If you were a certain kind of person with a certain kind of schedule in the early sixties, you probably saw a show that some friends of mine and I worked on called Acres of Perhaps. By “certain kind of person,” I mean insomniac or alcoholic; by “certain kind of schedule,” I mean awake at 11:30 at night with only your flickering gray-eyed television for company.
With any luck, it left you feeling that however weird your life was, it could always be weirder. Or at least more ironic. We would have settled for that in those earnest days.
They have conventions these days about our show where I bloviate on stage about what the aliens represented or how hard it was to work with Claude Akins or what we used to build the Martian spaceships. Graduate students write papers with titles like “Riding the Late Night Fantastic: Acres of Perhaps and the Post-War American Para-Consciousness.” I’m now an ambassador for the show and for my friends, and I’m the worst possible choice.
I wasn’t the one with the drive to create big things like our producer Hugh Kline, and I damned well wasn’t the one with the vision and the awe like David Findley. I was just Barry Weyrich, the guy who wrote about spacemen in glass bubble helmets, who put commas in everyone’s scripts, who never had writer’s block, who grimaced whenever they talked about “magic.”
And if there’s anyone to blame for the shriveling death of that show’s magic, it’s me.
• • • •
Jesus, I don’t write anything for years and when Tony dies, bam, I’m sitting at his old computer typing about David Findley. David Fucking Findley, who wasn’t even really David Fucking Findley.
• • • •
Not that we felt magical making Acres of Perhaps. The question for every episode wasn’t whether it was good but whether it was Monday: that’s when we had to have the cans shipped off to the network for broadcast. The money men at the studio had no idea whether what we did was good or not, but they gave Hugh a lot of freedom because they sure didn’t want to run anything valuable at 11:30 at night. As long as medicated powders and furniture polish kept flying off the shelves, we could have shown a half hour of fireflies knocking around in a jar for all they cared.
We came close.
You might remember “Woodsy,” an episode David not only wrote but shot himself. That’s the one where the camera stays fixed on a dark patch of woods at night for the whole half hour, and after five minutes you see tiny faces watching you through the leaves grinning madly, first a couple and then many more. About ten minutes before the end, a half dozen of these little goblin people drag a man’s body across the camera’s field of vision, tugging it in bursts until the shoes disappear on the left side. Then something pushes the camera over. Roll credits.
Hugh almost burst a blood vessel in his neck when David came back with that one, but he’d borrowed the camera all weekend and there wasn’t much else to do but send off the episode and see what happened. A whole big nothing, that’s what: People watched it, wondered what the fuck was going on, and then went to bed. We got letters about it, but no more than we did for the episode about the Hitler robot.
David pulled shit like that all the time. He was the tortured genius, treated with delicacy, and he pissed me off. I was young and insecure with a cottage in Venice to pay for, and here was this guy living like Poe in a boardinghouse, writing unfilmable stories about finding dead satyrs in a Manhattan street. David never seemed to understand there was a time when the words had to hit the page and go out to a real world of people who just wanted to be entertained.
Remember the one with two Jewish teenagers learning to fly as they plunged from the Stairs of Death holding hands at Mauthausen? That was David’s. There was one told from the point of view of an atomic bomb as it dropped, admiring landmarks and slowly revealing its target is Washington; that got us a visit from the FBI. We lost General Foods over the one where Abe Lincoln turns out to be the second coming of Jesus, but at least I talked them out of spreading his arms on the stage of Ford’s Theater at the end.
Hugh was the big picture guy—the big exploding “gee-whiz” picture guy. He liked to hold up his hands, framing the world with his fingers and imagining it better. To him, the three-act structure of our stories was, “What the fuck? Holy shit! Oh, my God.” Why anyone trusted him with money, I have no idea, but he was no help with David.
That made me the bad guy. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have an imagination, either: I’d written for the pulps since the forties and knew my way around a graveyard or a ray gun. But I sure as hell wasn’t writing scripts about two Scotsmen pulling in Nessie’s corpse with hooks so the tourists would never know she was dead. It fell to me to point out what was too expensive to film (walking skyscrapers in a city of the future) or too skull-cracked crazy (octopus women driving walking skyscrapers in a city of the future). I had to make the characters sound like real people, too, not all breathlessly eloquent.
Hugh appreciated that, I guess—the balance between us. Maybe David did, too. Thinking back on it, I was the only one with the problem.
David was so much younger than I was, very young, and he carried around an old-fashioned carpet bag with clothes and a portable typewriter, ready to sleep or write anywhere. I had no idea where he got the little money he had—God knows it wasn’t rolling in from Hugh—but he spent it cracking up a car at least once a year and buying girls drinks at the Brown Derby. Hugh and I once had to bail him out of jail because he woke up inside an empty water tower.
He was six years too early for the world, born for bell-bottoms and LSD. I was six years too late with my crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses. It’s taken me a half-century to admit this, but yeah, he was everything I didn’t know I wanted to be. We were friends the way television writers are, smiling like sharks at each other across a dinner table.
• • • •
I’m grateful to Hugh and David for at least one thing, sharks though they were: never seeming to care Tony and I were together. That meant a lot in the days when it was dangerous for two men to get a hotel room, when a neighbor peeved about too much noise could call the cops to report something worse.
Yes, they sometimes cracked jokes about where one applied to be a “confirmed bachelor,” but they liked Tony. They liked the sandwiches he’d make on poker nights, not little triangles with the crusts cut off but giant heroes.
They didn’t like that he was almost unbeatable at cards.
“Please,” Hugh said once, “make an expression of any kind. Look down at your cards and then up at us.”
Tony shook his head and then drew his hand down in front of his face like a curtain.
“Buddy,”—that was what Tony said in public instead of “honey”—“with guys like us, it’s all poker face.”
• • • •
We were midway through filming episodes for the second season when the Mullard family came looking for David at the studio. He didn’t often show up even when the story was his, but when it wasn’t, he was usually sleeping off a drunk or reading about ancient Egyptians in the library or doing some other goddamned thing.
We were working on the episode “The Dreams Come By Here Regular.” I’m sure you remember it; it starred that child actress, what’s-her-name, and she gets lost in the woods to be rescued by the ghosts of escaped slaves. It was all moralistic Hugh, right down to the fading strains of spirituals at the end—pretty gutsy for 1962, though, when people were getting their skulls split open for thinking those things in the South.
The stage was all set up as a forest at night where the action took place, and our guys were good at building forests. The trunks were huge and roughly coated, and the branches drooped with nets of fake Spanish moss. Hugh and I were looking over the script when a beam of glaring California light crawled our way across the stage.
“Close the goddamned door!” the cameraman shouted.
Figure after figure stepped in through the light, and they wove their way through our trees like pygmies coming for us in the jungle. If we’d turned the cameras on, we could have gotten an eerie scene, and I’m sure Hugh regretted it later.
A stern matron in a graying beehive came out first, clutching a patent-leather pocketbook with both hands. She examined our faces in the dim illumination behind the equipment, squinting at us each in turn.
