”
“What about the lion?”
“I’ve never seen a lion. What is it?”
Katerina shrugged. “Well … I’ve never really seen one, either. But they’re supposed to be – big cats. Very fierce hunters. All the other animals are afraid of them.”
“And that makes them King? It makes sense – that’s how things work in the human kingdom. Power is all that matters.”
“Not to me.”
He rubbed against her head again. “I know that Princess. I think you were born into the wrong world. You and Anders, both. He would be a good dog. He is a dog, in some ways. Wilf feels it. He is happy and loyal and full of energy. Wilf said to me once, ‘I would be proud to have him as a dog. He’s like … an honorary dog.’”
“What about me?”
“You? You’re are a horse, Princess. Strong and cunning and brave.”
“I don’t feel any of those things.”
“You’ve lost yourself in your grief. I can feel your sorrow, I can taste it in the air around you. It has cut you off from the rest of your people. But it allows you to talk to us.”
“Is that what’s happening?”
“I think so.”
“So, if I’m ever happy again … ?”
“We won’t be able to speak this way. But we won’t need to.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“You’ll still have me. I’ll always be your horse. That’s how things work in the Animal Kingdom. No feeling ever goes away. Nothing real is ever forgotten. Just the same way I know all the paths and rabbit holes all over the forest and the village. The way I can always find my way back to the clearing. Humans get lost so easily. They forget the important things, or perhaps they never learned them in the first place.”
“What things?”
“Well … “ He swished his tail as if scattering flies, and lifted his head a little then ducked it down. From now on, she would always know he was thinking when he did this. At last he blew out a shuddery breath. “The sum of your life is the people in it, the people you love, the people who love you. Nothing else matters. What you do doesn’t matter. What matters is … who you do it with. Humans are too busy building things and making things and tearing them down again to remember that. But I think you know what I mean.”
“Sometimes. Not often enough. I forget, too.”
“This time will help you to remember.”
“I hope so.”
Lochinvar said nothing more and they stood in silence for a long time. That was how Anders found them when he arrived in the stables. He touched her shoulder lightly and she turned, startled.
“Hello, Princess,” he said softly. He tilted his head toward Lochinvar. “Do you want to take him out for a ride?”
“No, thank you, I’m too tired, I just wanted … I wanted to be with him for a while.”
Anders smiled. “I know. He’s good company.”
The light caught the emerald earrings she had forgotten to remove in her father’s chambers. “I saw your mother once before she died,” he said. “She was giving out small Easter gifts to all the servants. She was wearing those earrings.”
The Princess reached up and touched them absently.
“She wore them on her wedding day,” she said.
“Is it true, Princess? That the marriage is on again? The servants are talking about nothing else.”
She sighed. “Sometimes I think the whole point of my existence is to give everyone around me something to talk about. Aren’t any of them getting married?”
“Several of them are talking about it. But none of them is a Princess. Besides, if you marry Prince Torvald you will go away and the thought of that makes them sad.”
Of course it was true. It was so obvious it had never even been discussed. Still, the reality of it struck her now for the first time. The phrase was exact: it was like a blow to that vulnerable spot just above her stomach, doubling her over and knocking the breath out of her lungs. All Anders saw was the expression on her face but for him it was as if she had been hit, also. He reached for her shoulders.
“I’m a fool.”
“I can’t do this.”
“Then don’t. All you need to do is say no.”
“Just one word. But I would have to say it to my father.”
“You’re strong enough for that.”
“Not anymore.”
He squeezed her shoulders and squinted at her in the shadows of the barn. “I know you can do this. I’ll help you.”
She shrugged away from his touch. “How?”
Just one word. So -- she could still deliver a single syllable like a slap, if not to her father, at least to him. Anders had no response. By loving you, he might have said. But his love had no practical application. What could he do for her? Kill Torvald? Marry her himself? But these were impossible daydreams. It would insult both of them to speak such things aloud.
“Saddle me up and ride me,” Lochinvar said. “We’ll ride far from here, we’ll run and run and run.”
She turned to him. “And where will we go?”
Lochinvar dug a hoof into the straw. He had no solution to that one. Running was enough for him.
“Princess -- ?”
Anders thought she had been talking to him. She had no strength to explain her new communion with the animals. He would probably just think she was insane anyway. It was all too much trouble.
“I have to go,” she said. “This is just making things worse.”
She walked out of the barn into the amber late afternoon sunlight and Anders watched her go. There was no point in following her. There was nothing to be done. She would be married, and she would be gone. Regardless of how either of them felt about it. He would never see her again, except when he caught sight of her at ceremonial occasions. He would just be another face in the crowd, observing the royal procession.
The barn door swung closed, and he was left standing among the restless animals, alone and silent in the dark.

