In Which We Are Dressed In One Sheer Black Stocking

The Leg

by MAC BARRETT

The leg that fell out of the sky was dressed in a sheer black stocking, a seam down the middle. Not far from where it landed, under a Buick, was the shiny black pump that went with it. Seeing the leg he stopped and looked around, but this was late at night in the financial district, empty streets, and the bars were barely a noise in the distance. He had often remarked to himself, after having stayed late at the office, that these streets at this hour, with their lost winds and desolation, were a kind of Midwest.

This much was evident — that the leg had come from above, that the shoe beneath the Buick belonged to it, and that no one was here to deal with this situation other than himself. So he pulled up on his pant legs and knelt down and reached for the black pump under the car — and then, like a child finding a piece to a puzzle, took it to where the leg lay, and knelt again. The leg was on its side, so he righted it, holding the heel in the palm of his hand.

He could almost have forgotten — in that moment — that there was no woman here. No, he did forget: there was a woman. And he held that woman’s foot in his hand. The toes, he could see, through the sheer stocking, painted black, looked ready for life or for sex. He could see in his mind her hair’s dark length, the flip of her bangs. He could see the corners of her mouth, its ease with a slight smile so long as it didn’t spill over into the sloppy happiness of fools. She was sparing with her joy. She was protective of her sadness. She had been through being through things, had tried drugs, men who did them. She was difficult to please, honest, real.

He slipped the pump over the edge of her toes and felt it move perfectly into place, then lifted his hands away as if he had just performed magic. Beautiful. He stood the leg up.

Coming with me? he asked, looking back over his shoulder.

But she had no voice. A voice would have been wasted on her. Her intentions were clear. She spoke in a dirty, daring silence.

OK, he said, as though to accept a challenge.

He had his duffel bag full of gym clothes, a bag he had brought with him only to create the possibility of working out, the possibility of health, change, improvement of body and soul, etcetera. This was his reasoning each morning as he grabbed the bag from the floor beside the apartment door.

He unzipped the bag and removed one of his size 12 sneakers. He placed it neatly on the sidewalk, parallel to the street — so as to indicate that this was not a diseased sneaker, but a sneaker fit for use. With the new room in the bag he was able to place the leg snuggly inside. He zipped the bag. He found now, as he continued on his way, that there was something like lightness in his step.

In the apartment he set the duffel bag on the table — where it looked large and out of place. He poured himself a glass of water and looked at the bag there, where it should not have been. One small thing out of the ordinary — a leg from the sky — could cause ripples of irregularity that reached invasively into the farthest, most tender, most carefully protected corners of his life. Already: the duffel bag on the table instead of by the door where it belonged, resting partly on one red Ikea place mat and partly on another.

Leaning on the kitchen island he took out his cell phone and dialed the police.

Yes, I have an emergency, he said to the tired yet urgent lady’s voice. She wanted to know what his emergency was, and called him sir. I have retrieved, I have recovered, I have… He couldn’t get the verb right. I have taken on…She called him sir again and asked him to explain the nature — the nature, that’s what she said — of his emergency. Well, the thing is, I was walking home from work and I came across a woman’s leg.

She seemed to have trouble with this concept. She asked if the leg was severed and he said that yes it was, how else could the leg have become independently discoverable? He repeated that he had not discovered a woman — an occurrence that, though surprising, could not have been called an emergency.

Once everything was explained as best he could manage, and the tired yet urgent lady’s voice seemed to understand as best she could, she said she would send someone over to his apartment to see, or assess, or take, or retrieve, the leg.

He thought about the arrival of the police, imagined two men in pointy caps and dark blue uniforms walking into his apartment, staring at the duffle bag on the table. They would ask to see the leg and he would then withdraw it from the bag. Why not already have the leg out? he wondered. Wouldn’t that expedite things?

He unzipped the long, journeying zipper — he did it slowly, with a feeling of sensitivity and tenderness that fell somewhere between sexiness and respect — and he took the leg right above the ankle and lifted it from the bag, where it had been resting on the gym clothes. The stocking was silky in his hand. He brought the leg close to his eyes to look, to see if he could see the smoothness of the leg through the stocking, but he could not. The stocking was like a tangible shadow cast perfectly over the form of the leg, revealing and hiding it at once. He slipped his fingers in at the top of the stocking and began to roll it down. It seemed to want to roll. Once it was gathered just above the ankle he slipped his fingers in where the crevices of her ankle began to form and pulled the stocking down over the heel and off the foot. He set the stocking down on the table beside the leg.

That’s better, isn’t it? he said.

He held the bare leg now, above the ankle. It was freshly shaven and tan, the color of raw honey maybe, or of soft beach sand.

He breathed in. Vanilla was the scent of the leg. He imagined a cream, rubbed on, from a seated position, on a clean white toilet, her hands moving upwards toward herself in smooth, smoothing motions. He took a large inhalation — eyes closed, but not out of any sense of romance or something as strange and human as sentiment, but because that’s how good smelling happens.

The leg did not touch his nose, or any other part of his face. He was careful of that. But he did move his nose along the leg in the style of the corn-on-the-cob eater, which — if he could recall well enough — was a snack he had once very much enjoyed. Though of course the quality of a snack like this is inflated by the circumstances in which it is typically consumed: outside, near grass, with sun and laughter in the air, with alcohol even, with a woman, a love, wearing, perhaps, a humorous apron.

He rested the leg on a pillow on the table. It was a pillow from Ikea, which is a store some people make fun of, but this was a good pillow and it had helped him to achieve many nights of good rest. He chose it from the closet for its quality, not because it was a pillow he did not want to use himself but because it was a pillow that he loved to use. This was the pillow he saved for those nights when sleep wouldn’t come, when sleep would hang in the wings, snickering, and his thoughts would tumble on. This was the pillow that answered his insomnia. The leg rested on it, slightly puffing it up at the sides. It was a pillow with a memory.

He felt a little hungry and decided eating was not only an appealing idea in itself, but the perfect way to pass the time until the cops arrived. This was the kind of no brainer he truly appreciated: when there was more than one good reason to do a certain thing. That was as close to joy as he could get. Because when there was only one good reason to do a certain thing he might do it, but there was always this ache, this uncertainty, that maybe he should have been doing something else.

The Stoffers Mac and Cheese rotated on the glowing carousel as if spinning on the finger of god. When it was ready he set it out on one of the red Ikea place mats and had a seat. As he ate he looked at the leg on the pillow across from him, now neatly covering one whole place mat without touching any of the others.

You look nice and tidy over there, he said.

The leg was on its side now because that’s how it seemed to be most comfortable, nestled into the pillow’s fresh tender memory of it.

He rose from the table to lower the dimmer on the wall just a bit, making mood of the place.

He had never had reason to call the police before, had never endured an emergency that he could recall. How were you supposed to know when they were going to arrive? he said to himself, aloud, so the leg could hear. They tell you they’ll be right over, but really, what does that mean? Right over? He shook his head. He wanted to impress the leg with his reasonable confusion, his lack of comprehension for a world that had come out the other side of understandable.

This is the worst dinner I’ve ever had, he said, maybe just so that the leg would not think he was one of those people who could be pleased by microwaves, but also because he was feeling tense with anticipation. He lifted the cheese-soaked noodles on his fork into the light of his purest attention. What the fuck is this stuff? he said, shaking his head at the state of cheese today. He was vying, maybe, not just for the admiration of the leg, but for its sympathy as well. He, after all, was the one burdened with an appetite, a need for food in a world — or at least an apartment — without anything quite deserving of that name. He wanted the leg to see the god-awful absurdity of things, to enter into a union of dissatisfaction with him.

After eating he took the plate to the sink and watched the water concede to the drain, having turned a humiliating and unnatural orange color, then returned to the table with a fresh glass of water to await the arrival of the authorities. He wondered again about when the police would arrive, and the image of their arrival again came to him: the caps, the dark blue, the height of these men, the procedural tones of their voices. He imagined the two of them sitting with him at the table drinking coffee while waiting for the coroner to arrive, or a detective — because, surely, this situation was outside the expertise of the average cop. They probably got calls about legs all the time, and arms, and hands, only to discover that the caller was a prankster, or insane. We got another body part, they might say, and have a laugh through the static of their radios with the tired yet urgent dispatcher.

But what he had in his possession was a real leg. He looked at it. There was something mesmerizing about the way in which it did not move. The eye was accustomed to treating the leg as a thing about to move. Time snuck past in looking at the leg. Despite what he knew he could not help but expect, with some simple stubborn part of his brain, motion.