“What can we do for you?” Hugh asked.
She didn’t answer, only squaring off with him as though ready for an honest-to-God fistfight. A fistfight, by the way, that you could see she had no plans to lose.
Before it came to that, the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen came out from the fake woods behind her. She was a strawberry blonde, and she had all the grace and delicacy the old lady didn’t—that most ladies didn’t. Her calm eyes and strong brows, though, gave the impression that she’d learned the womanly art of making things happen with leverage from the sides of life.
But that’s David talk.
“Hello, gentlemen,” the woman said, surprisingly at us. “We’re looking for Leroy Dutton.”
Hugh glanced around. “Any of you call yourself Leroy?”
The grips, the cable jockeys, the flannel-shirted union men who seemed to be paid to drink our coffee all froze, perhaps contemplating if it would be worth pretending to be Leroy for that pretty girl . . . and that awful woman. Nobody spoke up.
By then, the rest of the clan had come through—a father in a loose tie, a couple of strapping brothers in coveralls, and a kid sister with cat-eye glasses. They could have been the cast of a variety show a few stages over, something wholesome sponsored by a bread company with square dancing. All they needed were straw hats.
“No Leroy here, I’m afraid,” Hugh said.
The older lady snapped open her pocketbook and handed him a photograph. “He might not be calling himself Leroy anymore.”
I looked over Hugh’s shoulder. It was a wedding portrait, and the beauty on our stage was the bride, gazing up at her groom and holding a bouquet of wildflowers between them. The groom, of course, was David.
“This was taken three years ago,” she said. “Before Leroy up and left our Melody. Not much before, let me tell you. Weeks. Right after he came back from the woods.”
“He’s a writer,” Melody explained, as though we wouldn’t know.
“He calls himself a writer,” the old lady corrected. “He’s a husband and a son-in-law and an employee of the J.W. Mullard Feed Company is what he is.”
A husband and a son and an employee—none were things I’d ever have linked to David Findley. I mean, everyone working on that show was unemployable. We’d been too blind or flatfooted or gay to go to Korea. Some of us had dabbled in college, but those days were cut short by a few bad creative writing classes and a lack of money. We worked as clerks, as janitors, as too-old newspaper boys. And we worked on our writing, of course, holding the few checks that came in just long enough to clear before taking everyone else out for booze. We had mortgages; David had a trunk full of paperbacks. He could jump into a borrowed convertible with a cocktail waitress and go racing in the desert at three in the morning.
Though apparently he couldn’t after all.
Hugh was smooth. “Doesn’t look familiar to me, and I know almost every writer in this town. What about you, Barry?”
I swallowed hard and looked at the picture. “I don’t think I’ve seen him before.”
The old lady wasn’t buying it, and I’m not sure Melody was either.
“Oh,” Melody said, curling one side of her lips in thought. “Is there another show like this one? With little spacemen and ghosts and things?”
Hugh put his hands on his hips. “Is there another show like this one? Ma’am, this is the most inventive television program in the history of the medium. Is there—”
I cut him off before he dug himself any deeper. “What he means to say is that there are shows passingly similar to this one, and your husband could work for any of those. General Mills Playhouse, The Witching Hour, Dr. Hyde’s Nightly Ride . . . maybe they’re worth a try.”
“They’re not as good as we are,” Hugh couldn’t resist saying.
Melody considered this. “Well, he’d only work for the best. If he hasn’t come here yet, he will. Can you tell him I’m looking for him?”
“Sure thing,” I said.
“And that I love him?”
“And that I’ll always know who he really is?”
Hugh thought a second before saying, “Okay.”
The old lady pointed at Hugh. “You’d better be careful when you see him. He can take on any form.”
“Believe me, lady, I know the type,” Hugh said.
The family turned and headed back for the door one by one. The littlest Mullard sibling, the girl with the glasses, waited until last and handed us each something out of the pocket of her sweater: crosses fashioned from Popsicle sticks.
“In case he comes at night,” she said. Then she followed her family out through our woods and into the sunshine.
Hugh shook his head and tossed his Popsicle cross to a grip. “Can we get some footage shot today?” he barked.
• • • •
Tony, by the way, was not particularly religious, which is one of about ten thousand things I liked about him. It would have been hard to be in those years, living like we were. The only place to feel and think differently than everyone else was on silly spaceman shows like Acres of Perhaps . . . shows you watched with thousands of other people alone in the dark.
• • • •
We found David where we usually did when he wasn’t at the studio: hunched in a booth at the Derby typing away on the portable with a glass of something clear and poisonous by his side. Hugh slid onto one seat and I slid onto the other right next to David.
“So, Leroy, tell us about Melody,” I said.
He paused with his fingers above the keys but then plunged them down again almost in a chord to finish the sentence. He batted the carriage lever and sent it clunking to the far side.
“Melody,” he said, “is the most beautiful and brilliant woman in the world, and I don’t want to even think about your eyes on her.”
“Well, everybody at the studio had eyes on her today,” I said. “She came looking for you.”
“Brought her whole clan,” Hugh added.
“Probably spelled with a K,” I said.
David tapped a Chesterfield from a pack and lit it. There was a shimmy in his hands. “That so?” he said.
“That’s so,” I said. I gave him time to take a drag and let out a whisper of smoke, maybe think of something to say next. When he said nothing, I did instead.
“So tell us how your marriage in a hick town crushed your artistic sensibilities until you had to break free, please. I’d like to hear it for the hundredth time, and I’ll bet your version is the best.”
“I didn’t want to leave her. I had to.”
I leaned back from the table. “Ohhhh. You had to.”
He waved his cigarette near his face. “Look, I didn’t want to end up here, for Christ’s sake. I’m from Jenkins Notch, North Carolina, and I spent my first twenty years thinking I’d be right happy working in a farmer’s store until I could afford a place of my own. I’m a hick, whatever you assholes think, and I’m not here because I want to be famous or rich. Shit, look at you guys.”
The waitress was sliding a gin and tonic over to Hugh, who came here so often he didn’t have to order it.
“Writing is your job. You talk about it, think about it, work out ways to do it better. I want to get rid of it.”
I said, “Yes, it’s a bitch to be a genius. We get it.”
“No, you don’t. I’d go home with Melody right now if she was here. If I could.”
“Nothing’s stopping you,” I said. “Except maybe an aversion to decency.”
“It wasn’t like that,” David said. “I liked living there. I loved living with her. We were like limbs of the same tree growing back together after a fire. Even her sweat smelled good, you know? I’d come home and she’d be flushed from walking back from the schoolhouse where she taught and she’d have this scent of . . . the whole earth, really. Like a creek smells in the summer, or firewood in the winter.”
That was eerily and terrifyingly sweet for him to say. This was a man who’d written a script about how every Mercury rocket runs on mulched pixies for fuel, after all.
