by Ron Clinton Smith
The first time I saw Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider I didn’t think he was acting. I thought he was some stoned-out freak shoved in front of a camera to see what he’d do. When I realized later he’d written, produced and directed the film, acting took a paradigm shift for me. He was brilliant and crazy as hell, his own kind of signature wacko that got in your face and howled like a hyena. Like Frank Booth in Blue Velvet on his knees inhaling gas, fondling Isabella Rossellini, crying, “Baby wants to fuck!” He’d called David Lynch after reading that script and said, “You have to let me play Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth.” Like Brando, Dean, Nicholson, he showed you what human beings were really like, really did, not some half-baked vanilla version. If you were afraid to offend, embarrass, horrify, mystify, disgust or shock people, you were in the wrong profession. If you thought acting was about being pretty, you’d missed it. Not only was he going to show you what people were really like, he was going to reveal the bizarre truth you never imagined.
Once, Hopper was arrested, naked and raving drunk in public--a natural lineage of behavior from James Dean, his mentor, pulling a knife on a director. And there was the time the young Hopper worked with old school director Henry Hathaway, who made him do eighty-five takes on a scene because he refused to do it the director’s way, the old codger tiredly lifting his megaphone, saying, “Do it again,” eighty-four times until Hopper finally cracked, did it the director’s way, and stormed off the set.
Early in my film career I have an audition for a movie Hopper’s directing in North Carolina called Chasers. I am instructed not to approach him or shake his hand. All right, I think, a rule from the rule breaker. Expect the unexpected. I have a mishmash of early film pieces on tape I’d planned to hand him, but hearing these instructions make me decide to wait to see what the vibe’s like. Maybe it’d blow an otherwise perfect audition. I’m half-broke and have to drive five-hundred miles in my old Volvo, which is acting up with electrical problems. My plan is to start out at noon, which would put me there around dinner time, when I’d get a cheap room, go over my lines, and grab a good night’s sleep before reading in the morning.
Regional actors are used to these journeys, but they’re drudgery. Richard Jenkins asked me on a set once, “Is it true you guys drive hundreds of miles to read down there?” To him it sounded like a military mission, and he wasn’t far off. I’d made round trips on the same day as the audition, driving home afterward to save money, which always seemed pointless. When I arrived at the interview after eight hours on the road, my head was mush and I didn’t have a prayer of getting the part. Casting would look at me quizzically like, what the hell’s wrong with you? I’d drive home frustrated and pissed off, babbling to myself, pounding the dash and cackling out of my mind, doing far better work in the car than I’d done in the audition.
This is before cell phones, so if there’s car trouble I’m at the mercy of the road. The first stretch out of Atlanta is a monotonous corridor of rolling highway and unbroken tree line for a hundred and fifty miles through Augusta toward Columbia. It’s late September and leaves are turning, blue sky lifting and falling against gas stations, fast food restaurants, and fireworks billboards. I have a couple of peanut-butter sandwiches, an apple, a banana and a Thermos of coffee, and I eat while listening to Atlanta stations fading, putting on some War, thinking about my wife and two boys, two and eight. I don’t like to be apart from them. Business is business, you have to do it, but you’ll never convince me there’s anything natural about it. I feel more like this when I’m broke and have to spend the little I have to drive hundreds of miles from my family without any assurance it’ll pay off. There’s not enough work in town, so I go where it is; I’m the hunter-gatherer, the fisherman heading to sea. I love my vocation and know I’m good at it, but trying to land it can be a lonely process. But hell, I’m a writer too, so I must love something about being alone.
When I gas up near Darlington, the car won’t restart. Lovely, I think--then it sputters to life, and I say a prayer I won’t get stranded on the road hundreds of miles from my family and not even get to read for the man. I wonder if he’d ever been broke with car trouble and trying to get acting work. Then I remember that was everyday business for Hopper. When he crossed Henry Hathaway, the old director had him banned from Hollywood for years. No one would hire him. Everybody got kicked around by somebody, and as one of the enfant terribles of modern filmmaking, nicknamed “Dennis the Menace,” Hopper’d made himself a human soccer ball until he was making his own pictures. Just get me there and back, I think, let me deal with car issues when I get home. I have enough cash for the cheap room and food, and my wife’s loaned me her Chevron card; if I had a credit card, it’d be maxed out already.