Out of this mesmerization came a troubling thought. The authorities, having discovered a man with a leg in his apartment, would be naturally inclined to suspect the man of having other body parts. What’s to keep them from thinking he was some sort of morbid hobbyist? They would search the closets while he was questioned in a room at the station. They would take out and examine his personal belongings. This became so immediately apparent to him that he stood from his seat, not sure of what to do next, but feeling an acute need to act. He looked around — at the glass of water, at his own irrelevant legs. He picked up the phone and thought to dial the urgent lady voice and tell her that it was all a misunderstanding, but that, it seemed, would only generate further suspicion.

When the buzzer buzzed — just at that unsuspecting moment — it felt as though it were buzzing inside his heart. He held his chest and looked at the tiny screen on the wall where two men could be seen, shorter than imagined, in street clothes, without caps, one balding and the other not, looking expectant at the front door of the apartment building below. The buzzer buzzed again. His heart turned over. He could see the two men talking to one another across their shoulders, their lips moving without emotion. After a third unanswered buzz they said nothing to one another and continued to wait. When one began to drift away from the door, as if pulled away by a weak need, the other tentatively followed.

Anxiety like this, for him, was like a cardio workout. It got his whole system going. By the time they walked away he felt exhausted. He zombied through his bathroom rituals and slipped into bed. His mind eased over what had happened: the leg on the pavement, the Buick, the shoe, the men at the door. These things seemed to constitute the order of the day, and it felt good, like cleanliness, to put the day in its order.

When he woke in the middle of the night he found that he had forgotten to place a glass of water on the bedside table. For years this had been his ritual, something he did entirely without thought, and now it wasn’t there.

Out in the kitchen/dining room area the leg was resting peacefully on the pillow on the table under the dimmed lighting — more like atmosphere than light. The faucet squealed faintly as the glass filled. He stood there, before the leg, sipping on fresh water.

+

At work the next day he did not think of the leg at all. He did his business with the papers and the computer and said what needed to be said to the people who were waiting on him to say those things. It was work as work had always been for as long as he could remember. He moved around the office fluidly—his hand reaching for the printer tray, the stapler, his leg pushing off of the carpet to roll his chair back towards the computer, his fingers, experts at being fingers, encompassing a mug of coffee, and pushing glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, a motion that always seemed like pointing at the exact middle of his mind.

He walked home, passing the place where the leg had fallen. There was no sign of what had transpired there. His sneaker was gone.

Back at the apartment he microwaved a pizza and sat across from the leg and ate, then went to bed early. He did not address the leg this night, and it felt as if this were the result of some vague decision-making process that had gone on in a part of his brain quite far off from the middle—a strange corner, a desolate place. It was one thing, he thought, not to talk to a leg but another entirely to plan on not talking to a leg.

The leg and the man lived in harmony in the apartment on the 28th floor of the stand-alone building on Water Street in the financial district of New York City. They cohabitated, coexisted, were co-eds. They stayed out of one another’s way just by dint of what they were: a man and a leg. It was easy. The leg remained on the table, left there to overhear his dinnertime complaints and concerns. Sometimes the man told a joke — as if to himself — but he did not laugh. He had learned a long time ago — read it in some magazine, maybe, during a time in life beyond the reach of his memory, a time that cast its shadow onto his consciousness like the building he lived in onto the East River — that one of the most important rules of comedy was not to laugh at one’s own jokes. When he said something he thought was funny he held his face grim, fighting its happy muscles almost to the point of pain.

In the morning he slipped the black pump back onto the leg, and when he got home from work he took it off and placed it alongside his own shoes beside the door, where the duffle bag was kept. This seemed to give the leg a daytime life that was separate from its evening hours, the leg’s down time.

At night he discovered, again and again, that he had forgotten to prepare his bedside glass of water. What was wrong with him? he wondered. What was happening to his brain? Why, now, after all these years, was it skipping over this critical step? It could only have been the influence of the leg, he thought, ultimately, the only new element in his life. These were the kind of thoughts that made him resentful of his new roommate. He had not asked for any company, or for anything at all, and the leg had simply presented itself in a needful state, asking for shelter, and he had provided this without expecting anything in return. And now the leg had begun to disrupt his life, to, effectively, make requests of him. Whereas he could live there with the leg forever if that was what it wanted, he would not endure any attempt on the leg’s part to change who he was.

Whenever he went to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get his glass of water, there the leg was, on the table, alone in that thin gauzy light. One night he brought the leg on its pillow into the bedroom and placed it on the bed. Perhaps by giving this little bit of himself, by being open with the leg, he and the leg could gain something. He had heard about this at work from people he sometimes stood near at the water cooler, or passed in the hall: the give and take of relationships.

The next time he woke in the middle of the night with a terrible thirst crawling out into the back of his throat, the glass of water was there where it was supposed to be. He drank and sighed pleasantly, with relief, and sank back into his pillow. As he fell through the bed and floor into sleep the smell of his new bed partner was with him, making it a Vanilla-scented sleep, full of vanilla dreams and vanilla awakenings.

+

Peace lasted this way for a while, but then something else began to disrupt their harmony: another smell, not of vanilla, but of rot. It seeped through those parts of the atmosphere where the vanilla began to weaken, lazily aggressive. He did not hold the smell against the leg, at first: it was only natural for the leg to smell this way. He took a different route home and stepped a little nervously into a store called Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

The walls were lined with bottles. A girl at the door shined a smile at him — her skin like the pages of a glossy magazine. He said, no thanks, to whatever it was she had offered, and began to search the shelves, touching the bottles tentatively with the tips of his fingers. He took one bottle off the shelf, flipped its top and smelled it, then another, and another, feeling like a thief of smells, until he found the cream that smelled correct. When he bought it the girl behind the counter — another display of skin and teeth—thanked him with such gusto that it felt like an insult.

At home in his bathroom he sat on the toilet with the leg propped up between his legs and reached forward and down, his hands covered in the new cream. He made contact just below the bulge of the anklebone and pulled his hands toward himself slowly, his fingertips riding the subtle topography.

This is the same stuff, isn’t it? he said, squeezing more lotion onto his hands.

The leg was stealthy in its affirmation.

I’m talking to a leg, he said, letting loose some laughter.

In the middle of the night he tasted his water and rolled over, his arm falling across the leg’s shin. Self-consciously, he left it there.

In the morning the vanilla was pure and it carried him through the day, through the hallways of the office. It stayed with him as he spun in his chair: the window with the city in it, the brown box of a desk, a stack of unopened paper, the window with the city in it, the brown box of a desk. He touched his face and found there the hard shape of a smile.

The next morning the leg began to smell again. He took it to the bathroom and held his breath as he rubbed in the cream, saying nothing, not wanting to embarrass anyone. Soon it was necessary to rub the cream in every night, a task he performed dutifully. But soon the daily routine began to wear on him. The pressure of it, of having no choice but to come straight home at five o’clock. He couldn’t work late or go to the gym to work out, which was something he was starting to really feel the need to do. His stomach, in the mirror, had taken on a sad expression—not fat so much as lacking in spirit. He imagined hardness there, imagined a body a woman would want. He had stopped bringing his duffle bag to work, though, and had begun telling himself that he might go back out after taking care of his responsibilities to the leg, but that just never seemed to happen.

He often spent his walks home, passed their meeting place, talking to the leg in his mind, telling it, in a variety of ways — some aggressive — that he wanted his life back.

You want me to get fat, don’t you? he said, stepping through the door. I was thinking about it on the way home and I’ve decided that that must be it: you want me to get big and fat, don’t you? That way no one will ever take me from you, right? That’s it, isn’t it?

He felt his anger mounting — that old ugly motion that came up from deep inside and seized control of his language — and he decided to give himself, and the leg, some space. He went to the bedroom while the leg remained on the table, and closed the door, but still, he felt himself getting angrier. Lying on top of the covers he spoke to the leg, again, hoping that it would overhear him.

He let the bedroom door bang loudly against the wall, the knob cracking the plaster, and stood there at the threshold of the two rooms: you know, he said, I think maybe it’s time for you to leave. He hardly recognized his own voice. He said it again: yeah, I think maybe it’s time for you to go.

After a moment he continued: you know I hardly recognize my own life anymore. I’m in Bed, Bath, and Beyond every other day — I mean, bed, bath, and beyond what? What are these people really selling, huh? With their awful smiles?

I come home every night and give you your smooth down, your scent, I hold off the force of what’s happening to you — I just don’t think you appreciate the measures I’ve taken, the way I’ve changed my life for you. All day I worry that the stench is overtaking you again, that I need to race back from work and help you. I mean — what about the sacrifices I’ve made? Do you have any idea when the last time I went to the gym was? How about the last time I did anything for myself?