“I didn’t used to drink when I lived back there.” His twang had come back and he sounded possessed by himself. “But there was this family—probably still is—called the McDantrys and they made moonshine out in the woods. They sold it in town from their truck, and some idiot got some for Melody and me for a wedding present.”
“Something borrowed, something blue, something toxic . . .” I started before trailing off.
“And one night she and I are in the new house and we’re rough-housing and laughing and she gets it into her head to try the stuff. ‘Nobody here but us chickens,’ she says, taking the Mason jar off the top shelf of the pantry and twisting off the cap. The fumes distorted her face right before she took a big pull from it, and then she handed it to me.”
“So what are you going to do? Let her unman you?” Hugh asked.
“Right. I woke up the next morning in a rocking chair with a fawn licking from the streak of vomit down the front of my shirt. All the windows of the house were broken. Inside, I hear this sobbing.”
He lit another cigarette and exhaled from his mouth.
“I go in, and sure enough, there’s Melody all beat up, her face puffy and bulging like a rotten plum. She’s crying and I try to console her, but she hides behind the kitchen table and won’t let me near her. I’m all looking down at my hands and I want to cut them off.
“But I’m still not thinking clearly enough, so I stagger off to the woods to find the McDantrys. They sold bad stuff, right? I could have fucking killed someone. And if I still had it in me, I might as well let them have a little.”
By then in David’s story, Hugh had gotten this look on his face that he wanted to write this down in case it got good. I’ll admit I wasn’t thinking much differently myself. Hell, we could use the forest set we’d already built.
But then the story got strange even by our standards.
“Out back of the Mullard property was a swamp of pines and cypress trees stretching for miles. The ground there is blackened mud and the canopy is all grown together. The McDantrys had put planks across the cypress knees so you’d walk on this tottering path zigging and zagging through the woods. Some were slick with mold so I had to be careful, but I followed them as far as they went—a long damned way.
“It got as dark as dusk back there, and it wouldn’t have been hard to lose your sense of time. So it might have been an hour or even three until I came upon a big rotten cypress stump the folks around there called the Old Knot. When I say ‘big,’ I mean easily the size of a bus, hollowed in the middle like a bottomless well.
“There was a still there all right, camouflaged with broken branches. I was tempted to kick it off into the pit but, frankly, I’d have preferred to do that to the McDantrys.
“Of course, none were there. So I set about to wait. I walked around on the planks a bit, holding out my arms to keep my balance. I fiddled with the still to see how it worked. And then I leaned over and looked down into the stump.”
“What did you see?” Hugh asked.
“I didn’t see anything,” David said. “It was dark. But I heard a hollow whistle, a little like the Knot was breathing—like it was the mouth of some wooden giant asleep under a blanket of mud. I reached my hand over the middle and the breeze was cool and rhythmic.”
The waitress set a beer in front of me and I flinched.
“The weirdest thing was that when I shifted my weight on the board and it let out a squeal, the breeze stopped. Like something was holding its breath for me. And I wanted badly for it to start again—like when a friend jumps into a quarry pond and doesn’t come up in what seems like forever?
“‘Hey,’ I shouted, but there was no answer.
“I got this idea I had to climb down there no matter how far it went, had to squeeze its heart with both my arms to start it again. That was crazy—for all I knew, it was a nest of rattlesnakes.
“But standing there thinking it over, I was okay with that. What else did anybody need me for? The least I could do was make Melody a happy widow instead of a miserable wife.
“So I leaned and leaned like a coward until gravity made the decision for me.”
“Jesus,” Hugh said.
“I fell for a long, long time—so long that I had dreams. The vibration of cold whispers on my ears. The tremble of fingers up and down my arms. Something with claws combing over my scalp. I smelled oceans from other places, imagined music played with water and leaves.”
Bullshit, I thought . . . but didn’t say.
“And then I hit the ground. Or so I figured—I woke up flat on my face in my own front yard. Melody came running out and kissed me and said we’d never talk about it again and it wasn’t my fault and she’d still love me forever.”
Here he paused.
“Well, a funny thing occurred to me that night, naked with our sweat soaked into the sheets and our scents on each other’s lips. What if this was the bottom of the Old Knot, with a different Melody and a different house and a different town? What if up there somewhere was a woman still scared of me? And why wasn’t this one?”
Leave it to David Findley, or Leroy Whatever, to have the world’s most sublime and esoteric drinking blackout.
“After, I had weird dreams of what was going on here or up there, and I noticed things didn’t always connect. I’d think I’d said something here but really I’d said it in a dream up top of the Old Knot, or I’d lose a day in one place or the other. Folks got nervous around me because I’d stare off somewhere and then write down what I could in a notebook I got from the dime store. When that wasn’t fast enough, I got the typewriter.”
“So why’d you leave?” Hugh asked.
“Melody wasn’t worried at first when I clattered away in the kitchen with a board balanced on the arms of a chair. But then I stopped sleeping and going to work. I stopped leaving the house and shaving. I stopped talking, stopped focusing on anything in front of me. She called over my folks to talk sense to me. Reverend Pritchett stopped by. And when I heard them talking about ‘getting me out,’ I decided I’d better get myself out first. I packed up one night and lit out west. And the only thing I can make or sell is . . . whatever that fall gave me.”
David drank the rest of his liquor in one long swallow. You’d think he’d have learned not to do that from his own story.
And that’s what it was: a story. A good one, like all of his, but a tall tale myth meant to make him seem like the Paul Bunyan of weird fiction or something.
“So you drank bad moonshine, beat up your wife while barely conscious, stumbled into the woods, and got a concussion after falling into an old tree stump?” I said.
David eyed me calmly. “Yeah, if you think so.”
“One of those McDantry people dragged you back home where you came to, and ever since, you’ve suffered the lingering effects of your concussion, plus some uncharacteristic guilt. Mystery solved.”
“If you say so,” he said.
Hugh, not helping, asked, “So there are different versions of us back where you came from?”
“Yeah,” David said. “Barry here is writing for the Saturday Evening Post.”
Hugh and I stared and he let us dangle a moment before laughing.
“Barry, I have no idea if you even exist, here or there. I’m not sure I’m creative enough to invent you or Hugh. Or, shit, all of Hollywood. Who would imagine the studio system? Jesus, I hope not me.”
Then, being writers, we spent the night getting drunk and bitching about the money men.
• • • •
You know, Tony and I never got to speed around the desert in a Karmann Ghia convertible like David did with his girlfriends. We could never fight in public with me chasing him out of a restaurant to apologize, either, or walk close on the pier. We lived in a closet built for two for fifty years, and when I finally found the guts to step out, he was too sick to step out with me.
• • • •
The saying goes that to be great is to be misunderstood, and most people assume this also means that to be misunderstood is to be great. But there are lots of misunderstood people who are a long way from greatness.
When I crawled into my bed beside Tony that night, I wondered which one David “Leroy” Findley was: a visionary or some delusional hick good at sounding like one. Or maybe there wasn’t a difference.