As soon as I hit I-95, the signs for South of the Border start up, a Mexican theme park just south of the North and South Carolina line. Sombreros and clichéd cheesy little mustached grinning Mexicans with chili necklaces barking at you from an endless string of trashy billboards. For fifty miles these bright garish signs blot out the landscape, which is more interesting now. Then I cross the Little Pee Dee River, which makes me miss my baby boy. who’ll have no comprehension of why I’m not home tonight. Then I see the phony sad Mexican theme park off to my right like a city from fake hell, spinning sombrero rides and towers and restaurants with orange and yellow and black sombrero roofs, giant strings of chilis everywhere, and though I can’t make out a soul there, I’m sure a few people are gobbling frozen bean burritos to the tune of piped-in Mexican standards.
I watch for Lumberton signs and my turn onto State Highway 74 for the last ninety-mile jaunt east to Wilmington as the light’s fading. Blue Velvet was shot in Wilmington, which David Lynch called Lumberton, showing the big lumber trucks all through the movie loaded with trees, a radio DJ hawking, “Time to get up, woodchucks, and get those chain saws revving, a beautiful day for lumbering!” As soon as I hit 74, the trucks are pounding past me heading the other way. It’s a split four-lane for a while, which narrows to two lanes, and I’m in farm country with wide stretches of fields and ramshackle houses and barns in the middle of withering crops, falling down, leaning, glorified piles of lumber that saw the Civil War. A poor, humble, beat-up landscape.
I’m in good spirits on my last leg, running lines for tomorrow, an Air Force General I’m reading for, and another throwaway role, when my car starts to sputter and lose power. Finally it’s not firing at all and I pump the gas, begging it to go, and it gives out completely, and cuts off so I have to muscle it without power steering onto the shoulder. Oh hell, I think, sitting a minute, trying to revive it, looking off into the dark swampy trees. Twenty minutes of light left and I’m stranded on a desolate bleak highway rivaled only by the Tamiami Trail I hitchhiked up one night with a friend out of Miami, so dark you couldn’t see your hand.
This is bad though. It’s the highway Michael Jordan’s father would be murdered on years later when he stops to take a nap, or maybe just had car trouble. Every few minutes one of those thundering lumber trucks from Blue Velvet comes rumbling by, blowing me back a few feet, peppering me with debris and dust, the drivers not even glancing at me. Am I screwed? I’ve come all this way to be stuck here with a 10 A.M. call to read for Hopper in the morning. If I don’t get there on time, the trip’s shot and I have to fix my car and limp home defeated. Dues make you a better actor, I tell myself; of course they do.
With a flashlight I tinker with the distributor cap, trying to dry it off inside. This was the problem before, but nothing I do gives a spark, and the battery slowly bogs down, and I’m desperate. At last light a local State Patrol car pulls up and a grinning, crewcutted young officer says, “Havin’ trouble?” and I’ve never been happier to see a cop. I tell him I need to get to Wilmington tonight and my car’s shut down; he tells me to hop in, he’ll run me over to Gabby’s Gas in the next town. “Old Gabby’ll help you one way or another,” he says, “This ain’t the place to get broke down tonight. No tellin’ who you’ll run into on this bad man’s highway.”
In a few minutes we pull into a blue-plastered Pure Station from another time in a tiny town already closed down for the night. Some old character’s yelling into his phone, slams it down, and the State Patrol kid introduces me to Gabby and tells him my problem. Gabby says, “Hell, I got nothing else to do tonight but go home and fight with my wife, I’ll tow you to Wilmington, no problem!” I tell him I don’t have any cash but can write him a check and promise it’ll be good, and he says, “I trust you; and if it ain’t good, I’ll come down to Georgia and take it out of your ass, how ‘bout that?” I thank him, say goodbye to the State Patrolman, and Gabby and I are headed over to pick up my car with his tow truck.