The leg lay there on the pillow in a crevasse of its own making.

After a long pause he said, again, I think maybe it’s time for you to go.

But he knew the leg would not leave, or react, or even think about what he had said. So he grabbed his duffle bag, walked out, and slammed the door behind him. Energized by the noise, he took the stairs, something he had not done in all the — what was it? ten years? Fifteen? — of living in this building. He leapt from four stairs up onto each landing, making the stairwell bang and shutter with his weight, the true racket of himself.

At the gym he stepped lightly onto a treadmill in one sneaker and one black shiny business shoe. His mesh shorts and jersey fit him loosely, lightly, like a full-body halo. He hit a couple buttons and began to run. He watched his darkly hairy knees rise and fall, foreign as the knees of another man.

On the treadmill beside him was a woman in a tight black top that was not tight enough to keep her breasts from accenting the force of her strides. She tapped the buttons on her console familiarly and placed clean white buds in her ears. She ran without holding the handlebars—she ran with her head raised, as if set on a destination across the gym, beyond where the men were lifting weights in front of mirrors. She sucked air through athletically puckered lips, exhaled in a strangely intentional way. At her sides her arms moved rhythmically, robotically.

They ran together, side by side. He wanted to reach across the machines and take her hand. He held his head high, as she did, looking straight ahead, passed the weight-lifting men and the mirrored wall full of biceps and the midriff of buildings in the giant window behind them. He ran through that too, straight down passed the financial district, toward the river, but his imagination ended there, he realized, because this was a place to which he had never actually been, the very bottom of the island. He was still running but in his mind he was leaning over that southernmost handrail, looking into the dark water, wondering that river through his mind.

He looked to his left and there she was, running beside him, faced straight ahead. Her mouth moved around the words of a song as she exhaled her carefully considered breathes. When she began to slow down he sensed it somewhere in his bones, the changing course of his fellow escapee. Her feet thumped to a stop as she punched the buttons that ended their journey together. She stepped backwards off the treadmill, threw a white towel around her shoulders, and walked away.

At home, freshly showered, he sat eating a yogurt at the table.

I feel much better, he said. Maybe I just needed to let off some steam.

He gazed into the swirl of raspberry in his yogurt, feeling poised.

I’m sorry about before, he said, finally. I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that. He shook his head remorsefully. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I’m really happy that we met—I’ve never actually said that to you before, but I am. He looked up at the leg, feeling, quite distinctly, the possibility of a tear sliding away from his eye. You don’t deserve to be spoken to that way, he said. I’m sorry.

He reached across the table and took hold of the leg’s ankle, and stayed like that, feeling another in a series of unabashed tears move down his cheek, falling, maybe, into his yogurt, or onto the wooden table. The weeping seemed to indicate to him that this was good, quality sadness. When he took his hand away from the leg it was covered in a film that reminded him of cooking grease, though he couldn’t bring to mind a time in all his life when he had cooked.

He awoke in the middle of the night and rolled over and opened his eyes.

After a moment he said, I ran with another woman yesterday.

The leg, lying there facing him, received this information without any indication that it found what he had said upsetting — and to him there could not have been a surer sign of the leg’s emotional tumult.

We ran together to the river, ran for a whole 36 minutes, he said, and it pained him to go on in this way, giving these details, but he felt that they would weigh on him unbearably if he did not.

It felt good, he said, I admit, but it meant absolutely nothing. And running with another woman is not something that I need. I just did it this once, but it isn’t something I require. I can live without it, happily.

I just wanted to tell you that, he added. I didn’t want to feel as though I was keeping anything from you.

He tried to keep his eyes open then, watching her reaction, the way she bore her pain. He looked at the curve of her shin, the way it became the ankle, the ankle’s subtle bone, sweeping, as if in slow motion, into the outward reach of the foot — but his eyes fluttered and closed.

In the morning he rose from bed and found that he could not quite stand. This was confusing at first — until he remembered what he had done, the workout of 36 minutes, wearing one sneaker and one dress shoe. He started to go over sideways and caught himself with a hand on the wall, then pushed off and fell back onto the bed. He looked down. His foot looked like a boxer’s cheek, red and badly swollen.

Shit, he said. He would have to call in sick to work and take a day to recover, but the thought of being alone in the apartment all day with the leg made him nervous—it would be a test for them, one he wasn’t sure they were ready to pass.

Looks like it might just be the two of us today, he said, trying to strike a positive tone. He decided to begin the day with an act of goodwill. Hopping on one foot, he took the leg to the bathroom and set it up so that it leaned against his upper thigh as he sat on the toilet. Normally his routine was to apply the lotion later, but today he would lavish her with multiple extended massages, early and again later. He wanted to show that despite his angry words this was not something he minded doing for her. He wanted to show, even, that he could enjoy it. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel like her needs were a burden to him.

He pulled the cream toward himself over the sides of her legs — very slowly and gently. He did this many times — his hands blurring in front of him, his mind wandering onto nothing in particular. When he looked down at his hand, several minutes later, there was a layer of skin stuck to his palm and, around the leg’s mid-shin, an imperfect red oval.

What the hell is this? he said, rising. The leg fell on its side on the rectangular purple Ikea bathroom rug. He held the skin up to the leg in his thumb and forefinger, dangling it like another lover’s underwear. What the hell is this doing here, huh? He whipped it down into the little white trashcan, and asked again, his voice filling the small bathroom: what the hell is this?

He stormed out of the bathroom, the pain in his foot leaping up through his leg into his groin. He fell against the wall holding his head as if a blaring sound had suddenly filled it — alarms, bombs, ten thousand city sirens after a blizzard of falling limbs. He hobbled back into the bathroom and took a deep breath, his eyes closing, collecting himself, then he said, with everything I do for you…I don’t get it, I just don’t get.

He looked up, showing the leg the truth of his face now. I don’t see how you could treat a person like this, he said. It’s as though I’ve put no lotion on you whatsoever. You know that stuff isn’t cheap? I’ve spent a small fortune to try to make you happy. But it’s not enough for you, is it? Nothing’s enough for you. You’re just a black hole of need, aren’t you?

He took a moment, looked at himself in the mirrored shower door, where he stood looking exactly like he always had — literally no change that he could discern since the advent of his self-awareness.

He leaned down toward the leg, pointing his finger, wanting to be heard. I don’t know why I bother! he shouted.

He left the leg there on the floor, not on the memory pillow that it had been spoiled with, that it had shone itself to be ungrateful for, but on the flat, bacterially overrun bathroom rug. He hopped down the hall on his good foot, imagining terrible things: pissing on the leg where it lay, putting it in the oven, setting fire to it in the bathtub.

He imagined throwing the leg out the window, which, it now occurred to him, was almost certainly how he had found the leg in the first place. Someone else had already been through this whole experience, had made the same futile efforts, and then, on a day just like this one, had reached a breaking point and threw the leg out the window for the next sucker to try to love. He imagined another before that, and another before that, and another, and another, and fell onto his bed, dizzy.

They stayed together in the tense atmosphere of the apartment for a full week — as his foot became a bit more functional. Ultimately he couldn’t help but blame her for his condition, and said as much, over and over, as he hobbled passed the bathroom where she lay. I’d be a whole new person, a better person in better shape, he said, if we had never met. I would be a regular healthy gym-going person by now  because, you know what? I actually like exercising! Unlike you!

Her feelings were perfectly expressed by the silence of the apartment with the city working faintly behind it, always some distant construction or emergency. He knew exactly what she felt about his blaming her — that it was an accusation she would not dignify with a response. That he would blame her for his own choice to exercise in a dress shoe was laughable. She didn’t need to say anything. He was self-evidently ridiculous.

+

When he woke in the middle of the night it was to a terrible stench. It was not her fault, he said to himself, listening for the sound of truth, or at least perspective, in his voice. It occurred to him: rotting was part of who she was, and if he could not learn to love her the way she was then he would have to let her go. It was a part of her identity. She was rotting.

He stood, keeping his weight off his right foot. He hobbled to the bathroom and bent difficultly and took her up in his arms like a baby and looked down at her. There were three or four or five more imperfect ovals now that he could see, filled with a red that deepened in shade towards the middle — clearly, her own nature was enough adversity for her to have to face: she didn’t need him at her throat as well. He took her to the door and collected her shoe and slipped it on, then laid her gently into the duffle bag.