What did “Woodsy” even mean when you thought about it? Anybody can film random movements and rely on the viewers’ perceptions to make it art, but unless it says something, what’s the damned point? Acres of Perhaps wasn’t in the “giving-voice-to-David’s-demons” business; it was in the “entertaining-and-enlightening” one. We made people think about race, nostalgia, paranoia . . . not the stitching of the Universe. Someone could create the Clorox Kafka Hour for that.
Tony rolled over under his sheets to face me. We’d just moved to this Craftsman bungalow in Venice then, and air conditioning was a science fictional concept to us. Even a fan was something that cost money, and so he slept without much on at all. I remember this now only because, well, I thought right then that Tony was as good as Melody any day of the week.
I told him what had happened, about the Mullard family and David’s secret identity, about how the whole genius act had a clichéd story behind it—except for the falling into the netherworld part which was pure delusion. He listened with his head propped up in his hand under the moonlight, asking questions and nodding at the answers.
At the end, he asked, “So what is he going to do?”
David had ducked the question at the Derby so I could only offer my guess. “He’ll probably keep avoiding her until she gives up and goes home.”
He considered a moment. “You sound angry about it.”
“I don’t think angry is the right word. Annoyed. I’m annoyed things are easier for him because he has people like Hugh and Melody and me carrying his load of the ordinary.”
“You know what I think?” That was one of my favorite phrases of his; it was like a motor revving. “Men like David make women into muses so they have someone to blame when they don’t deliver the goods. And they make women into anti-muses, too.”
“Yeah. Like this poor Melody. She’s the boat anchor mooring him to reality, right? So he builds it all up until she seems to be after his soul, and then he’s justified in leaving her.”
Tony was a part-time illustrator for magazines in LA and San Francisco, and he had a way of drawing exactly what you needed to see but no more. He sometimes did it with words, too.
“Do you think I’m that way?”
He smiled and reached for my hands. “You don’t have a muse, love. In the same way astronauts and carpenters don’t. You just do things.”
Tony never misunderstood me, and sometimes that was consolation enough for not being great.
I’d leaned in closer when there came a thunder of fists against the front door.
Tony sighed and gathered up the blankets around him. Then he reached for his cigarettes and said, “Better go see what David wants.”
“What makes you think it’s David?”
He tapped the end of the pack. “It’s the way his life works.”
I pulled on an undershirt over my pajama pants and headed for the door. A shadowed head bobbed in the window, and I could tell from the wild spray of hair that it really was David.
“What do you want?” I asked through the door.
“Barry! You’ve got to let me in. They’re after me.”
“Melody and her folks!”
I imagined them walking down the street with torches and pitchforks, and I’ll admit I liked the image.
“Where are they?”
“They’re here,” he cried, twisting the doorknob and thumping himself against it.
I opened the door and he stumbled inside. He tried his best to slam it again but I was holding it.
“This is silly,” I said. “They’re people. Be with her, don’t be with her—just tell her the truth.”
Out in the darkened street, I saw the Mullard family walking abreast in a single line, patrolling with flashlights like you would if searching for a lost dog. They pivoted as one group at the end of my driveway and marched toward us.
“Okay,” I said, closing the door.
David did me the courtesy of bolting it shut. He reached for a chair to prop under it but I stopped him.
I watched through the window as the Mullards formed an arc around the entrance to my house like Christmas carolers. Melody left the group and knocked gently.
“Mr. Weyrich? I think Leroy is inside your house. Can he come out so we can talk to him?”
“Hold on a moment,” I yelled. Then, turning to David, I whispered, “What do you expect me to do?”
“Tell them to go away. Tell them you’re calling the cops.”
“Mr. Weyrich?” This time it was the mother. “That’s my daughter’s lawful husband in there.”
David shook his head but I leaned closer to the window. “Look, I don’t want to be involved in this at all. Maybe everybody should call it a night, get some sleep, and then get together somewhere tomorrow to talk it all over.”
The Mullards closed in.
“Hey, Tony,” David said.
Tony was leaning in the hallway in his navy blue pajamas. He lowered his cigarette from his lips and said, “Hello, David.”
“You’ve got to talk some sense into her, Tony.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Why me?”
“Because you have feelings and things,” David said quickly, still peering through the window.
I watched as the two brothers broke off from the group and out of my vision. I wondered if I’d remembered to lock the back door. Then I wondered if it wouldn’t be just as well for these guys to carry David out of my house and my life. Maybe I could hurry and unlock it—
Tony came closer. “Melody, honey?”
“Yes,” was the quiet response.
“My name is Tony. I’m Barry’s roommate.”
Isn’t that funny how quickly it ran off his tongue? He didn’t even have to pause anymore.
“David—Leroy—isn’t in a condition to talk to you right now.”
“Has he changed form?”
Tony turned to David; he’d sat down in one of our living room chairs and was squeezing his temples with his palms.
“No, he’s still Leroy,” Tony said.
On the other side of the house, the back doorknob rattled. Then a giant rhomboid head with speckled stubble craned in through the open kitchen window. He peered around, looking down at the sink and up at the ceiling, maybe judging if there was room to climb through.
“Hey,” I said, stepping over to the sink. I picked up the fancy new water sprayer gizmo and gave him a quick spritz in the face. He retreated sputtering and I slammed the window closed.
By now, David was holding his head in his hands, covering his eyes.
“Who the hell are these people?” I said.
“They think I’m possessed by the devil,” he said quietly.
“So do I, but you don’t see me climbing into people’s houses to get you.”
“They found me at the boardinghouse, I have no idea how. Melody’s always been able to find me wherever I was like she can feel me, a phantom limb.”
I wondered if Tony could sense me that way. Probably, knowing him.
“Do you have anything to drink?” David asked.
“For you, no,” Tony said. “You smell like a gas tank.”
“It’s how I listen,” he said.
Outside, the Mullards began to sing. They weren’t bad a capella, but when the little one started in on the banjo, it was actually beautiful. Beautiful and scary because, Jesus, who carries around a goddamned banjo?
I glowered at David with my arms folded. “Your whole life is one long episode of Acres of Perhaps, isn’t it?”
So began a strange siege, me sitting on the couch keeping an eye on the Mullards through the blinds, and Tony sitting in the other recliner watching David. The Mullards sang hymns in low voices while David muttered to himself with his hands clawed into the arms of my chair like an astronaut going up.
“This is ridiculous,” I whispered to Tony. I probably didn’t have to.
“Maybe everybody will get tired and go home,” he said.
“We are home,” I said.
Not long after, a rancid odor overtook the room. It took me a moment to realize what it was: David, head lolled back and his mouth wide open, had pissed himself in my favorite chair.
Tony figured it out at the same time. “It’s not like that chair was cheap,” he said.
I grabbed David by his shirt and yanked him up. A dark spot had bloomed on his pants.
“David, wake up!”
He rolled his head to one side and then the other, mumbling. The words were faint and garbled at first but then they resolved like a radio bearing in on the right station.