Gabby’s about five foot six, with wild long wooly-white hair, and looks like a cross between Will Geer and Wild Bill Cody. He has no A/C and growls and yells over the noise from his half mufflered engine, shaking his Lucky ashes out the window, George Jones droning on the radio. The side of his truck says, “GABBY’S GAS…YOU BLOW ‘EM…WE TOW EM!” He’s got the energy of a leprechaun, bouncing around the truck, rattling chains, hooking up the wench, lifting my car while he’s yelling he’d rather do this than go home and listen to his wife piss in his ear, and we barrel east again for the sixty mile haul to Wilmington. I figure I’ll tow the car to my cheap motel, do the audition in the morning, then try to find a full-service Chevron for repairs, but Gabby says “Hell no, I’m finding you a place to fix your car tonight, I ain’t draggin’ you over here to leave you in some goddamn parking lot. You married?” he shouts above the roar of the truck, his hair flying back in the wind as we tear along the dark four-lane, his dispatch radio popping off static.
“Yeah,” I say, “Nine years. How ‘bout you?”
“Aw hell, been married three times; my second wife tried to kill me five years ago. Swore I’d never remarry but my third wife was too damn good in bed. Readjusted my thinking.”
Dennis Hopper’d love this guy, I think.
“My second wife was a wrestler, see. Got into an argument one night and she put me in a headlock and almost snapped my neck. Got two herniated discs.” He points to his ruddy vertebrae. “A torn meniscus in my right knee. Had to get a restraining order against the psycho bitch and she’s turned my daughter against me. Got kids?”
“Two boys, two and eight.”
“Yeah, well, once she’s got a kid with you she’s got you by the short hairs. Not just for money, she can hurt you every which way. Your kid’s a part of you, see, and then she finagles that part of you against you and then you’re fucked, brother. Thank God for my new old lady. She likes to fight too, but what woman don’t?”
“How long you been drivin’?”
“Thirty-eight years this November, since I left the Navy. Driven three million miles in that time, give or take a hundred-thou. Think I’ll pick up a cold six-pack when we land over here for the trip back. Nice night for it.”
We cruise into Wilmington, passing the ghostly USS North Carolina docked for tourism, with its hundred-and-thirty-five guns lit up against the harbor, and I give Gabby directions to the Greentree Inn on Market. It’s a short walk to restaurants and a mile from the Screen Gems lot where I’m reading in the morning. As luck has it, a full service Chevron’s next door, and Gabby unhitches and drops my car off while I write him a check for eighty-five dollars.
“Give it three days and it’s good as gold,” I say. “My number’s on there if there’s any problem.”
He peels a 16 oz. Pabst Blue Ribbon off his six-pack and hands it to me. “Fill up a hot bath, sip on this baby, get a good night’s sleep, and go show Mr. Hopper what for in the mornin’. Do it for Gabby. Tell him I’ll be in his damn movie if he needs a wiry old Navy man.”
“You’d be the best thing in it,” I tell him, meaning it. “Drive safe, Gabby.”
“I’m indestructible, brother.”
It’s not exactly the way I’d planned to get here, but as I write a note for the mechanic telling him I’m next door, I know the angels are still with me. I check into the Greentree, which has crater-like monster potholes in the parking lot as if the place had been bombed, call home, and take Gabby’s advice about the hot bath and cold beer. I toss around half the night dreaming a montage of my General’s scene, flying along in Gabby’s truck, and standing out on that desolate highway, stranded in Blue Velvet with Frank Booth, those damn lumber trucks plowing past me like dark rolling Leviathans.
In the morning I’m told I need a new distributor and they can have it done by noon. I eat at the Huddle House, focus on my roles for an hour, and start the short hike to the Screen Gems lot. It’s a crisp fall morning, I’m feeling fresh, my car’s being fixed, I’m reading for a notoriously eccentric Hollywood legend, and I’ll be back in my own bed tonight, God willing. I check in at the guard station, sign in at casting, make sure I’ve got the right script, and join the nervous actors sitting in chairs along the hall, silently mouthing their scenes. A few actors drift out, looking flustered or relieved, then Dennis Hopper pops out wearing a tan sport jacket over a black T-shirt. He coolly shuffles down the hall. In a minute he strolls back with that relaxed, confident, cocky, short man’s gait, a quick rhythmic swagger, and everyone mutters and chuckles when he steps inside.
