Chapter 1: Conrad’s Campaign
He comes crashing through his door. He’s got me. I’m right there, in the hall or at the top of the stairs. He accuses me of noise, of singing, tromping, but I can’t remember doing anything. I can’t think.
“Why you bodda me? Bodda me!”
That’s what it sounds like, “bodda.” When he isn’t angry, he speaks like everyone else.
“Why do you sing, Conrad?”
I just stare at him. Because I can’t remember either singing or not singing.
“Goddamn you!” I don’t know what that means, but he shouts it, and he’s so big. His teeth are yellow from smoking, and he has a hooked, scary nose.
Otis, our live-in maid, and Jane, my mother, are fluttering around someplace. Jane might be in his room if they’ve been having a story conference, but she hangs back until he commands, “Go, do something with him.” Then she descends from wherever she is, calms me down, and gets me to stop crying and go to my bedroom.
And after a time my little, brown-eyed mother shows up there too. She sneaks upstairs from the kitchen, being extra quiet on the stairs and in the hall. I’m lying on my bed, reading the comic she thrust into my hands earlier to placate me. Now, suddenly, I look up and there’s Jane with an offering of food, some grapes or a piece of toast smeared with peanut butter. And an explanation.
“It isn’t you.”
She tries again. “It isn’t you. He has a deadline, they need him to finish the script.”
Then I understand, sort of. But I don’t believe her. It’s me. While I eat, she dawdles, looking at my face. I don’t want her to go, but what is it that she wants from me? Eventually, of course, she does go.
I get bigger and somewhat smarter. I learn to be very careful about noise. When I visit friends at their houses, I’m so quiet and careful they think I’m weird, so that I don’t always get invited back, but there’s less trouble at home. And even though I still get yelled at, once a day at least, and Jane keeps on saying it isn’t me, Dad lets me hang around when people come over. That’s a significant compensation, even though I don’t like the people, producers and midlevel studio execs, the “they” my mother keeps talking about.
I wonder now. Were they really all short, all squat? My dad was tall and well-proportioned, which may be why I remember them that way. They dressed in bright colors, as if they had gone off to play golf, not gab with a writer. Several of them were named Irving. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was calling them all Irving, the whole class. Dad knew that and told me not to say it in front of them, but I never said anything in front of them. They impressed me unfavorably, although I couldn’t have told you why, not then. But I knew that somehow Dad needed them. They were his audience, almost always just guys. I suppose we weren’t important enough for wives or girlfriends. Or maybe these were really nothing but business meetings, though they seemed pretty social to me.
They came over at night, after dinner, and he would lead them into the living room. I would follow and take my place in a small yellow chair that had black buttons on the seat. This chair stood against a wall, with all the other furniture arranged so that nobody else in the room could see me without having to turn his head in an unnatural way. My dad occupied a large black leather chair next to the small table that held his cigarettes and ashtray. This chair faced a long white couch. That’s where the Irvings sat, in the middle if there was just one—like a little king. At times we’d have three, all lined up. They talked. I waited. Everything seemed to depend on them. Often they talked business. Who sold what or sold whom, and for how much. The Irvings talked, my dad occasionally supplying a word. I sat there, bored, but I wouldn’t leave. Something good might happen.
Suddenly an Irving would toss an idea into the conversation, an idea for a possible film. Then Dad did the talking. He performed, in fact, put on a one-man show. The idea, the idea! It was wonderful, awe-inspiring, no matter what it happened to be, and he was just the guy to put it into words. What were words, anyway, just the salad dressing as long as he had the all-important concept, provided by the Irving. Still, he did a lot with them, the words. Plot, setting, characters major and minor—all came to life in his mouth because a short, ill-formed man had conceived, probably all of five minutes ago, the stunning notion of making a movie about mud wrestlers, carny hands, tragic but virtuous nightclub singers, doomed gangsters, sleazy Europeans. I used to like…I loved these shows of Dad’s, imagining that he was not only a great writer but also a talented actor. Here’s a European bit.
“I did it for a Ferrari! A Ferr-ar-i!”
The producer had, no doubt, suggested a story of betrayal. The unwholesome character speaking through my father might have exchanged precious black market butter for the Ferrari, or maybe free world nuclear secrets.
“Morse, Morse.” says Irving. “Hold on a minute.”
He extends a stubby arm to the coffee table in front of him, picks up his cup or glass, sips.
“Um. That’s good, Morse, but now I’m thinking a sports angle, the hero throws a game for the car. What’s that they play over there? With a ball. Their big game.”
“Soccer, Irv, soccer. Hey, that’s great!”
“No. Nope. A soccer movie? What are you telling me?”
“Football? We could do it here then. Have to change the Ferrari, maybe.”
“Change the Ferrari? Change everything! Can’t have an American do a thing like that.”
“Okay, keep it European. No soccer, naturally. I just want, I just want, Irv, for you to see this scene! Jane, set ’em down. That’s right.”
My smiling mother, bearing more drinks, puts them on the table and thankfully heads back to the kitchen. Dad rises to his feet.
“The Ferrari!” he exclaims. “I deed it for the Ferrari! You take-a a lady, a young girl, for a ride at two hundred kilometros per hour, then she lie-a down on the grass! All atremble. Yes?”
“You mean, to shtup? Can we do it subtle? Oh, wait. Conrad. Conrad’s here!”
Sex kept getting into Dad’s routines, trembly young girls. I didn’t know what it was, what the big deal was. I just knew it would get me kicked out. An Irving would notice me, never Dad. It puzzles me now, though I didn’t think about it then, that at these evening sessions he rarely seemed to know I was there.
This is especially perplexing because in the daytime, when we had no guests and Morse was working, he seemed preternaturally aware of my presence. Hating noise, he often leapt out of his room, roaring, to accuse me of making it. Occasionally I did forget our house rules and played my radio too loudly or stepped too heavily in the hall, but he complained even when I was being utterly silent in my room. He must have worried that I would make noise. On those occasions, no matter how I protested, though usually I didn’t protest at all, he would make me leave the house. He used to order my mother, “Take him! Take him someplace!” Then I would have to go shopping with her or sometimes to the library. She always needed books. But if Dad wanted her for a story conference, as he often did, all she could do was escort me to the front door, mutter something I didn’t bother listening to, and push me out. Usually I would then walk the four blocks to Roxbury Park, which I didn’t always like. Big kids lay in wait.
I was a considerable bother; I knew that, without quite understanding why, and the knowledge burdened me. Now I know what a pain in the ass it is to have a child around when you’re trying to write. My daughters bothered me with their commotion when I was working on my scholarly articles and notes, and though I never yelled at them, I often wanted to. So now Dad’s yelling at me doesn’t seem so awfully inexplicable, and even then I didn’t worry about it all the time. Besides, there was always that wonderful compensation. I was allowed in the living room when he performed. I loved that. I loved him. As long as I could stay there with him, I was happy. Of course, it didn’t last.