“What if people make cities itch?” he said.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “‘Antelope umbrellas crying in the wind.’ There. I’m a genius, too.”
“You’re the one who thinks it’s magic.”
“People who piss themselves in my house don’t get to ever use that word around me again.”
He tilted his head back way farther than I thought possible, opened his mouth like the tall front doors of a church, and let out a long, low wail. Then he pivoted his head forward again and said, “Where’s my typewriter?”
I glanced around in case he’d brought it inside. When I didn’t see it, I opened the blinds and squinted on the porch. There was his black case sitting amongst the Mullards.
“You really want it?”
“Barry,” Tony said in his admonishing voice.
“Yes,” David said. “I’ve got to get this down.”
“Excellent,” I said. I turned the deadbolt on the door.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Tony asked.
“Never surer,” I said, opening it.
The Mullards all stood from where they were sitting on the low adobe wall, looks of surprise on their faces.
“He’s all yours,” I said, shoving him into their arms.
The two beefy brothers caught him while the mother looked down with disgust. She’d probably have let him hit the cement face first.
“It’s okay,” Melody said, her hands on the sides of his face.
“No, it isn’t,” David groaned.
“Peace be with you, praise the Lord, whatever the fuck,” I said, holding up my hand jauntily and then slamming the door.
“Hugh’s going to kill you,” Tony said.
“No, he’s not,” I said absently, watching through the blinds as the Mullard brothers hoisted David on their shoulders like a trophy deer. “Jesus is cheaper than detox.”
They’d left David’s typewriter behind and, well, you can’t leave something like that lying around. I reached out and grabbed it.
• • • •
David was a drunk, an eloquent drunk, and it was hard to blame him because hey, you’ve got to do whatever makes you brave. For some people that’s booze, for others it’s drugs, for others still it’s narcissism or vengeance or desperation. I don’t know what made it possible for me to face the page, but keeping stupid words like “magic” out of my head probably helped—telling myself it was like making a chair or a sandwich instead of something alive.
• • • •
It’s not what you think, that I jumped on a chance to take out a rival. After that night, my frustrations with David turned to pity. He happened to be sick in a way that helped him write stories for our television show, but it wasn’t comfortable for him. It hurt him to do. It might even have killed him one day.
But first, as Tony predicted, Hugh wanted to kill me.
“‘Jesus is cheaper than detox’? That’s what you have to say?” he told me at the studio the next day. “People come back from detox, Barry.”
“He’ll come back. They might not even get him all the way to Jenkins Notch. We’re going to get a collect call from a Howard Johnson’s in Kansas after he escapes, and we’ll go pick him up. But you know what? He’ll damned well be sober.”
“You understand he’s the engine of this whole show, don’t you?”
“Well, I like to think I’m useful, too.”
Hugh brandished his clipboard over his head. “You’re the brakes! You’re the rearview mirror!”
“Okay, well, fuck you. But listen. David drunk would last what, another season? At the most.”
“You don’t know that!”
“At the most. Then he’d wrap himself around a tree or hang himself by his belt in a closet. You know how many scripts he’d write then? Zero.”
“They’re going to make him into a revivalist preacher.”
Okay, I smiled a little to imagine old Leroy Dutton swinging a Bible over his head on a plywood stage somewhere, sweat staining the armpits of his short-sleeved buttoned shirt. He’d be good at it, I thought. Quick on his feet, anyway.
“Look,” I said, “he’s a married man. He has a wife and responsibilities and we shouldn’t interfere with that just because you think he’s the only way to make a television show.”
“Married man?” Hugh said. “What the hell do you know about being married?”
I used to think Hugh only meant about thirty percent of what he said, less when he was angry, but it was funny how even irrational, he still remembered where to hit me.
I was considering where to hit him back when the stage door opened again and for the second time in as many days, Melody Mullard Dutton was walking through our woods. She was by herself this time, thankfully.
“There’s something wrong with David,” she said.
“Of course there is,” I said.
• • • •
You know what Tony did every morning for fifty years? He’d open the office curtains facing out to the street, tying them neatly to the side. He’d straighten papers on the desk. He’d set down a cup of coffee he’d brewed on the stove, the way he knew I liked it best. He’d turn on the typewriter.
And because he did, I sat down every day. Sometimes I’d peck something out, but mostly I didn’t.
• • • •
David had escaped, though he was hardly on the lam: He jumped out of the Mullards’ 1940 DeSoto at the intersection of Wilshire and LaBrea on the way out of town, and now they were pretty sure he was holed up at the Derby. It says all you need to know about Hugh that he was relieved a beautiful woman and her good Christian family had failed to lure his writer to a wholesome life in Jenkins Notch.
“He knows where his home is,” Hugh said later. “Not shuffling barefoot with a bunch of Snuffy Smith castoffs.”
The only thing keeping the Mullard boys from storming into the Derby and carrying David out on their shoulders like a sack of grain was that Melody had a plan. In Hugh’s office with her hands folding and unfolding in her lap, she explained it to us.
“Leroy thinks he’s fallen through that old stump and he’s now living on the other side, right?”
I had doubts he thought so literally, but I nodded with Hugh.
“When she taught me how to sew, Mawmaw,”—I think that’s what she called her, and it made me think of a giant double mouth lined with sharp teeth—“told me that sometimes the only way to undo a knot is to push the needle back through it.”
“Okay,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. “I think we might be getting a bit too literal here—”
“So you want to push him back through the Knot again?” Hugh asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“That still doesn’t solve the problem of getting him back to North Carolina in the first place, does it?” I asked.
“We wouldn’t have to if there was a forest here.”
Of course, there happened to be the perfect forest not forty feet from us. A week earlier and the stage would have been New York City. A week later and it would be acting as Moon Base Theta. The Mullards had shown up right in the middle of our very own North Carolina backwoods, almost as though it was destiny.
“All it needs is a Knot,” she added. “Or something he thinks is one.”
I watched Hugh’s eyebrows lift in excitement as they did before any new production, when the budget shortfalls and actor disagreements and special effects problems hadn’t started yet. If there was ever a man born to build a fake portal between worlds to convince a half-mad, half-drunk genius he was sane again . . . it was Hugh Kline.
The question, though, was why he’d want to do it, aside from the artistic challenge. As he leaned across his desk with a pencil and paper so Melody could sketch the stump, I wondered what his angle could be. When he glanced at me and grinned, I knew it for sure.
The Mullards wanted an exorcism. They assumed a sober, demon-free Leroy Dutton would climb out of that stump all blinking in the light of Jesus to return to Jenkins Notch. Hugh, on the other hand, assumed David Findley would climb out, look around at his crazy hick relatives and then never leave Los Angeles again. He wasn’t exorcising the Devil. He was exorcizing the Mullards.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about working with writers, it’s to meet them on their own level,” he told me after Melody was gone.
“What’s my level?” I asked.
“You don’t have a level, Barry. That’s why I like you.”