Somebody goes in, I don’t notice who, and five minutes later the door flies open, and a chunky black actor leaps out on one foot with a big sweating grin and a loud clap, dancing the Skate down the hall, going, “All y’all can go on home now! Yeah! I got that one in the bag, baby! I got it!” He snaps and fist pumps. “Don’t even need to go in there. I got the part! Hell yeah, baby, Mr. Hopper done found his man, and it’s me! All you suckers can take a hike!” He’s completely sheened out, doing a combination James Brown-Ickey Shuffle that seems to go on endlessly. Men, women, children, black, white and Hispanic, watching this jive clown dance down the hall and turn the corner, yelling, “I got it!Got the part, damn right!” until he’s out of the building.
Of course he’s completely full of it. The lamest trick in the book’s trying to deflate your competition by making them think your part’s been cast, so you’ll lose focus and do a lousy audition. Casting rarely makes decisions while you’re in the room--not until they’ve seen everybody--so it’s silly, jive, bush-league bullshit. I have no idea what the fool’s reading for, but the vision of him popping out of that door, putting on that strutting little show, is a small actor’s perk, part of my own personal comical movie for the road. I never see this guy again in the real movie or anywhere else.
Finally my name’s called and I go in feeling exhilarated and relaxed, which is good. Obviously fate wanted me to be here, I think. There are no accidents. This can be the best part if you let it.
It’s a big room with seven or eight people, producers mostly, sitting behind two long L configured tables. Someone greets me and I hand him my headshots and wave hello to Dennis Hopper, remembering my instructions not to approach him. I have my tape in my briefcase just in case.
“What you doin’ for us today, Ron?” he says, and I tell him I’m reading the Air Force General. “Good, let’s see it. Go ahead, roll it.”
I run through the scene with the reader standing next to the camera. Leaning back in his chair, with his hands behind his head, Hopper tells me to take my time next take. I do it again.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s better, all right,” He half-shuts his eyes, leaning forward.
“This time. This time I want you to do it the way Gene Hackman would do it. Do it like Gene Hackman would do it, yeah. Yeah. Do it like Gene Hackman this time.”
Is he joking? I wonder. He seems dead serious. I’ve had some unusual directions, but this is one of the strangest. Dennis Hopper’s telling me to do my role as if I’m Gene Hackman, his co-star in Hoosiers. It isn’t that I have a problem with the direction. I’ll do it like an ostrich if he wants me to. And I’m crazy about Gene Hackman--who isn’t? It just throws me for a second. I’ve never been told by a director to do a role as if you’re some other star doing it--and this is a star telling me to do it. At the same time I’m chuckling inside. This is Dennis Hopper. Did I expect a normal audition? Sometimes directors give specific notes to see if an actor will follow directions--and I’m not bad at impersonations--and it’s the spirit of the guy you’re after anyway. So I give it my best shot.
“Not bad,” he says, staring at me a minute, and I think he likes me. “You got anything else? Another role?”
I tell him I’ve got an MP role and I run through that once quickly, and he’s sitting back in his chair again, leaning back on two legs, hands behind his head, nodding, saying “Okay, that’s fine,” and I think, what the hell, you’ve got some kind of connection maybe, who exactly made the rule anyway, and I take my tape out of my brief case and approach his table. He looks a little surprised as I walk up, and he stands very slowly, as if we’re doing a scene together, reaching across for the tape as I hand it to him. For a few seconds we’re staring at each other like we’re in some kind of movie scene, and I’m thinking he’s thinking, whoever this guy thinks he is I’ll play along just to see what he does--sure, what the hell; and there’s this moment, this brief suspension in time, when all the beautiful, insane, manic-headed and off-the-wall crazy roles he’s done well up into a few seconds for me, to show him I’m connected if by no other means but appreciation for his colors and originality and boldness and in general doing it his way and not giving a shit about anything else, and he gives back to me, a kind of awed respect at who I am, with a handshake, even if it’s only just appreciating that I appreciate him—or else he’s just amazed I’d have the balls to approach him like this— didn’t this guy get the memo? —and he has respect for an actor who’s not afraid to make a fool of himself since that’s been his bread and butter his whole career. At the same time I’m thinking, I wasn’t supposed to do this, was told not to; oh well, hell, it feels like I’m supposed to, so fuck it. Maybe he just thinks I’m insane to be approaching him and this is the best way to get rid of me, the way he stares at me, leaning forward, I can’t tell, but I don’t think so. No, we have a moment of some kind of recognition, whatever it is, and I mumble “It’s a true pleasure.” I thank him and everybody in the room, and I’m out the door.