Outside the night air was full of hush and bluster. The streets were empty — as if empty was the natural state to which they were always waiting to return. It was what god had assigned to the district of finances, of strenuous ladder-climbing and cuff links, for the streets to be unpeopled. They were all in their beds, preparing for another day of big money. He walked south into the face of the wind, toward the water, holding the duffle bag at his side. It swung from his fist there as if weighted with the making of shady business. The bars were a distant scream, indication of what these people did to cope with being themselves. The neighborhood, if it can be called that, echoed with their sad pleasures. The storefront gates shuddered as if in the middle of their own bad dreams. The light from the streetlamps was dirty yellow and fell evenly everywhere.

+

The walk took an amount of time that felt to him like twenty minutes, but this was the kind of thing he never quite knew: time had so many ways of getting around him. At the place where the Hudson River met the East River he stood holding a cold metal railing. The water was down there, but hard to see in the darkness, more of a sound than a river. Light splashing, the sound of gentleness and sentiment. He had known a person once, a person who slipped in and out of the doorways of his mind like a crook, who had kept a zen rock-and-running-water arrangement by her bed for its calm and restorative powers. That was how the joining of these rivers sounded.

He set the bag down and unzipped it and removed the leg from inside. He held her over the water with both hands, words to be spoken aloud appearing hopefully in his mind then slipping away into inadequacy. Silence was the thing, he decided, and let her go. She splashed simply, tersely, into the darkness. He turned away, faced the length of the island. His foot hurt. He wondered if it would ever be the same.

Mac Barrett‘s fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Hanging Loose, Anderbo, The Rumpus, Salon, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, 32 Poems, and on the air for WBAI. He works as a producer of book-related programming for CUNY TV.

Illustrations by Wendy Zhao.

“You Said Enough” – Kat Edmonson (mp3)

“Oh My Love” – Kat Edmonson (mp3)

came reijowijoeiw

In Which We Give You The Consultation Of Your Lifetime

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.

Hi,

I have been friends with a guy I will call Alan for a few years. We both play music but never play together (different styles); still we have kept up with each other over the years.

We have good chemistry when hanging out one-on-one, and I’ve always enjoyed it whenever that happens. Alan’s made it clear that he would be open to something more, but I am concerned that things might get competitive with both of us sharing similar goals. The few times that it has come up, arguments have tended to ensue. Am I right to be wary of conflict?

Bess M.

Dear Bess,

No happy relationship was ever described by the words, “we fight a lot about about melodies.” With that said, ground rules for a relationship can accomplish a lot, just as the security of a prenup can assuage the mind of the more financially sucessful party.

Here are some ground rules to keep in mind considering your situation:

1) What kind of music does he play? House? Cool.

2) What are his thoughts on Savage Garden? Neutral. Cool.

3) How well does he know the lyrics to “Girlfriend in a Coma”?

4) Did he seem really low-key and collected when he found out that Thom Yorke unexpectedly released an album? Great.

That should do it. Tread carefully.

Hi,

I go out with a group of friends who always order wine at every meal. At first I didn’t mind not being the only one drinking, but our dinnertime conversations are becoming progressively sloppier and it makes the evening something of an ordeal. 

Is there any way to improve these circumstances without coming off as a killjoy?

Maureen A.

Dear Maureen,

Wine, or sad juice as it is called through the greater Pennsylvania area, was created for Europeans who have less problems and anxieties than Americans. Wine is highly addictive: some experts believe it is even more compulsive than cocaine.

Your friends are therefore ensconced in the saucy, grapey grip that won’t let go. The only way to free them from their urges is to ake things even more thoroughly in the messed up direction, until the entire group can barely wake up the next morning. Next time y’all meet up at dinner, you can meekly ask for a dry evening. It will be that day that each of your liquored-up friends will understand one of life’s most important lessons: sobriety can, at times, be as exciting as chardonnay.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen. Access This Recording’s mobile site at thisrecording.wordpress.com.

“Maid Lamenting” – Sam Amidon (mp3)

“Your Lone Journey” – Sam Amidon (mp3)

In Which We Believe That God Has Spoken Directly To Ron Perlman

His Left Hand

by DICK CHENEY

Hand of God
creator Marc Forster

Ron Perlman’s goatee looks like a hand covering his mouth. He is left handed, so it is his left hand that he raises in a public fountain where the police find him, speaking in tongues. In the opening scene of Hand of God, his pert body receives enlightenment from his God, a traditional beginning to many Bible stories. Executive producer Marc Forster’s Amazon pilot purports to make fun of this tale. Hand of God is a roundly pessimistic take on this inspiring yarn.

You see, Perlman’s character is from Texas, which means he is probably a bad person. Ron’s wrinkles portray a judge named Pernell who used to give everyone maximum sentences – before God spoke to him.

I was recently told by someone that Barack Obama is an atheist, which I have to admit surprised me. If someone made me president, I’d be sure think God wanted good things for me, and was probably planning for me to enter into a long term relationship with a woman completely different from my wife in every way, say, a prime minister of another country.

Dana Delany plays Ron’s wife. They are rarely in the same frame together, because it is really hard to believe the two are a couple. Ron has sex with an African-American prostitute in his judge’s chambers, but then he thinks better of this act. He’s been enlightened, and having sex with a woman for money is wrong. The woman has to hear her client say, “I think we should just talk from now on.” Ron seems sad to do it, but he can’t cheat on his wife anymore.

European artists like Forster are obsessed with Westerns, which was kind of a sideways version of the south. Now they’ve turned their back on people like Pernell. Unfortunately, I can think of no redeeming quality of such a person, either. Perlman’s character degrades everything around him in pursuit of God’s wishes, which does not seem so terrible in theory, but is in practice devastating.

Pernell’s daughter marries a Jewish woman who wants to take him off life support after he tries to kill himself, after watching his wife raped by a police officer. (This is what Forster thinks law-abiding citizens of America do with their time.) Pernell disobeys her wishes and keeps his son alive, believing the young man can communicate with him, using the power of the Lord, who the rapist is.

Pernell’s fellow churchgoers include men and women of color. Pernell finds he relates to them better than the other people in his life, who have only a cursory connection to the Lord.

That people who believe in God go against his principles is not a contradiction in terms. Ron turns ugliness into its own farcial weaponry on those who understimate him. Whatever gruff charm he has left is kind of like the final snarl of a working hound.

Austin, TX makes for a flaccid setting, probably because the show is not shot there and because Forster knows nothing of whatever charm might be had in the city. Hand of God does not know whether to condemn belief or consider it a cause roughly on the same level as justice. It is as mixed up as its protagonist.

As bad as the Amazon-funded Hand of God is, it should have been a lot campier, with Perlman in gothic robes and a subplot about Dana Delany’s addiction to drugs. Camp really needs to come back; where is Wayne Koestenbaum when we actually need him for once?

This past week was saved by a female performance that will echo through the eons. Kristin Connelly’s performance as the wife of Harry Houdini had to be seen to be believed. I invited a lot of my friends over to watch this woman. She was incandescent:

This is what she wore right when the doctor tells her Houdini isn’t going to make it. I mean the costume design on this thing was the most moving part of the magician’s journey. There’s also a moment where she screams at Houdini, why did I marry a Jew? The entire story is quite dramatic. It’s weird that Kristen Connolly and Ellie Kemper are two different people, and not twins.

There’s a really odd scene in Houdini where Houdini kisses his mother on the lips. It turns out to be the smooch of death, because I guess she died when he went on tour in Europe. The History Channel really brought it this time. I wonder if there was actually a newspaper that said this:

The paper would probably looks authentic, were it not for the motto, “All the News That’s Fit To Print.” I guess the inaccuracy would be forgivable, I mean William Randolph Hearst was not that big of a dick, and Aladdin was actually a wonderfully effective thief.

Kristen Connolly’s effortless line readings were the highlight of this ten-cent production, but Adrien Brody was not terrible himself. His hair was electric, and he made Houdini seem very condescending and obsessive. The actors who played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife were also excellent:

Campy biopics haven’t been this impressive since the Celine Dion biopic with Joe Pantaliano. If you have a chance, treat yourself to that gem. I think the TV Guide network airs it every Kwanzaa.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. Visit our mobile site at thisrecording.wordpress.com.

“Holloway (Hey Love)” – Wildcat! Wildcat! (mp3)

“Garden Greys” – Wildcat! Wildcat! (mp3)

In Which Her Mistake Was Waiting Six Episodes

Resemblances

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Just like that, it’s time to bid adieu to Outlander — at least until April, when the Starz adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s beloved novel will return to screens with its first season’s final eight episodes. Seriously, whoever created mid-season breaks needs to be taken out and flogged. While that’s happening, let’s take a look at a few things we’ve learned from the show over the past eight weeks:

1

Explaining this story to people who haven’t heard of it never gets easier. Eventually the only solution is to dish up a healthy serving of black pudding, sit them in front of the telly, and make them watch it.