And hearing that—knowing it—solidified which fate I wanted for David Findley.
• • • •
It’s not like I never wrote again after the show went under. I moved on to comedies and little dramas to keep food on the table, not because I was gifted at it, but because I showed up and produced words when they needed them. In Hollywood, that beats genius every time.
I never knew why guys like David Findley got all the credit for creativity. Anyone can wave his hands and yell “Magic dust!” or “interdimensional tree stump” to explain everything away.
• • • •
We left the set decorator to build the stump while we went to fetch David. He’d slipped away from the Derby by the time we got there, and we checked two bars before finding him again. I don’t remember the place, but I do remember him sitting under the only bright light in the room, writing in a goddamned steno pad with an arc of empty glasses around it.
“Do we grab him or what?” I asked Hugh.
“No, let’s try this,” Hugh said, hunching a little toward the back as though he was trying to go unnoticed.
When David looked up, I could see his eyes weren’t quite focusing on us, and the writing on his pad couldn’t be decipherable even to him.
“We got rid of them,” Hugh whispered.
We sat down on the other side of the table.
“How?” David asked, his voice hoarse.
“Told them you’d gone to the desert to think things through,” Hugh said. “They’ll be there for another four hours, easy.”
David glanced down at the steno pad. “Thanks. I appreciate it. I need some room—”
“What you need,” I said, holding up a hand for a waitress or a bartender or whatever worked in that hole of a bar, “is a celebratory drink.”
“We all do,” Hugh said.
“Yeah, we do,” David said, dreamily.
So that was the plan. We let David drink as much as he wanted, “slaking the demon” as the Mullards would have called it, matching him with one drink of ours for three of his. We figured he’d get drunk enough to drag back to the studio for his exorcism in about two hours.
It took more like four and the cost of at least one episode to get him to the blubbering mess we required. He descended to that state in layers: first he was sentimental, then he was funny, and finally he was full of strange advice.
“You know how you can be as good a writer as I am, Barry?” he asked.
“Please tell me,” I said. By then, I was barely keeping my own liquor down in my stomach where it belonged.
“By not imagining I’m a better writer than you are,” he said.
“That’s deep. You’re like some alcoholic Confucius.”
When David started to drizzle down his seat toward the floor, we figured it was time to get him home. I caught him before his head hit the carpet.
“Jesus,” Hugh said. “Maybe we ought to take him to the hospital instead.”
“We’re taking him to a spiritual one.” I ducked beneath one of David’s arms. “Come on, lift the other side.”
We got David into the car. We got the car across town. We got the car through the studio gate. We got David up, out, and onto his spongey feet. We got him out of the California sun and into the North Carolina backwoods in the time it took to write this paragraph.
The set was the best we’d ever built. I felt the warmth in those woods, the Southern stickiness of them. I smelled the moss. I heard the cicadas. I saw, yes, the winding path of planks leading off into the swamp.
Standing at the end closest to us was Melody.
“We’re here to take you home, baby,” she said, reaching for David. “We came through the Knot.”
He turned into my chest and made a few sloppy skids on the stage to get away. “Get out of here! This place isn’t for you!”
“It isn’t for you, either,” she said calmly.
“Come on, buddy,” I said.
Hugh followed us on the creaking path deep into the soundstage. I hadn’t realized it was that big. Helping David along those planks, I felt the danger of falling into the muck, of stirring up snakes. I felt the trees watching me.
We came to the stump—the Knot—in only a few minutes, but it seemed much longer. They’d outdone themselves with lumber and plaster: It was giant and creepy and it cost as much as three episodes we’d now have to film on canned sets in the back lot. But you could park a Volkswagen inside if you wanted to. The set decorator must have gotten it right because David recoiled when we got there.
“We’re going home,” Melody said like a beckoning spirit, a dryad or a nymph, her hand dipping gracefully from her pale wrist.
We propped David up near the edge. I peered down into the stump and saw the stagehands had lined the bottom with black cloth—a kind of hammock. It would catch him when he fell.
If he fell. He clutched the stump and wouldn’t even look inside. “I can’t go,” he said.
Melody steered herself into his vision. “Baby, listen to me. We’re going home now. You’re going to remember this all like a dream because that’s what it is.”
“I can’t take it back with me,” he said.
It was growing clear that we’d soon have to toss him into the stump by force unless someone thought of the right thing to say. Everybody turned to me.
It wasn’t a rational decision, what I said next. It came as some awful belch of the id.
“There is no ‘it,’ Leroy,” I said.
He closed his eyes as though that would close his ears.
“Nothing’s talking to you or through you. You write weird stuff and what does it change? Nothing. Somebody sits up late at night watching our fucking show in an undershirt with a bottle of beer in his hand. His eyes get opened to the dark truths of the Universe. But then he crawls off to bed and gets up the next morning for work. He farts in the elevator, he looks down a lady’s dress . . . it’s all gone.”
David didn’t say anything, but he did slump further against the Knot.
“Even if you had something, people would just flush it down the toilet. It’s good they flush it down the toilet, because how else are they supposed to sell insurance or sweep floors or wipe baby asses after knowing all of that? It’s a defense mechanism.”
Hugh’s smile faded. “Hey,” he said.
“It’s selfish, when you think about it,” I pressed. “Shoving people’s faces in lives they’ll never have, things they’ll never feel that you made up out of nowhere.”
“Yeah. That’s what it seems to me. You’re not supposed to see that stuff and you sure as hell aren’t supposed to make us see it, either.”
It takes a writer to know how to demolish another writer. And with Melody looking on and her family all praying, I did it.
“Go home, Leroy. Go the fuck home. This world is lost. The one on your side of the Knot, though? Maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’ll give your magic to your kids. Maybe you’ll just live.”
David’s voice cracked when he said, “What if I don’t see anymore? What if I can only see here?”
“Then it wasn’t yours to see in the first place,” I said.
The little Mullard girl began to sing. Melody’s brothers joined in as the harmony and soon the whole family had clasped hands in a circle around Hugh’s fake stump.
David turned his back to me on his hands and knees and I wondered what he was doing. Then he put one wobbling hand on the edge of the stump followed by the other, and he pushed himself slowly to his feet.
“Hey,” Hugh said again, pushing me away. “You do see things, and you need to share them with people who don’t.”
David closed his eyes and swayed a moment.
“No, I don’t,” he said quietly. “I’m not one of the good guys.”
Melody came up smiling with one hand held out for him.
“Walk with me again until you are?” she said.
He took her hand with the wide eyes and open mouth of a man being saved at the last second from drowning in the sea. Together they stepped onto the edge. They paused and gazed at each other like the wedding picture. This was another one, a renewal of the vows.
“Do you want to say goodbye?” she asked him.
He glanced over at Hugh and me. Hugh was reaching for him with a look of feral desperation on his face. Me, I nodded to David and he nodded back.
“No,” he said. “Never again.”
Then she took him into her arms in a dancing embrace and they plunged into the Knot. I half expected them to disappear in a flash. Or maybe I hoped.