It’s a funny feeling early in your career when you meet a kindred acting spirit, one you’ve known for years that didn’t know you. Actors mean something to people not because they’re more important, but because they’ve made themselves completely vulnerable and let people live and die through them. What an actor does is like a dream people carry around in their heads for years, and sometimes it explains your life to you better than anyone else could, explains life itself and makes sense of the nonsensical, lets you know that all of your nightmares and fears and awkward moments and heart-rending are shared by everyone, pulls everyone together in a scene that lets you laugh at the absurdity of every one of our lives. Actors have some of this too for other actors, but a whole lot more. It isn’t star or celebrity worship, although everybody’s got a little of that. You know these are just people who sweat, bleed, cry, have their hearts shattered and beaten down and die just like you do, and many of them have bigger problems because of who they are. It’s like watching a great running back run in an open field. You think, I can do that, I can see myself doing it. You’ve been mentored by these people, been inspired many times, been told by their performances: look, you’ve got something you can do that nobody else can, it’s as much yours as this is mine, so don’t hold back--make it happen. I’ve paved new ground for you, let’s see what you bring to the table. And for Godsakes, don’t bore us!
I’m feeling high as I stroll back to the motel. I’d just done a damn good read for, entertained, even--one of the best real life characters in the business. Something had happened in there, though to this day I couldn’t tell you what. And now I’m heading home. My car’s ready, it’s early, and I’m on the road wondering what the hell Dennis Hopper thought when I handed him that crazy tape. He’d looked at it like it was some illuminated object, a mysterious charm or amulet--a gift to me just doing that--letting my tape have value for him for a few seconds because it obviously did for me.
A few weeks pass and I don’t hear a thing. Gabby cashes my check and there’s other work at home and after a while I’m let down, assuming I didn’t get the part. Maybe approaching him did blow the whole audition, but I doubt it. He would’ve done the same thing. An actor has to deal with so much rejection he can’t dwell long on one thing, but sometimes not getting a role will eat at you for months, and this one’s a bit of a mystery.
When Chasers comes out in theaters I don’t go see it. I wait until it pops up on cable. When I finally do see it I look closely for the parts I read for and they aren’t in the movie. Which makes me feel better, but strange too, because all of that work and study and driving, breaking down, getting towed, car repairs, and everything else was done for ghosts of roles that weren’t going to live anyway.
As time goes on, I realize this trip wasn’t made for me to play some insignificant role in Dennis Hopper’s film. It was for him to play a lasting one in mine. I sit back with a tall 16 oz. Pabst Blue Ribbon watching him run through his forgettable movie, playing a goofy, comical character named Doggie, driving a fat red Cadillac, and I laugh about being told by Dennis Hopper to “play it like Gene Hackman.” Knowing he had a small independent movie in his head of me. Wondering what he thought of my tape--if he even looked at it.
In The Last Movie, Hopper tries to help a Mexican filmmaker make a western in which they use real bullets, and his character surreally gets killed making the thing, gets shot on camera filming a movie of a shoot out. It didn’t do very well at the box office, but it’s one of my favorite Hopper films. It’s a sort of signature film of his, a perfect metaphor for Hopper’s surreal and dreamlike life. If films are an actor’s life, what better way to die than to pretend to be shot on film and actually get shot and die there?
Someone once said, “We must follow the film wherever it takes us,” and Hopper made his life like he made his movies, with total abandonment, insane commitment, and irreverence, breaking all the rules as a matter of course, becoming Hollywood’s “greatest survivor.” Considering he started huffing gasoline from his grandfather’s truck at age seven, you have to marvel at how a career like his was possible.
The short film I have in my head of going to see the wild auteur was for me better than the film I went to read for. It was the real reason I went to read for him. It’s not always about the celluloid film and our role in it, although we think it is, the permanent record and performance that everyone sees, that pays the bills. Sometimes it’s about that odd little random piece of flickering brain footage that keeps on spinning out forever for us of the wild headed people we spent time and space with, if only a few moments. People who had already changed our lives in unknown and derelict ways, as human beings and film actors alike.