2

Or else pass them a copy of Gabaldon’s book and watch them fall into spasms of delight when they realize there are SEVEN MORE IN THE SERIES.

3

Speaking of spasms, if a group of ancient stones starts whispering to you, your vacation is not going well and you need to leave.

4

Should you get sucked into the past via the aforementioned stones, don’t fret: your life is about to get a whole lot more exciting.

5

People pay good money to have experiences like yours, Claire. Haven’t you heard of living museums?

6

Just think: if you travel back to the past, you start a never-ending cycle wherein you never really cease to exist.

7

Don’t trust Redcoats.

8

If the captain of the Redcoats, who looks suspiciously like the husband you left behind in the future, starts confessing his sadism to you, this is not your cue to let your guard down.

9

This isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey.

10

But it is a romance, so look alive, Claire!

11

When you have a completely unexplained but intense attraction to a perfect redhead who calls you by a cute nickname and wears a kilt, you need to do what God intended and jump his bones immediately. Don’t wait six episodes.

12

Then again, seven is the perfect number, isn’t it?

13

The wedding is pivotal, and not just because of its consummation. Every decision thereafter involves another person. Claire cannot escape through the stones anymore without facing the consequences. There are consequences, there is loss, on both sides now.

14

Outlander as a portrait of female desire.

15

Then again…

16

If you are a woman in the 18th century, you will narrowly escape rape in pretty much every episode.

17

By the end I wouldn’t have been surprised if Claire had just rolled her eyes and hiked up her skirts. “Let’s just get this over with.”

18

All in all, it has always been a drag to be a woman.

19

But that’s okay, because Jamie exists.

20

Behind every good woman is a well-written male character.

21

There are few greater male characters than ones who are written into existence by women who are obviously in love with them.

22

If you don’t believe me, read the books.

23

Scars are sexy.

24

Do NOT fuck with anybody whose last name is Randall.

25

If your name is Frank Randall, you’re boring but we still feel sorry for you. We’re sorry you’re boring. Somehow, despite being boring, you manage to be important, which probably wasn’t easy for Diana Gabaldon and certainly isn’t for Tobias Menzies, who plays you. He’s doing a great job, though.

26

Frank, your theme song is Fleetwood Mac’s “Secondhand News.”

27

Obviously casting Menzies as both Frank and his ancestor, Black Jack Randall, was a key move, if only because it gets us thinking about family resemblances, which aren’t just skin deep. Violence, abandonment, detachment, psychopathy… couldn’t they also be inherited?

28

The following things look comfortable: sheepskins, kilts, cloaks, Highland grass, those cozy knit caps all the guys seem to wear, not having to wear any panties under your skirts (!)

29

The following things do not look comfortable: corsets, any of the chairs, that weird roll thing Claire has to strap around her middle to make her ass look bigger underneath her skirts, saddles, putting a knife inside your boot, being flogged, wigs, those strips of cloth men had to tie around their necks for whatever reason, not having to wear any panties under your skirts

30

Everything else aside, ripping open a bodice seems pretty satisfying.

31

There are a lot of ancient euphemisms for sex and all of them are wonderful but they’re used in such distasteful situations that it’s hard to imagine asking anyone to grind your corn and have it sound even remotely inviting.

32

None of the food looks good.

33

Books aren’t just for smarts; they’re also for tickling the deep, abiding parts in all of us that want to fall in love. That want adventure, and risk, and a good, hot, long roll in the hay discarding 18th-century clothes. That want men who wear their kilts and scars with pride.

34

Romance is the only genre.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording.


In Which We Generally Play It As It Lays

beverly hills hotel pen

Los Angeles Dossier

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Flanked on four sides of a kitchen island in West Hollywood, friends were exchanging details about a serial arsonist on the loose in Los Angeles. Copycat fires had been reported; revenge or thrill-seeking were pinned as possible intent. A description of the suspect had been released by the LAPD: male, heavy-set with a receding hairline and ponytail, driving a white and tan mid-90s Lexus sedan. It was New Year’s weekend, eighty degrees and sunny, fifty-some fires and counting. It was also my first time in L.A.

News of the arson spree was being tossed around between bites of tortilla chips, riffs on Noomi vs. Rooney, and fanciful guesses as to how the Mayan apocalypse would hit. One girl in red polka-dots shared her excitement about the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. I would miss it having returned to New York by then. At one point Dion’s “The Wanderer” came on and everyone fell into a brief stupor, twisting slightly and opening new beers.

the even number of photos

Growing up on the east coast and having attended college in Westchester, pictures of friends bunched in kitchens, leaning against and perched on counters, gabbing, had swept — much with my affection for the Dunnes, both John and Dominick, any picture of Robert Evans, noir Los Angeles, and Ice Cube’s Raiders hats — into a vague notion of images that were “very L.A.” It was an indefinable place despite countless landmarks and friends who called it home. Its celluloid portrayals caused it to unnaturally ooze thrill and ease for someone far too impressionable like myself.

the readership demands a photo

L.A. wasn’t real, real. “Some of these buildings are over 20 years old,” Steve Martin points out to Victoria Tennant in his satire-celebration, L.A. Story. Mailer called it “a constellation of plastic.” Of course Andy Warhol loved it for that very reason. “It’s redundant to die in Los Angeles,” Capote deadpanned. Dorothy Parker said it was “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city,” and Kerouac rued “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” Saul Bellow wrote that “in Los Angeles all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn’t tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.”

Frank Lloyd Wright echoed Bellow’s sentiment: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Fran Lebowitz compares it to a “city-like area” that surrounds the Beverly Hills Hotel. And Montell Jordan testified that “South Central does it like nobody does.” To me, Los Angeles was counterfeit. I hadn’t grown up with winds or fog or earthquakes. Seasons were dependable. And yet, entirely wooed, arson and apocalypse aside, in that moment with my forearms resting on cold tile, like Brenda Walsh or Annie Banks might, I too felt for the time being, merrily very L.A.

with the worths

I stayed with my friend, Zoë, who up until recently had been living in New York. My vacation coincided with her renewed appreciation for Los Angeles. She was once again a California girl. Even her ponytail, which always flops to the side of her head, seemed to spring and twirl better with Pacific air.

She bought sunglasses like the ones Woody Harrelson wears in Natural Born Killers while I tried on bigger ones like the pair Gena Rowlands wears (and does not take off at dinner) in Minnie and Moskowitz. Most days Zoë wore her mother’s red corduroy zip jacket that she rolled into wide cuffs. It matched the red beams at LACMA where I took a picture of her near the re-created Charles and Ray Eames living room. I only now just noticed that that particular photo never developed.

thoughts of chairs

At the tar pits adjacent to LACMA, my attention was stolen by a white vertical tower. Thirty-one stories tall in a district that upholds a seven-story height moratorium, the Variety skyscraper on Wilshire Boulevard is a stark giant crowned by its name in red lettering. Its stature is somehow comic, especially in Los Angeles. It appeared oversized; as if it was a spoof building, a prop, a facade, a mirage?

Designed by William Pereira, it boasts three hundred and sixty degree open views of the city. Didion might describe its lines as “alienating” and its build thick like an upright block of butter wrapped in wax paper. Jerry Bruckheimer, if he hasn’t already, will use it for a heist helicopter landing in one of his next productions.

the geeese fly south to steal a kiss

In the car, Zoë and I listened to the radio or the Boogie Nights soundtrack. More and more, my adolescent habits seemed to spark as if willed alive again by K-Earth 101 and one night, I spoke on the phone to a friend for over two hours. I haven’t done that in years. Ann-Margret in a yellow shirt lying on pink sheets with a teal blue phone. Sally Field as Gidget. Dionne and Cher.

We spent a lot of time going places to hang out. We climbed up a hill on my first night — the first of many views — and ate graham cracker flavored frozen yogurt the next day while we talked and scraped the bottoms of our Styrofoam cups while staring out at a parking lot.

durga with a friend

The sun warmed through my jeans — in January! — and struck me dumb. Nobody believes they are as invincible and the day infinite as a teenager on vacation, and that’s exactly how I felt. Even now, writing about the sun — and the sunsets too, which are an entirely different kind of spell, and that cruelly or precisely, no picture can ever capture — I feel foolish. From the car one evening as we drove through Silverlake, I stared at the sky’s airbrushed pinks, peaches, and lavender, only to look away because I only had one day left in L.A.

durga chew bose paly it as it lays

There’s a great picture of Ronnie and Phil Spector where he’s posing in the background holding a microphone stand while she’s in the fore, charming the camera with her attitude. He looks half her size. I always turn up the volume dial for The Ronettes — a regular occurrence during my stay. Nowadays it’s Phil’s trial pictures that are most vivid: his freakish wigs and chilling, googly stare.