My Favorite Ghost

My Dad has been on my mind lately, a pervasive spirit, looking over my shoulder when I drink an India ale or eat a Hagen Daz bar, nodding when I cut a redundant sentence out of a paragraph, shaking his head as I fall for a corny Rocky trailer. He hated lower class kitchen sink dramas; he’d walk out of a play if he saw a refrigerator on stage. I was thinking today about the officious accountant who handled Dad’s estate, telling me that I was treating my inheritance irresponsibly, by actually spending some of it. At the time, I had felt like telling him that the feckless child he was chastising was in fact putting two kids through college and had been running his own business for more than a decade. But after a good early morning writing session, I realized there was something far more important to say: that these words on paper, and the furtive, almost criminal satisfaction I took in making up lies about non-existent people -- those were my real inheritance, my true patrimony, and he would never understand it and it would never run out. It would have sounded petty, saying it to the guy.

Realizing it on the beach this morning, all I felt was grateful.

I was glancing through Paranoid, the other day. When Dad cut it, he added transitions and pieces of dialogue. For instance: the President’s wife, son and possible daughter-in-law watch him striding towards the Naval helicopter in a blue suit, with his red tie snapping in the wind, and the girl says to the First Lady: “Don’t Presidents ever wear overcoats?” I had forgotten that one. The jolt of seeing it again isn't exactly communion with the dead; maybe it's just a nod, or a glass lifted for a toast: “Here’s to you, Pop, for sticking around after the formal eviction, doing a quick rewrite and still throwing those great parties in the back of my head.” Sound morbid? It isn’t.

Ghosts make good company. The horror writers never mention that.

Anyway, here’s the eulogy I memorized to deliver “extemporaneously” at his memorial service. It went over well – I killed. He would have approved. The piece is short -- just a hint of who he was: like the menu posted outside a four star restaurant or a photograph of the Grand Canyon.

But it’s better than nothing.

I’ll be brief because that’s how Dad liked it. He had a rule at dinner. Everyone wanted to tell the story of the book or comic book they had just read, or the movie or TV show they had just seen. That was fine, as long as they could do it in three sentences. It was great – all you’d hear for minutes at a time was the sound of grinding teeth as various kids tried to boil down a Star Trek episode, or Lawrence of Arabia … or Moby Dick into three sentences. You could almost hear them: “OK – there’s this whale … no. There’s this guy who was chasing the whale … no, wait …”

It was okay. You were better off listening at that table, anyway.

You could learn a lot at dinner; sometimes meals turned into informal writing seminars. My Dad loved verbs, and he hated adjectives. Once he challenged me to describe something we were eating, some little meat pastry. I said it was flaky and savory and delicious. Three adjectives: no good. He used two nouns and a verb: “calories, lashed together with garlic.” He taught me Logan’s Law: [The theatre director Josh Logan was a great mentor for him and one of his best friends for more than thirty years] “A hit movie or play is a series of scenes culminating in a final scene through which the hero learns something about himself, always emotionally and always for the better. “ And it’s true – from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Rocky to The Lord of the Rings. Dad said a great thing about cutting once that always stuck with me. “You turn the story upside down and shake it. All the loose stuff falls out.”