Ron Clinton Smith is a writer of poems, stories, songs, novels and screenplays, and an actor who appeared in such films and TV as We Are Marshall, The Mist, Parental Guidance, True Detective and Hidden Figures. He began his acting career in stand up comedy, moved to theater, and later to film and television. In 2012 he published the literary novel, Creature Storms. His story, A Pilgrimage to Dennis Hopper, first appeared in the River Teeth Journal of Narrative Nonfiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was listed as one of the most notable essays in Best American Essays, 2015. He’s published stories in Upstreet Magazine, Novella T, and 2 Bridges Review. He balances his time between writing and film acting.
The black magic marker I held in my hand worked so smoothly on those stark white walls. The sun was shining and to look outside from the Professional Building hallway one might think the temperature was warmer than the usual temperature of March in Massachusetts, 38 degrees. I'd skipped school that day with my best friend, and we were bored. You couldn't call Chelsea Massachusetts a sleepy little suburb of Boston, or Bellingham Square were we hung out, a quiet neighborhood, but on this spring day, I began to unwrap something inside myself for the first time, the future I might have, could go either way.
I must have lifted my hand first, written Judge McCloud sucks in large capital letters and we must have laughed, kept each other going, writing all our friends names and who they were dating. Eric was dating the beautiful girl on the corner, my best friend. So in solidarity with her, Eric had been sentenced to six months in jail, I wrote Judge McCloud sucks. He was the Judge that had sent Eric to jail. As I watched her write his name on the wall I leaned against the railing, pulled out a Pall Mall and looked outside the glass door to the street. A policeman was walking in. We were due in court the following week.
Before our court date my best friend and I decided to run away from home and go to New York City. We were fifteen and talked for days about opening our own coffee house where we could read our poetry and date men with goatees. The Greyhound station was 45 minutes away by subway and neither one of us had been out of Chelsea much. I'd gone to Filene's basement with my mother every Saturday for the first 12 years of my life. In winter she'd put me in a dress with lace, always lace, a wool sweater and a snow suit zipped up to my neck, the metal latches digging digging into the soft skin below my chin. The boots were black, made from rubber, heavy and sturdy, the kind with metal buckles that had to be snapped into place. Dressed this way all winter, every Saturday, I followed my mother out the front door of our apartment.
The bus to the subway to Feline's was always crowded with women who had the same idea as my mother, saving money on clothes and linens. Hundreds of women stood packed together at the entrance door just waiting for the doorman to turn the key and open the door for the anxious shoppers. In mass chaos the women shoved forward grabbing garments that lay on flat wooden tables. I was the same height as all those womens pocket books and packages. Whack, my head bobbed from side to side as I tried not to let go of my mothers coat tails, the heat of the store steaming inside my snow suit, the air around me disappearing.
There were three groups in high school. The rats of which I was a member of, we smoked, drank Turban Hydrate with codeine and teased our hair. The guys wore engineer boots, wide leather belts and duck tailed hair. The other were either college bound or loners and no one noticed them at all.
Betsy and I made our way through Boston, found the Greyhound Station and bought our tickets to New York. The bus was leaving at 11 pm and we would arrive in the city at 6 in the morning. We had hours to sit on chairs and wait. We sat side by side in the terminal thinking and not saying much. As for me, I was afraid, but also couldn't wait to hit the streets of the biggest city in the country, maybe the world for all I knew, the place where all those beautiful beats lived. We'd get jobs in coffee houses, and we'd write more poetry filled with love and adventure.
When I looked over at Betsy, I saw a drifting away in her eyes, as if she was living outside a dream. I sensed just then that she wanted to go home. Her father would kill her. Just last week on another day we'd skipped school we'd stolen a six pack from her father and her dog Jack got stuck inside another dog as we watched from her bedroom window, a Bud in our hand. A neighbor had to pour hot water on the dogs to get them apart. When her father noticed his beer missing he made all five kids stand at attention in the hallway and when no one confessed he beat them all. I'd only been punished a couple of times, but none of those punishments ever stuck. My mother kept secrets from my father, she said we had to spare him, but mostly I think she was trying to spare us kids. We played this game well together, my mother and me.