Celebrity trials are another spectacle here. The wood-paneled court rooms, the lawyers, the lawyers’ families, the media circus, the outfits, all of it. In college, I remember my friend Akiva, who grew up in Beverlywood, told me that his brother recorded on VHS tapes every item broadcast of the O.J. Simpson murder case: a plenary account of television segments and updates. Los Angeles media experienced a coup d’état of celebrity trial magnitude. A black leather glove.

Retention and analysis of proceedings, exclusive interviews, and tell-alls, create a specific type of mania spurred only when celebrity, power and privilege cross the judicial system. As Camille Paglia put it, “Television is America’s kingmaker.” And as Akiva put it in a recent gchat, “OJ is LA.” I recently learned that Joan Didion was given press credentials and an opportunity to write a book about Kobe Bryant’s 2003 rape case. She turned it down after the first day of trial. The cover art alone, in serif purple and gold, DIDION, KOBE, might have been the most L.A. gospel ever.

adored you in evetryo ne of the

While Jacques Demy’s only English language film, 1969’s Model Shop, is not a great, it tempts. It ambles from Hollywood Boulevard to Santa Monica, from Beverly Hills to Malibu and loafs from a girlfriend’s apartment to a car garage, from a pink plush Rent-A-Model to band practice. “You don’t buy a $1500 car just ’cause you like it. You don’t have a cent and you don’t even work! You get a skateboard!” a girl scolds her boy at the start. Conversations move in and out of burnout meters, never quite changing our protagonist, George — a ne’re-do-well who is about to get drafted. He meets a mysterious French woman Lola, played by Anouk Aimée, and seeks out one last human bond, if that.

television kingmaker

What Demy does so masterfully is capture LA’s devil-may-care lure. Undoubtedly he was smitten with the city’s airy and delayed character. After all, the very first image is a blonde in bed, sleeping in. Her room is a mix of beach and artifice, bohemia and Barbie: piles of records, hanging stockings, a wig on its stand, an orange bra, a striped towel, neutrals and neons, both. Los Angeles is the film’s most palpable antihero. Los Angeles is the slacker, the layabout, the intrigue and the crush.

Demy splits the screen in two: sky and road. Pale blue and pavement. Billboards, Standard Chevron signs, palm trees and cars. It does not impose itself on anyone. And as I experienced it too, the faraway beach or winding hilly roads, there is something incredibly tacit about Los Angeles’ strangeness. It courts you. It’s still too new to simply exist — the trivia, infinite amounts of it, is what sustains the city.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing here.

the bowie alternative

In Which We Are Served On Expensive China

didion and dunne

In Hollywood

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

We’ve written twenty-three books between us and movies financed nineteen out of the twenty-three.

John Gregory Dunne, The Paris Review, 1996

When he was done, the executive asked the writer, “Do you know what the monster is?” The writer shook his head. The executive said, “It’s our money.”

– John Gregory Dunne, Monster, 1997

The millennium is here, the era of “fewer and better” motion pictures, and what have we? We have fewer pictures, but not necessarily better pictures. Ask Hollywood why, and Hollywood resorts to murmuring about the monster. It has been, they say, impossible to work “honestly” in Hollywood.

Joan Didion, I Can’t Get That Monster Out Of My Mind, 1964

Scriptwriting partners Joan Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne had a code for when it was time to cut their losses with a production company and fly the coop. In meetings, while negotiating the terms of a script, if Joan and John sensed the beginnings of disaster — studio dawdling, uneven notes, nonplussed silence — one would look at the other and say, White Christmas. Their choice of words, however, had little to do with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, with treetops glistening or sleigh bells in the snow. Instead, it relates to Vietnam. As Dunne explains in Monster, his 1997 account of Hollywood’s pecking order detailing the eight-year, twenty-seven-draft saga of Up Close and Personal, Joan and John’s code was a nod to the Fall of Saigon. In April of 1975, “White Christmas” was played by army disc jockeys on the Armed Forces Radio Network as a secret signal to the remaining Americans that “the war was over, bail out.”

John shares this anecdote a quarter of the way through his two hundred page book as part of an epiphany he and Joan have days before his aortic valve replacement surgery in 1991. To a degree, their penchant for weighing a project’s cost imitates Dunne’s expedient writing style. Bottom line? Utility leverages storytelling. Luckily, his reserve of keenly culled nuggets on Hollywood types, like Didion’s and his brother Dominick’s (perhaps the most imbued by celebrity) is never scarce. For every six or so tailored sentences, one diverges and is often marvelous. Hollywood hobnobbing, near spurious hooey.

For instance, at a breakfast meeting with Scott Rudin, the producer detailed to John and Joan a visit he took to Michael Jackson’s Neverland with director Barry Sonnenfeld. Michael was late, en route but still in the air. And so, Rudin kicked back, enjoying the Ranch’s amusement park and zoo. He and Sonnenfeld were invited to stay for lunch and were seated at a table set with expensive linen. They were served ham and cheese sandwiches under silver domes on expensive china which they “washed down with Pepsi-Cola,” as Michael was the company’s spokesperson. For dessert? Bite-sized Snickers in a silver bowl.

the family happening

Similarly absurd was Dunne’s account of Sunny von Bülow’s room in the Pavilion at Columbia-Presbyterian where John coincidently was recovering. Every afternoon a high tea was served “while a cocktail pianist in black tie played such the dansant favorites as “Send in the Clowns,” and “Isn’t it Romantic?””

As a quick aside, Sunny had been comatose for close to ten years at this point and her husband, Claus, had been twice accused of attempting to kill her. Incidentally, Dominick had covered the second trial for Vanity Fair, having only written for the magazine once before — a March 1984 piece entitled “Justice” chronicling the trial of his daughter’s killer. Like his sister-in-law, who zeroes in on diagnostic if not sometimes distracting ritz (in Blue Nights, the red soles on her daughter’s wedding day Louboutin’s that showed when Quintana “kneeled at the altar” or Madeleine-type episodes brought on by Saks or the St. Regis) Dominick too, never missed an occasion to mention Sunny von Bülow’s embroidered Porthault sheets.  

Despite the Hollywood mixing, Monster is in many ways the ultimate articulation of Dunne’s pragmatic writing style and accordingly, the writer’s and any writer’s inherent nearness to the idea of End. After all, in it he admits that the central reason he and Joan agreed to write Up Close and Personal in 1988 was due in large part to Dunne’s health. Earlier that year John had suffered his first collapse while speed walking in Central Park. “When I regained consciousness, I was stretched out in the middle of the road rising behind the Metropolitan Museum, a stream of joggers detouring past without looking or stopping, as if I were a piece of roadkill,” he writes. Heart surgery was inevitable and as doctors’ visits, tests, and hospital bills were soon to pile — a “very expensive gig” — the WGA’s health insurance became crucial. The deal was closed.

variously up close and or personal

Later in the book, in a rare moment of self-reflection Dunne describes the replacement valve’s clicking sound and how it signified “reassuring proof [he] was still alive.” This newer, louder heartbeat, so to speak, appealed to John’s mortality. So much so that Monster itself is structured around Dunne’s many hospital visits, often yielding for more thoughtful bits as if the narrative, like John, had been ordered to meter the pace.

Even Joan, whose voice is rarely heard in Monster, has her say with respect to John’s condition. One evening, a couple years after John’s surgery while dining at Chinois in Santa Monica, a certain Michael Eisner, who too had had a similar operation, expressed to Dunne that his bypass surgery was in truth “more serious” than John’s. Didion, maddened, immediately shouted, “It was not!” “[She’d] never been an easy fit in the role of the little woman.

The clicking sound of John’s valve resonated with Quintana too who, entertained by the sound, began calling her father the Tin Man. While throughout Monster many friends and colleagues fall ill or die—of old age, of a sudden heart attack, of complications from AIDS, of unhealthy sped up lifestyles—there is an indistinct quality to that last image as both John and Quintana have since died. As though John was writing from his prophetic gut, from that sense of congenital doom and loss that writers are born with, of which his wife described in her 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” Perhaps it is Dunne’s use of “reassuring proof,” like a child who despite being promised something, commands an actual “Promise.” Or maybe it’s him and her, father and daughter, paired in a single moment, attune to each person’s inherent rhythm. Or maybe it’s simply this reader’s willingness to let the image go there. Either way, the “clicking” abides. It greets the page and far outlasts it.

the written by card

It was John Foreman, a friend and producer, and former Princeton classmate, who first approached Joan and John about writing a screenplay based on Golden Girl, Alanna Nash’s biography of the network correspondent, Jessica Savitch. Five years prior, Savitch had died in a car accident. Martin Fischbein, president of the New York Post, was also in the car. At this point, John and Joan had already written the screenplays for The Panic in Needle Park, Play it as it Lays, A Star is Born, and True Confessions. At this point, they were still incapable of “good meetings,” meaning, they could not schmooze or quicken deals. They were not ‘package’ material and certainly understood that screenwriters occupied an “inferior position on the food chain,” or as Jack Warner (of the Brothers) once said, were thought of as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But they liked Nash’s book and were ready to proceed with Disney. Or so they thought.

