Gregory J. Wolos|
PINOCCHIO IN NEW HAMPSHIRE, 1993
The iconic author ushered Raymond Walchuk and his son Carl to his writing bunker, a healthy walk from the main house. At its wooden door, which he unlocked with a brass key on a short leather strap, he pointed to a bench that overlooked a valley. The two men and the boy squinted in the morning sun. “Would you wait for us, please?” the writer asked Raymond. “I’d like to speak to your boy alone.”
“Of course,” Raymond said, and the old man laid his hand on Carl’s shoulder and guided the child into the squat building. The wide-eyed gaze his son tossed back as the door shut clutched Raymond’s heart. To any inclined to suspicion, Raymond thought, the situation might have seemed questionable, even dangerous—a stranger disappearing into locked solitude with a nine-year-old boy. So was he, the procurer, a neglectful parent?
But this was Salinger; he was obviously interested in Raymond’s “Teddy” screenplay. Raymond had been careful to submit it through the writer’s agent—at all costs he’d wanted to avoid the appearance of intruding on the author’s privacy. And he’d been summoned! A 9 a.m. appointment at the New Hampshire residence. Father and son had flown from the West Coast into Boston on the redeye, slept in a hotel near the airport, and had risen before dawn for the long drive through the New England countryside in their rented car.
Raymond had brought the boy along for luck and company. And his kid had a budding career of his own to promote. He had a hunch the author would fall into the depths of his son’s dark eyes, find his black curl’s irresistible, mark the child’s fragile sturdiness. Or was it the boy’s sturdy fragility?
“We’ll get it into the conversation that you’re an actor,” he told Carl. They rehearsed their meeting while they dipped over the hills and rounded the curves en route. “We’ll plant that seed. Tell him you ‘grew yourself’ if he asks your age,” Raymond said, quoting his screenplay’s paraphrase of Salinger’s story. “Then we’ll make sure to turn the conversation to my screenplay. And then to my credits as a director.”
“I don’t want him to think I’m a phony,” Carl had yawned. He’d read the story and the script, and while Raymond thought his fourth-grader a little young to understand everything, he trusted the boy’s intuition. “I’ll be okay with him. He likes children. I can tell by the way he writes.”
The first words Salinger had spoken as he shook Raymond’s hand on the front porch of his home were directed at Carl. There’d been a Norman Rockwell beauty to the scene, without the sentimentality.
“So, you think you can be my Teddy,” he’d guessed, taking in the child without releasing Raymond’s hand. “We’ll talk out back.”
Raymond checked his watch and squirmed on the bench. A large, broad-winged bird, maybe an eagle, circled over the valley beneath him, oaks and pines descending toward an invisible river. The eyes of the eagle would rivet on some unsuspecting thing scavenging through the wildflowers. Was there anything watching him with such intensity? He peeked at the sun, then his gaze dropped to the bunker. It was low, maybe fifteen feet square, without windows on either of the sides he could see. He thought about walking around its perimeter. But Salinger had told him to wait on the bench. What could the old man and the boy be talking about? The hawk was gone, which probably meant it had streaked out of the sky and snatched the life out of something when Raymond wasn’t looking.
The bunker door finally opened, and the author guided Carl out. The sunlight rinsed the color from the scene. The exit of old man and boy had the look of an important event captured by chance on a 8mm film— like overexposed clips of dignitaries descending from an aircraft, of a passing motorcade, of children running from waves on a beach. Carl winced a smile. Salinger seemed more stooped than he’d been when he’d greeted the Walchuks; his weathered face was impossible to read. Raymond stood and waited for them at the bench.
“This is some boy you’ve got here,” Salinger pronounced. “The two of you will make “Teddy” a remarkable film. Thank you. I promised the boy a bowl of ice cream.” He’d looked down at Carl, back to Raymond, and back to Carl. “Unless your father thinks it’s too early for sweets.”
Raymond quizzed his son in a whisper while the famous author was in his kitchen dishing out the dessert. “What was it like in there? What did he say? What did you do?”
“It was dark except for two lamps,” Carl said. “One standing up behind an armchair, the other at his desk, which had a typewriter on it. He told me to sit in the big chair, and he pulled his desk chair around to talk to me. There were stacks of paper on the desk and on a table, and against the walls were those old-fashioned gray metal file cabinets. Tall ones. Three or four. There were stacks of paper on those, too. The place smelled like old newspapers and socks.”