He was always proud that he put a phrase into the language with the title of The Seven Year Itch. But he put a lot more phrases than that into my language. To this day I can’t look at a fattening dessert without hearing him saying “..and the best part is … it tears the weight off you.” I can’t sit looking at a blank page without his credo coming to mind: “Will write, if cornered.” I looked at the airline meal on the flight out here, and heard him say “Toy food.” And as for the word ‘totter’, they should just retire it from the language now that he’s gone, the way they retired Wayne Gretzky’s number when he quit playing hockey.

Dad could be a tough audience. I’ll never forget watching a young comedian trying his act on him one Sunday at lunch. Dad just sat there saying, “Good. That’s funny.” But he never even cracked a smile. Finally the comic got exasperated and said “Don’t you ever just laugh?” Dad shrugged. “No,” he said. “But don’t feel bad. My eyes are twinkling merrily.”

I wrote a suspense novel and asked him to cut it. He took more than a third of it out. He said, “You were writing a thriller. I took out everything that wasn’t thrilling.” Then he shrugged and said, “I could cut a minute thirty from the book of Genesis if I really had to.” The edit was a huge job and a lot of work, taken from his own busy schedule. But the gesture was typically generous. My friends and I often heard him ask, “How much money would change your life?” If you thought about it and told him, he’d give it to you. It didn’t always take much. One night when my friend Stephen Salinger was broke and waiting on tables at Ma Maison, my Dad tipped him a hundred dollars. It did the trick; Stephen never forgot that night. Dad once ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’59 in the Oak Room at the Plaza, just to show me what great wine tasted like. When he knew I needed it desperately, he swept me off to London for my senior year of High School … and thirty two years later, it’s still the best year of my life. I learned much more from him than I did in school – antiquing on the Portobello road, or at the Turner show at the Tate. He had to drag me out to see the Noel Coward tribute at the British Film Institute. Hey, I was seventeen. It was a great night as well as Coward’s last public appearance ever.

It’s strange, standing in this house without Dad and Joanie here. Not even this house exactly… there have been so many over the years. This is just the most recent one. All of them, from 1018 Benedict Canyon to 301 N. Carolwood, from 56 Chester Square to Malibu to Lloydcrest Drive, all had the same spirit. And most of them had the same bar. I got drunk for the first time in my life at that bar. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Anyway … for most my life these houses have been like the world capital of wit and sophistication. I used to judge people by how well they’d fit in at those Sunday lunches. Not many people measured up to that standard. If any of these houses are haunted, there are going to be some great parties going on, with some very classy ghosts.

Dad was a wonderful host, but he was cripplingly shy.
He was full of contradictions, mostly between the cynical things he said and the big-hearted way he lived. He used to say there was no one as tedious as a reformed drunk. But he was one himself for the better part of two decades with no loss of charm or style. An English magazine once asked him to comment on the phrase “All the world loves a lover.” He said, “Funny you should ask. Right now my son is love, my daughter is in love, my cook is in love, my secretary is in love, even the man who picks up my trash is in love. They stand under my window all night long, baying about it. So in response to your question, I would have to say that all the world does not love a lover. In fact all the world is bored to tears by a lover.”

This from a man who was married – with a one short break – to the same woman for more than fifty years. He had nothing against love. He just couldn’t take it seriously.

If there is a heaven, and I know he didn’t believe in that stuff, I can picture him at Ma Maison (The number is still unlisted), St. Peter bringing a bottle of white wine to the table instantly. Dad is ordering lunch – that was his specialty just like Patrick O’Neal’s character in Secret Life. There are some old friends around the table. Maybe he’s even pausing between courses, looking down on this gathering today, listening to my little speech. Not laughing, of course. But maybe his eyes are twinkling merrily.

Right now, I’d be happy to settle for that.