I called my mother from the terminal and asked her to pick us up. Betsy sad on the metal chair facing a family that was carrying all their possessions in plastic bags. The youngest of their three was a little girl twirling her long black hair in endless circles. When my mother pulled up out front of the terminal I took one last look at that family and walked toward the black and yellow Chevy with Betsy following behind.
The ride home seemed endless and quiet. I could see Betsy's father standing on the sidewalk, his hands slapping at his sides, wingless I kept thinking as we approached the curb.
My mother went to court with me, never letting me forget that she was missing a day of work, a days pay.
“This is all your fault,” the judge said while holding up glossy black and white photos of what we'd written about him on the white wall. “How could someone who looks like you be so bad,” He said pointing at me and then at my mother again, “This is all your fault. You need to stay home with her instead of working.”
“Don't yell at my mother you asshole,” I'd yelled back at him from the gallery.
“Get her out of here,” Judge McCloud yelled towards the guard “Get her out.”
I spent the night in Juvie Hall and had to see a shrink. My mother had to pay half the coast of a new paint job in the hallway. I was lucky all my friends said when I returned to the corner. That Judge McCloud is a real asshole.
Linda Quinlan has been published in many journals, some of which include The New Orleans Review, Pudding, Sinister Wisdom and The North Carolina Literary Review. She was Poet of the Year in Wisconsin. Presently she lives in Vermont with her partner of 35 years.
With my first lie I wanted with all my soul to hurt someone’s reputation. All I did was damage my own. I was seven and new to the neighborhood. It was summer and in those days before the Internet and video games we kids would hang about in someone’s un-air conditioned basement to beat the heat and play board games. Eventually we’d become bored with the board games and would cast about for some other way to pass the sultry days.
A popular, respected and conventional small business that could furnish kids with pocket money was a front-yard lemonade stand. The image of small children hawking cool drinks to passing motorists was one I knew from an early age. Blame Norman Rockwell for perpetuating this among other myths; throw Hollywood’s Little Rascals on the pyre for good measure.
One boy in the neighborhood, Fatty DeSantos (real name withheld) had somehow convinced his mother to let him set up as a vendor in his front yard. In business, they say, location, is everything. Fatty’s yard fronted a side road off a side street in a subdivision. This road was the main transit way from nowhere to nowhere. The product—and any profits— disappeared down Fatty’s throat. He did make a sale to one older child from the neighborhood. Perhaps Fatty’s mom called a neighbor requesting a pity-sale.
Fatty DeSantos was a remarkable specimen of American boyhood. He stood out in many respects. First, he was taller by a good foot and a half than the other boys in our gang. Being tall, he was also possessed of more bulk. He hadn’t earned the name “Fatty” for no reason. He, like the rest of us, was in the third grade but should have been in the fifth having been kept back twice; not the brightest of boys.
It was difficult to consider Fatty a true friend, a chum. But he exerted a fascinating charm over us due to his size and his maturity. In later years he would be the first 8th grader with a mustache and a driver’s license. I wish I could recall the actual particulars of the incident that called forth my big lie but I cannot. It is lost to the mists of time, the fog of memory.
One feature I can recall of the DeSantos property was a copse of young trees planted beside and partly obscuring their front door. We boys would often use it to screen ourselves from the public when the urgent need to pee would overtake us at our revels. I think it must have been from this vantage point that I either overheard or witnessed whatever was Fatty’s transgression that prompted my own.
Regardless the actual cause, the result was that I was incensed, indignant and desirous of retribution upon Fatty DeSantos. I waited in the copse (I was small, slender and sure to go undetected) until Fatty was called in for supper at which I set about my devious purpose. Making sure I was unseen by passersby, I knocked Fatty’s lemonade stand to the ground, overturning the table, scattering the plastic tumblers, spilling the dregs of the juice.
That act was not the lie. The lie I told Stinky Haverstraw was this: that while Fatty was away and had left me in charge of the stand I had peed in the lemonade. The implications of this being that anyone who’d purchased a glass got more than they paid for. I don’t know why the fabrication but it gave me immense satisfaction to say it.