Raymond nodded. He was trembling, as if something momentous were about to occur.
“Would you like a glass of iced tea?” the author called.
“Please,” Raymond shouted. “If it’s not any trouble.” There wasn’t an answer.
“Did you give him the line about growing yourself?” Raymond asked, but Carl bugged his eyes to let his father know that the author was back. He handed Carl a blue bowl of vanilla ice cream and perched on the edge of a chair across from them. He seemed to have forgotten his offer of tea.
“I loved the old Son of Kong,” he said. His eyes reminded Raymond of those gag glasses that blink when the person wearing them shifts his head a little. “I wasn’t much older than the boy here when I saw it. It was more poignant than the first one about the father ape. And I have to say, Mr. Walchuk, you captured the essence, the charm, the vigor of the original Son—yet you produced something unique and beautiful. That’s why you’re here. I don’t see many movies. Yours is a gift. A jewel. I felt like a child again watching it. Where, may I ask, was it filmed? The landscape was stunning.”
“Kiriwina Island. It’s a stone’s throw from Papua New Guinea. My father was stationed there during the war—World War II.”
The author frowned. Or it might have been a smile. He craned his neck like a vulture; his hands hung from his wrists. He didn’t say anything for a while. Then he braced himself on the armrests and pushed himself to his feet, stretching with some effort to his full height. “It was a delight meeting you both. Maybe we’ll see each other again. But please, let’s communicate through my agent.” He made a wave, as if imitating royalty. “I grant full permission for you to move ahead with the “Teddy” project.” He turned to Carl. “And you’ll be wonderful, Pinocchio,” he said, and winked. “You can put your bowl in the sink when you’re done. Don’t gobble, or you’ll get one of those headaches. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do. Let yourselves out.” And he shuffled past them and through the back door. Raymond and Carl watched him make his way down the path back to his bunker.
“‘Pinocchio?’” Raymond asked a few minutes later. It wasn’t yet noon, but they were already in the car on their way back to Logan Airport. “What was that about?”
Carl slouched against the passenger door. “He said most people were wooden puppets, but I had what it took to be ‘a real boy.’ He said it was a tribute to you. The ice cream was chewy, Dad. I don’t think ice cream’s supposed to be chewy.”
“Probably old,” Raymond said. “So—did you talk about the screenplay? Did he say what he liked about it?”
The boy shook his head. “No. We sat down, and he gave me a quiz. He reached over to one of the piles of paper and pulled off the top sheet and handed it to me. He asked, ‘What do you see there, boy?’”
“What was it? A story?”
“I just glanced at it. There was a title: ‘Edna’s Daughter,’ or something.”
“‘Esme’s’? ‘Esme’s Daughter’?”
“Something like that. Do you know who he reminded me of? Remember when we watched Plan 9 from Outer Space? You told me that halfway through making it Bela Lugosi died. He was playing some kind of weird space vampire, right? So Ed Wood got his dentist to play the part. He kept his arm up to hide his face behind his cape. That’s who Mr. Salinger reminded me of—the dentist-vampire. I felt like he was hiding his face the whole time we were with him, didn’t you?”
“So what did you do? Did you read him the title of his story? You didn’t say ‘Ed-nay,’ did you?”
“My stomach hurts. No, I didn’t read it at all. I turned the paper over and looked at the blank side. Then I tore it up. In half, then in quarters, then in eighths. I dropped the pieces on the floor.”
Raymond lifted his foot from the accelerator. He turned to his son, who had closed his eyes, his cheek against the window glass. He was rubbing his belly. The car coasted down the country road. “You did what?”
Carl lifted the shoulder closest to his father, turning away. “I tore it up. He stared at me and kind of tilted his head. ‘You need to tear up one of these a day,’ I said. He was quiet a minute. Then he asked, ‘Just one page a day?’ I told him one would be a day’s work if he did it right. ‘Think of how many days you’ve got left until you’re done.’ There were lots of pages. It’ll take him a really a really long time.”
For a moment Raymond couldn’t see—he’d had dreams in which he’d been driving a car and his vision had suddenly become obscured and he’d found himself heading over the edge of a cliff. But he was wide awake now, and the shadow passed. He fixed his eye on the double yellow line and pressed on the gas. “And then?”
“And then he called me Pinocchio. Dad, is there a place to pull over? I think I have to throw up.”
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