With Disney comes the Kingdom. And with the Kingdom comes the fairy tale. But Jessica Savitch’s story was no fairy tale because in the fairy tale the princess never dies. She is however made over.

original feelings about savitch

Savitch was a woman whose news reporting inexperience was outdone by her ambition. Impelled by some inner fidget, she restlessly wanted more. Her strive had presence, prompting collateral excess. As Dunne describes, she had “an overactive libido, a sexual ambivalence, a tenuous hold on the truth, a taste for controlled substances, a longtime abusive Svengali relationship, and a certain mental instability.” In Disney’s eyes, her “ugly duckling turned golden girl” story possessed too much ugly. Interracial love affairs, cocaine, a gay husband who eventually hung himself, and abortions, were all embargoed narratives. The stuff of Didion and Dunne. A couple who no matter what city they visited, made sure to stop at its courthouse.

Having come off the success of Pretty Woman, Disney wanted a similarly Cinderella setup. As Dunne puts it, they wanted a Pretty TV Reporter. That is, they wanted a Rodeo Drive sequence, in which instead of swapping sky-high over the knee boots for a polka-dotted polo dress, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tally Atwater would lose her perm and pink blazer for more beige, more poise, and ultimately, the guidance, respect, and love of her news channel director. His name would be Warren Justice — “an appropriately classless first name” — and the role would go to Robert Redford. Near the end of Monster, Dunne fondly remembers one evening when while watching Three Days of the Condor on cable, Redford called him to discuss his character in Up Close. There he was, code name Condor, on Dunne’s television. And there he was too, on the other end of Dunne’s phone. For John, “he was, when all was said and done, Robert Redford.” At a glance, infinite.

But returning to Up Close, where within the first seven minutes of the movie, Pfeiffer clumsily spills the contents of her purse everywhere. Redford, forever wearing a collared shirt, bends down to help her clean up one tube of lipstick, a loose tampon, some change, and a crumpled dollar bill. Nickels, dimes, no Money, and a pair of female things. Pfeiffer is crestfallen, and in her boss’ eyes, nothing but nerves and legs. Within the first ten minutes, he asks her, “Do you always wear that much make-up?” Later he offers her a job as the weatherperson in which she wears oversized clown glasses and a goofy yellow rain jacket and hat.

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An early draft of Up Close was given to Mike Nichols who responded with the “graciously noncommittal comment” that his marriage to ABC’s Diane Sawyer created an unfitting atmosphere for any project about TV news. While Joan and John never mentioned this detail to Nichols, Diane Sawyer’s first on air experience at a channel in Louisville, Kentucky, was what inspired Tally Atwater’s debut.

A few years past and not much came of Didion and Dunne’s original Up Close script. In those in between years, Joan worked on her Central Park Jogger piece for The New York Review of Books and John finished Playland. They had meetings with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer detailed in a section titled, “Bully Boys,” began writing a script in which they called Michael Crichton for advice on string theory, and endeavored incorporating with Elaine May and Peter Feibleman as a rewriting team and company, only agreeing to work on productions that had already began shooting. No more first drafts, no more free meetings or readings; “the meter would start running the moment the screenplay arrived.”

Then Scott Rudin rolled in. Monster is dedicated to him, along with director, Jon Avnet and in memory of John Foreman. Rudin did as Rudin does: he got the movie made. He was “the bully boy’s bully boy.” But most importantly he offered Dunne the most producer-ly advice ever. When asked by Dunne what he thought the movie was really about, Rudin, forever skewed to money and éclat, answered, “It’s about two movie stars.”

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Which briefly brings to mind Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom. Rudin is an executive producer on the show and one cannot help but wonder if he gave Sorkin similar advice. The show, much like Up Close is less about the news and more about the dopey hearts of those involved. Basically, it too is centered on two or more “movie stars.” The newsroom is their stage and so far, their love entanglements are its crux. Everything else is merely crosstalk. Women with alliterative names in silk shirts flail their arms, stutter, shriek, and may as well be spilling the contents of their purses everywhere. Meanwhile, the men speak in sports metaphors, are romantic dolts, and threaten to congratulate their female coworkers for having gumption and good ideas. Music swells, smug smirks are protracted. Sorkin, forever the guy who writes soap operas about guys on their soapboxes.

While Rudin did push for more romance in Up Close, reminding Joan and John that it was a love story after all — to “deliver the moment, deliver the moment” — John was adamant about one thing. He told Rudin, “I don’t do love.” Thing is, composer Diane Warren and Céline Dion sure do. Avnet hired both and the song “Because You Loved Me” came to be. Number one in the United States for six weeks, its music video featured Céline in a makeshift control room performing with burning credo as clips of Pfeiffer and Redford, punch-drunk and sweet for each other, fade in and out. Today, sixteen years later, clips of Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels’s Mac and Will could comfortably replace those of Tally and Warren.

playing it as it lays

While an appraisal of Sorkin, Dunne and Didion, all in one breath, is slightly offhand, it does invite a closer look. In October 2011, A.O. Scott did exactly that for his review of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, which was co-written by Sorkin. In it, Scott opens by referencing Didion’s 1988 New York Review of Books piece on the presidential election entitled, “Insider Baseball,” published mere months before she and John agreed to write Up Close. “The process” as she explains and as Scott quotes, is “not about ‘the democratic process’ or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals.” As Scott spells out: narratives that function as “durable forms that cater to this appetite for exclusive knowledge, inviting the reader or viewer to learn something about how the professionals do it and to feel vicariously, like one of them.”

Sorkin’s breakneck dialogue deals with characters, mainly men, who run countries, television networks, professional sports teams, who invent algorithms in order to make friends and humiliate girls. As Scott points out, these characters are all, by some means, a performance of Didion’s sentiment. They claim “specialized” speak, when inevitably the tensions return to sex and money, and winning. Proximity to transparency, to insider-y yackety-yak, assumes entrance. And yet, as Didion reminds, “what strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Her remarks about the electoral process could be applied to Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, to Will McAvoy, President Bartlet and Billy Beane: “These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.” All that walking, all that talking.

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Interesting then to examine Dunne’s Monster, which in many ways is the ultimate insider’s look into Hollywood’s process. Written from the vantage point of someone who was involved from the very start, from meetings to rewrites, rewrites to more meetings. From the Beverly Hills Hotel where Nora Ephron, who was staying across the hall, volunteered business advice or to Tony Richardson’s Bonjour Tristesse-type St. Tropez hamlet — Le Nid du Duc — where his daughter, the late Natasha ‘Tasha’ Richardson was once a chain-smoking teenager who wore a micro miniskirt and as Didion writes in Blue Nights, “devised the fables, wrote the romance.” Or back in LA, a few years later, for the funeral of Tasha’s father and a gathering of friends in his Hills home — the Kings Road house that once belonged to Linda Lovelace. The list of trivia goes on and on. Who, what, when, where, why, how, Hollywood!

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion were deeply embedded in the “private idiosyncrasies of very public people.” As Dunne affirms, he was simply there — “the reporter’s justification for what he does.” Surely, Sorkin could sniff out his next script there too. Didion and Dunne’s ‘White Christmas,’ an elucidation of what A.O. Scott terms the “half-secret language…a body of artisanal lore.”

It was announced last year that Didion would be penning a script with Todd Field. Todd Field who wrote and directed In the Bedroom and Little Children, and who in Nicole Holofcener’s 1996 Walking and Talking, proposes to Anne Heche’s character by hiding the ring in her round birth control pack.

As a filmmaker, his movies look like worlds Didion might mine: tortured, grieving parents in one, and the crepuscular, discontented mood of middle-class suburbia in the other. Both films are literary. Both films portend menace, as if from the opening credits, somebody has a hunch. Both are carefully constructed — quiet and sustained like a yawn. Both are all whites, pale blues, and greens, with freckled, sun kissed skin. In both films, light filters through windows no matter how melancholic the scene. Even each poster’s plain serif font: exactly bookish. Precisely Joan. And yet, no matter how ideal the pairing of Field and Didion, Dunne tolls — that “clicking” sound, sounds. Her all white office; his wood-paneled office. His, hers.  His first draft and her reworking of it. “The version the studio sees is essentially our third draft,” Dunne told George Plimpton. He went on to share that he and Joan, before beginning any script, would watch Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. “The best collaboration between writer and director I can think of.”