But word travels fast and I became known as the boy who peed in the lemonade and Fatty DeSantos the wronged party. No amount of denying or trying to set the record straight would clear my name. I believe Mrs. DeSantos even called my mother about the grievance. People preferred to believe the lie than to consider the truth. It’s a much better story to tell than the true one, that Fatty had made me angry and I knocked over his lemonade stand to get back at him. I was now a convicted liar and it was all down hill from there in after years.
Roger Pitcher has been previously featured on the Legendary under his own name and that of Bud F.X. Landry, his curmudgeonly alter-ego.
A good girl, she is a sweetheart to everyone around her. She is every man's dream, every mother's pride. She is a trophy wife and a trophy daughter. She is the prize that everyone wants to posses and show off to the society as their personal achievement. She is a validation to: someone's correct choice and someone's perfect upbringing.
If we take a closer look, we can find her everywhere. She could be our mother, sister, wife, lover, batch mate or the sweet neighbor next door to whom we run in the hour of need. We all know the kind. I have known one very closely.
It is past midnight and I am sitting in front of my computer in an attempt to write down a story which is not letting me sleep. I want to comfort and heal myself by sharing the load with someone. As we know, writing is one of the best ways to express our sentiments, desires, hopes, bliss and wounds. We can write what we want and vent our feelings to strangers who won?t judge.
I want to share a story; it is a story about a girl who forgets her true identity. She was busy running around people, pleasing them and getting their approval. They were the people with whom she shared her life; her teachers, family, relatives, friends, lovers. She was a busy girl; busy playing the role of a good girl. The one who is supposed to be: a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend, a good girlfriend, who is expected to keep everyone?s needs before hers. In the whole affair of pleasing others she forgot to please herself, she forgot who she really was. She forgot that few years back she had zeal to write, there was a budding talent which was never acknowledged as it was never shared.
In her college days she used to write small stories, personal essays, news articles, scripts, reviews. As life moved forward, she was drifted along and forced to blend with the flow. She simply forgot that she had the desire to write. No matter good, bad, average, non worthy of being published but at least she had an urge to write; and might even be recognized for it someday. As time passed, life took a different turn and things changed for her. She was occupied in taking care of trivial things, her priorities changed with the passing years. She started serving others, she became busy living up to their expectations and thought that?s what she was supposed to do and be; be a good girl!
One evening she got a text from an old acquaintance who wanted to discuss a project with her. He contacted to enquire if she was still active as a writer. After receiving the text, she was startled for a moment and replied in haste, ?Yes, I am ?which was a lie. She was amazed and disturbed at the same time with this text message. She was amazed because people still remember her as a person with writing skills; and disturbed because she had completely forgotten that she had a special skill. How can she let slide something of that significance, where was she lost, what was she doing all these years, what kept her occupied or what kept her away? What was she busy with that she over looked the desire to be identified. She must have been very busy indeed; yes she was truly very busy. She was busy playing the good girl.
The ambitious girl was lost becoming the good girl, the goodness took over ambition, and the desire to be accepted took over the desire to be known. She was busy living for others, as per others, in sync with others. She has always been the giver, the one with a big heart and enormous patience to adjust with the unfairness of life. She was just giving and not receiving anything in return and what happens when we put the needs of others before ours? We make them our priority and in return all we are left with is a lost identity. They start to take us for granted and it becomes a pattern, it becomes a thankless job.
We make someone our whole world only to realize that we are just a small part of their selfish world. While we were busy serving others there was someone who was starving for our time and attention. It?s our own self; we have forgotten to make time for ourselves. It?s time to gear up, get up and look into the mirror, whose reflection do we get to see? Is it a reflection of someone we were or someone we are?
Such moments of realization have hit us several times in our lives; but what bring a turning point to our story are the decisions we make and the steps we take hereafter.
It is a wake-up call; we take it and change our lives or ignore it and continue to live in denial. Change is scary but if we step out of our comfort zones we can change our stories.
It can give a turning a point to our lives, as it did for "the good girl" whom I know very closely.
Preeti Singh is a french language interpreter and a media professional who is engaged in writing short films and playing characters for TV series.
All design and images property of The Legendary. Site design by That Hippie (Allison Hancock)