All I heard was the pop and creak of them hitting canvas. When we approached, she was cradling him close like an infant and he was unconscious.
The Mullards came forward with a blanket and they bundled David inside. The brothers hoisted him between them and started for the studio door.
“Thank you all,” Melody said, clasping mine and Hugh’s hands. “You saved a life today.”
Hugh tugged his away. “No, we murdered a great show that made people happy.” He turned to me. “You murdered it.”
I didn’t think so then, not yet, so I didn’t even watch as he stormed off through the forest, punching tree after tree.
“I’m glad we could help,” I said.
Melody kissed me on the cheek and hurried off after the limp form of her husband, the late David Findley.
• • • •
Tony wasn’t well enough to travel in person at the end thanks to the cancer growing in his body like something on one of our old shows. I tried last October to rent a Winnebago and take him up the coast; he always loved the trees like David. We got maybe thirty miles out before he was too sick to keep going, but it wasn’t him who said it. He’d have gone the whole way in that little plastic bathroom to make me feel better.
Make me feel better.
What he did instead with the last year he had was walk the world through Google Maps, steering down back country roads with the arrow keys. He went twice or three times across the country that way.
• • • •
I told myself Acres of Perhaps died for many reasons, not just because of losing our resident “genius.” People gave a lot less of a shit about fantasy and a lot more about the bullet-flying, hose-spraying, billy-clubbing reality of the time. If you were square, you wanted to be told about better times on television in Westerns and variety shows. If you were cool, a show like ours couldn’t keep up with the farm-league David Findleys on every college campus with speed, weed, and acid. If you wanted weird, if you wanted surreal, there was always the news.
We tried, though, and I wrote my best scripts in that last half season. Remember the one where the disgraced comic book artist has to draw pictograms for our first contact with an alien race? That was mine. I also did the one where the white-bread people of a wholesome Midwestern town chase the stranded motorcycle gang into a warehouse and burn it down.
But come on. It was over. And as the stories and scripts came slower to me, I began to realize I might be over, too. I knew it on the last day of filming when Hugh handed me my check.
“You know not to come back here, don’t you?” he said.
“I sure do,” I said, folding the check for my pocket.
Hugh and I made up a little before he died. We were in the elevator at a convention years later, standing in opposite corners with grinning teenagers glancing back and forth between us, when out of nowhere he said, “The fucking Love Boat? Really?”
I calmly looked at him and said, “Flood Zone Manhattan? Really?”
Deadpan, he said, “We’re both writing disaster pictures.”
“At least Ethel Merman dies in yours,” I said.
We laughed together for as long as it took to get to the lobby, and Hugh patted my shoulder with one shaking hand on his way out. That was it. That was as close as we got.
The next year I was writing for Charles in Charge.
• • • •
This is Tony’s computer, and I barely know how they work. I follow the paths he made for me, click the things he showed me how to click, let him do the looking I’ve always been afraid to do, and I’ve been exploring his mind when I’m not typing this.
Yesterday, I found the orange teardrop marking a spot in the North Carolina foothills in Google Maps. It had a label, and the label was, “Go here when I die.”
So I am.
• • • •
Jenkins Notch is in its own valley between two ridges of the Appalachian foothills, and first you have to go up a road of hairpin turns and switchbacks before coming down again. Not that Tony went there in person, of course. But for him to find the town and find the farm, even when he was in too much pain to sit for twenty minutes at a time . . . it probably almost felt that way.
The place looks like one of our old sets, Fantasia Americana. There’s a real general store where old men sit around a giant wooden spool playing checkers. There’s a post office operating from an old mobile home surrounded on three sides by a handicapped ramp. They’ve got a Main Street, too, but the little hardware store and clothing shop have long been boarded up, and the only busy place in town is the Circle K convenience store.
I followed the line Tony drew for me off the main road and through town and into the forest and finally down a bumping dirt track with a ridge of weeds growing out from the middle. The closer I got, the more I worried about whom I would find at the end. I hadn’t called ahead, and Leroy Dutton could stagger from his shack with one overall strap hanging loose from a beefy shoulder and a cocked shotgun on his arm, thinking I’m the tax man. I could end this journey bleeding out in the dust with my chest turned to hamburger.
That’s not the reason I didn’t go to see Leroy first, though.
I’m no commando or wilderness scout, so it took me some wandering and thrashing through the brush to find my way to the low-sloping hammock of loamy soil that David described for us all those years ago. I glanced between the sycamores for the little goblin things of “Woodsy,” but I didn’t see any.
When I came to a path of planks, I knew I was close. I followed them deeper into what now were oaks and cypress, big trees with heavy drooping limbs. Hanging from some were unlit oil lanterns, maybe placed by Leroy himself, and there was evidence people had been walking through recently: trimmed branches, flattened leaves.
It never occurred to me that the Knot could have rotted into the ground over the fifty years since Leroy fell inside. It didn’t seem possible. And when I reached a domed clearing with a single heavy beam of sunlight aimed at the center, I was not surprised to see the Knot waiting for me.
Our replica on the stage was almost perfect, but this one was even larger than I imagined. Even now, rotted down low to an irregular circle, it still felt mighty. Someone had assembled a half-circle of log benches around it.
I’d come a long way, right? I wasn’t drunk or imaginative or knighted by the gods with any magical perception, but yes, I leaned over and looked down into the Knot.
It was dark, just as David had described. There was a slight intimation of a breeze, a breathing, also like he’d said. My eyes couldn’t focus on the bottom, black and speckled with something like stars. It might have been night on the other side, where David Findley was still writing in an attic somewhere with a bottle of gin beside him.
Where Tony was speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway with me.
I closed my eyes and tipped myself inside.
• • • •
We had a hard time agreeing on the opening credits for Acres of Perhaps. A time-lapse of day fading to night in the desert? Turning pages of a book? The sparks of a campfire winding upward to the stars? A flying saucer hovering in observation above a tranquil Earth?
Hugh wanted something I called the Flying Antique Store, old porcelain dolls and Victorian chairs and grandfather clocks tumbling at the camera from some distant point in space, probably because the props were free. David, who couldn’t care less about the credits, half-heartedly suggested the ticker-tapper of a news broadcast from the “far edges of imagination,” something to lure in the suburban zombies he hoped to awaken.
My idea—and I’ve marveled since that it came to me—was to show a family sitting down to watch television on the other side of the glass, Mom in her housecoat and Pop in his loosened tie and the kids settling in, all of them staring expectantly at the viewers as though they were about to be the show. That’s what we went with.
I saw none of those things falling through the Knot like I expected. I would have settled for scenes from my life, because at least Tony would be there, but all I got was the stretch effect from Vertigo, zooming the edges of that stump into infinity, lined with swimming lights.
It felt like settling into bed after being awake for years.
• • • •
Tony was not the one who woke me, but I wasn’t surprised. What were the chances he’d be waiting by the Knot on the other side when I came through?