Monster, despite little emotional bulk is nostalgic by nature. Eight years, twenty-seven drafts, and two presidential elections later, John wrote it as though summoning memories at a table of close friends, far into the night, long after dessert was served and more drinks were poured, at that delirious hour when leftovers are pulled out of the fridge, unwrapped, and eaten without plates. One gets the sense he could have written twice as much. One gets the sense his memory was trained to pocket stories, not for sentimental reasons, but because he knew what he was seeing, others would savor. His account is entirely generous, if not a little boastful. His last words, “We also had a good time,” belong sincerely to Joan.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about ways to describe Casey Affleck.

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In Which Barbara Loden Had Been With Worse

 a thousand words

Beauty

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

In a 1972 episode of The Mike Douglas Show, co-hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Barbara Loden is introduced by her hosts as “a very lovely lady,” as “married to a very famous gentleman,” as “wife of Elia Kazan,” as “a mother,” and as a “filmmaker in her own right.” Seconds later, polka-dotted set doors slide open and Loden appears.

She is wearing white jeans, a black knit shirt, and lace-up boots. Her bangs flop over her forehead and her blond highlights have grown out — color-blocking her long, thin and wispy hair. Loden looks like a dream. She has the smile of a young Cloris Leachman, she begins her sentences with “Gee” and speaks of being “bashful.” She is from another time. Like a woman in a Sunkist beauty ad — the kind from Teen magazine: “Leaves your hair looking squeaky-clean, smelling lemon-fresh.” It’s as if at any moment she might turn, stare straight into the camera, and sell you a bar of Dial soap.

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Loden’s voice is soft and her words are considered. It is nerve-wracking to listen to her, a cause for concern. She is wary when discussing her marriage to Elia Kazan, especially in comparison to that of John and Yoko: “We lead a rather insulated life. We don’t get around much.” Loden barely reacts when it’s made clear that Douglas hasn’t even watched her film, Wanda, but is posing questions nonetheless.

However, once she starts talking about her movie — the only one she would ever write and direct — poise outdoes caution. Loden speaks faster and with finality. Her thoughts accrue in increments. She uses her hands. Her focus turns urgent. It’s clear she feels a deep kinship with her character, Wanda Goransky, a woman Loden says is living “an ugly type of existence,” a wife and mother who has abandoned her marriage, her children, and herself. She is uncertain of what she wants but persuaded by what she doesn’t want. Loden is her advocate. Wanda is Loden’s orbit.

“She’s trying to do the best thing that she can. Life is a mystery to her,” she says, though not to Douglas, not to John or to Yoko, but to some perhaps doubtful though vital, and resolving side of her nature.

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Premiering at Venice in 1970, Wanda, was released a year later in New York and L.A. Largely ignored and omitted in the United States, like so many endangered American independent films, Wanda was revered in Europe. Marguerite Duras, who writes in The Lover, “My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women,” as well as Isabelle Huppert, who released a DVD of Wanda in France in 2004, were fans.

The film begins with a shot of a Pennsylvania coal mine. The landscape is lunar and the machinery looks miniature: crater-sized puddles and Tonka-sized trunks. Mountains of coal denote work, hard work, repetition, and men. We immediately know that Wanda, the title character, whoever she is, is likely detached from this world, these men, this work — especially if the work is hard and repetitive. A Woman Under the Influence, which also starts at a work site, is called to mind. Five Easy Pieces, too. Mabel Longhetti, Rayette Dipesto, and Wanda Goransky: all women whose lives, in various ways, have been trivialized. As Loden puts it, they simply “drop out.”

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But it’s the echoing sound of machinery at the start of these films that creates a discrete type of stillness: moving parts that carry out tasks, strictly physical, toiling tasks — tools, methods, with functions that function. When Wanda appears moments later, waking up on a couch — a single white sheet as her blanket — she is hungover and bothered by a wailing baby. Wanda is neither functioning nor ready to carry out tasks. If this family and town are hers, they are hers to escape.

Before the movie really takes off, a series of events where Wanda is alone or Wanda is with someone who makes her feel even more alone, unfold. A portrait is painted of a woman who is trying to get as far away from herself as she can and who hasn’t yet found her “use.” She walks far distances — a tiny white blemish crossing mountains of gunmetal gray coal — to beg for money, to catch an empty bus, to show up late for divorce court, to look at the judge, point to her husband and say, “They’d be betta off with him.”

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Too slow as a seamstress, she loses her job at a factory. Too broke to buy a drink, she wakes up hungover in motel beds with men who hurry out in the mornings, who reluctantly drop her off anywhere. In one scene she stands on the side of the highway, licking ice cream as a man peels away in his car. Never did a woman with a goofy high top ponytail look so scrappy, so dejected and doomed.

Aimless, either looking at clothes in a department store and standing beside mannequins which bear an uncanny resemblance to her, or going to the movies, only to fall asleep curled up in her seat, her purse two rows down, emptied of what little she had, Wanda continues to wander. And yet, shit out of luck, she doesn’t mope or mourn — her nothing-to-lose manner is less attitude and more delusion and wear. She’ll look for a comb to neaten her bangs instead of accounting for where she’ll be sleeping that night. The camera gets near to her face, as if convincing us that Wanda is unafraid, if not entirely withdrawn.

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But then she meets Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), a hapless robber and miserable man, and she attaches herself to him. Maybe it’s his gruff way or that he tells her who he is, what to do, and what he doesn’t like — “I don’t like nosy people,” “Go back to your comics,” “Why don’t you do something about your hair? It looks terrible.” Whatever it is, Wanda is fastened to and maybe even fascinated by Mr. Dennis.

He buys her spaghetti at a diner. She eats it with her fork in one hand and her cigarette in the other. “Did you want that piece of bread?” Wanda asks. “That’s the best part,” she continues while mopping up the leftover sauce. Later, when Mr. Dennis orders her to take the wheel and drive, she does. But Wanda does not use it as opportunity to take control. She follows instructions. She does as she’s told.

Unassuming, loyal, already on the lam, Wanda makes for a perfect accomplice. But first, her clothes have to go. “No slacks! When you’re with me, no slacks!” Mr. Dennis yells. “No hair curlers! Makes you look cheap!” He throws both her pants and her box of curlers out the car window. When Wanda asks him where they are going, he barks: “No questions! When you’re with me, no questions!” While his tone is threatening, Wanda’s been with worse. He’s a bully — a hapless, miserable bully.

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In one scene, Mr. Dennis’ temper dissolves. Standing in an open field as Wanda sits on the roof of his car, the two drink beers and eat sandwiches. The sun is setting and he lends her his jacket. It’s the first moment in the film where two people talk to each other, where vulnerability isn’t an action or inaction, but a single sentence that reveals more than we were ever expecting to learn about Mr. Dennis: “If you don’t have money, you are nothing.”

For Wanda, who ignores questions about her kids while painting her nails on the side of the highway, who exchanges her ponytail for a smarter-looking pin-cushion top bun, yet still looks taken down, being “nothing” isn’t so bad. Like Rayette in Five Easy Pieces, whose Stand by Your Man adages are infinite and misguided — “I’ll go out with you, or I’ll stay in with you, or I’ll do anything that you like for me to do, if you tell me that you love me” — Wanda, too, will do anything, especially if it keeps her moving and at length from recognizing what it is that she wants.

Barbara Loden died of breast cancer ten years after making Wanda — a debut which feels incredibly close to the writer, director, actress; a debut which is a cumulative expression and hopefully, liberation of herself. Her marriage to Kazan appeared restrained and guarded, and while in some interviews he praises his wife’s film, in his memoirs he writes: “She wanted to be independent, find her own way. I didn’t really believe she had the equipment to be an independent filmmaker.”

The word “equipment” is interesting to note. It implies invention and esprit, substance, smarts, ideas of Loden’s own, courage. It is also used by Barbara herself on Mike Douglas’ show. When describing Wanda’s inability to take control of her life, to claim desires, Loden says, “She has no equipment.” It is a startling coincidence, a fluke that might mean nothing, but one nonetheless. It underpins Loden’s pressing need to make a film about a woman whose story had been told for so long in other people’s words. Her vision was born from a gameness she often concealed as a model, actress and wife, but that she laid bare, masterly, on grainy 16mm, shot over the course of ten weeks with a crew of four.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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