The man who did was heavyset with horn-rimmed glasses and a head of white unruly hair. He wasn’t in overalls and he didn’t have a shotgun, just an undershirt and blue jeans.
“Barry?” he was saying.
“What year is it?” I croaked. “Who’s the President? Did 9/11 still happen?”
The man who once was David Findley sat on the edge of the stump. “Tony’s still gone,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you still Leroy Dutton?”
He clasped my arm and tugged me from the soft black soil. “Always was,” he said.
With his help I got to my feet, knee-deep in leaves. I found my way back over onto solid land in three wobbling steps.
“Are you still . . .”
“A hillbilly? If you’re asking if I can play a banjo, I have to say the answer is yes, but I can only pick out the first few bars of the Acres of Perhaps theme.”
I peered down into the Knot and all feeling of infinite depth and darkness was gone. “So it is just a stump.”
David glanced in. “I’ve gone back and forth on that. I’ve never believed like I did back then, but then, maybe I don’t have to.”
I felt very strange and light, and it took me a moment to ask, “How did you know? About Tony?”
“He sent a letter and told us you’d be coming.”
Tony, still planning my travel from beyond the grave. “When?” I asked.
“I’d have to look at the letter,” he said. “A couple of months ago. You want to come back to the house to see it, maybe get some water?”
“No moonshine?” I said.
“I quit that stuff years ago, believe me, and the McDantrys up and left in 1970 anyway. I bought their property from the bank.”
“You own the Knot?”
“I own the Knot.” He grinned. “Isn’t that crazy?”
“Yes,” I said. It all was.
“The kids and grandkids used it for a stage,” Leroy said. “They did puppet shows and magic shows and little plays and Franny used to have her revival sermons here for us. She’s a Unitarian minister now.”
“Children played in the Knot?”
“They still do sometimes when they come to visit,” Leroy said. “We built a little platform for it and set up the benches like our own Globe Theater.”
“They don’t . . . fall through?”
“Not literally, no.”
By then I was feeling warm, and my head felt heavy and barely attached to my neck.
“Hey,” I said, taking his arm before I fell back in. “That whole thing back then in LA . . . I wasn’t your friend.”
“I know,” Leroy said.
“I killed you,” I said.
“A little bit,” he conceded.
“Stories came to you easily and love came to you easily and you could be whatever you wanted in the open and you didn’t want what I couldn’t have.”
“I knew that fifty years ago, Barry. Did you come to hear how everything turned out okay? That’s fine, but first you have to know that it didn’t for a long time. For a long time, I was the world’s angriest feed and seed delivery man.”
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
“You have to understand that, okay? You did something shitty to someone who saw you as a friend.”
Keep going, I thought. Go all the way through with the needle, me or the Knot, I didn’t care.
“But I did something you didn’t. I healed and scarred over. Maybe it was easier here in the woods with Melody, but you could have done it, too, if you’d let yourself. You didn’t have to write for Diff’rent Strokes or The Facts of Life or whatever you did, and you didn’t have to blame me or yourself for it.”
“I should have been the one who left the show,” I said.
“Why? You were always as good as me. You’re the one who didn’t think so, only because you did it differently.”
I squeezed my eyes shut with my fingers. I killed him for nothing.
“All those stories that could have been,” I said.
“You still wrote some,” Leroy said.
“No, I mean you. I mean your stories.”
Leroy squinted at me. “Do you think I stopped writing?”
“—that I’d be too busy shooting Indians and skinning raccoons? Who do you think wrote those plays and puppet shows?”
“It’s not the same,” I said.
“The same as what?”
“The same as Acres of Perhaps.”
“Barry,” he said. “I don’t want to let you off the hook without giving you some more shit first, but what do you think I’ve been writing?”
“Puppet shows,” I mumbled. “Plays for kids.”
“It was just a different network,” Leroy said. “And my grandson Tucker? He can do one hell of an impression of a dropping atomic bomb.”
Wait, I wanted to say. I wanted the world to wait, let me hear it clearly. “You wrote scripts?”
Leroy shrugged. “Sure. Here and there, maybe a couple hundred.”
A couple hundred. Scripts. Of Acres of Perhaps.
“Are you sure I’m not on the other side of the Knot?”
“If you can’t tell the difference, Barry, then maybe there isn’t one.”
• • • •
On our way back, we walked in silence until Leroy said, “You know, I could have written for The Love Boat, too.”
“Sure. They pull into Acapulco and at midnight, the ghosts of murdered Aztecs steal everyone’s gold.”
“You’d have to write in Billy Barty or Paul Lynde,” I said.
“Okay. One is a famous diamond thief and the passengers hang him from a yard arm when he doesn’t confess.”
“That’s not bad,” I said.
• • • •
We followed the planks back toward a farm, not a gray shanty with the siding peeling at the corners but something with two stories and a gleaming metal roof. A woman with gorgeous long gray hair hanging almost to her waist was climbing out of a giant Toyota pick-up truck. She was wearing a suit.
Leroy pointed to me. “Look what I found in the Knot.”
She didn’t close the door. She hurried over, her heels kicked free, but then she stopped with her hands on her hips.
“Are you taking him back to sin?”
“What?” I glanced at Leroy and then back to her. I never imagined she might be the one to greet me with a shotgun, probably not far out of reach in that truck. “No. No. Not at all. I wanted to—”
She pulled me in for a hug. I didn’t raise my arms to return it right away, only slowly.
“It’s okay, Barry. That’s what my family thought. I just wanted my husband back.” She leaned back, looking me over. “How long were you out there?”
“I think he might have been lurking there since the sixties,” Leroy said.
She frowned but said, “Well, that would explain a lot. I’m sorry I just got home. Had to go to the school board in town.”
“She used to be superintendent,” Leroy said. “Still is, if you count all the ‘consulting’ she does.”
I wondered if her district taught evolution. I had a feeling it did if Leroy was anything to go by.
“Are you going to stay awhile?” she asked me.
“Do you want me to?”
“We both do,” she said. “Tony did, too.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, not sure I’d heard.
“Come on,” Leroy said.
We walked to the edge of the grass beneath a copse of trees toward a small shed or cabin with three lightly molded windows. He opened the door for me and inside were two desks, one a computer and one with Leroy’s old typewriter.
“Tony sent it a few months ago,” Melody said. “He told us you kept it for years.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Leroy pointed. “What I figure is you can use that and I can use the computer, or maybe the other way around, and I can write stories about walking skyscrapers and you can write stories about Mars.”
“Who would want them?” I asked.
“Well, Tony would, for one,” he said. “But I’m guessing we can find some asshole in Hollywood to sell them for us.”
So I’m sitting now in a creaking swivel chair. I’m looking out through the windows. There’s a glass beside me of something called “unsweet tea” which is what we drink around here now instead of booze. I’m resting my fingers on the keys—I don’t plan to type, don’t plan to even try—but the cool plastic waits.
Waits for when I’m ready again.
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