William Peter Blatty was born in 1928 in New York City. His parents were Lebanese and his very religious mother sent him to Catholic schools. He got his first degree at Georgetown University and his M.A. in English literature at George Washington University. Afterward, he went into the Air Force; it was during his time that he began his career as a writer.
He is perhaps best known as the author of The Exorcist and the writer/producer of the 1973 film based on that novel (he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). An accomplished screenwriter and novelist, he has authored books such as The Ninth Configuration, Legion, and Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing, with his latest novel being The Redemption. He also directed the film versions of Legion (aka Exorcist III) and The Ninth Configuration.
A brief note about this fortieth anniversary edition of The Exorcist
In January 1968, I rented a cabin in Lake Tahoe to start writing a novel about demonic possession that I’d been thinking about for more than twenty years.
I‘d been driven to it, actually. I was a writer of comic novels and farcical screenplays, with almost all of my income derived from films; but because the season for ‘funny’ had abruptly turned dry and no studio would hire me for anything non-comedic, I had reached James Thurber’s stage of desperation when comedy writers take to ‘calling their home from their office, or their office from their home, asking for themselves, and then hanging up in hard-breathing relief upon being told they “weren’t in”.’ My breaking point came, I suppose, when at the Van Nuys, California unemployment office, I spotted my movie agent in a line three down from mine.
And so to the cabin in Tahoe, where I was destined to resemble the caretaker in Stephen King’s terrifying novel The Shining, typing my version of ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ hour after hour, day after day, for over six weeks as I kept changing the date in my opening paragraph from ‘April 1’ to April something else, because each time I would read the page aloud, the rhythm of the words seemed to change. This maddening cycle of emptiness and insecurity continued until I gave up the cabin and moved my efforts back ‘home’, a clapboard guest house in the hills of Encino owned by a former Hungarian opera star. Once there I almost immediately overcame this creative block by realizing I had been starting in the wrong place – Georgetown – as opposed to northern Iraq. Almost a year later I completed a first draft.
But barely a week or two before completion, and out of almost desperate financial need, I hoarsely shouted‘Yes!’ to an offer from Paul Newman’s film company to adapt Calder Willingham’s Providence Island for the screen. At the request of my publisher, I did make two quick changes to that draft of the novel – cleaning up Chris MacNeil’s ‘potty mouth’ and making the ending ‘less obvious’ – before I leaped immediately to work on the screenplay.
For most of these past forty years I have rued not having done a further draft of the novel. But now, like an unexpected answer to an ancient prayer, this fortieth anniversary edition has given me not only the opportunity to do that second draft, but to do it at a time in my life – I am 83 – when it might not be totally unreasonable to hope that my abilities, such as they are, have at least somewhat improved.
And so what have I changed? With respect to the plot, the novel’s structure and the characters, the answer is nothing. Well, almost nothing. There is a new character who functions within a totally new six-page scene that I imagine, by the way, many readers will find the most hauntingly chilling in the book; and there are touches of new dialogue as well as changes to make the ending more obvious. But most of the change in this draft amounts to a very careful polishing of the rhythms of the dialogue and prose throughout. And for this blessed chance to have done so, I happily smile as I think, ‘Deo gratias!’
William Peter Blatty, Maryland 2011
Northern Iraq . . .
The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his back like chill wet leaves.
The dig was over. The tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped: the beads and pendants; glyptics; phalli; ground-stone mortars stained with ocher; burnished pots. Nothing exceptional. An Assyrian ivory toilet box. And man. The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God. And yet now he knew better. The fragrance of licorice plant and tamarisk tugged his gaze to poppied hills; to reeded plains; to the ragged, rock-strewn bolt of road that flung itself headlong into dread. Northwest was Mosul; east, Erbil; south was Baghdad and Kirkuk and the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar. He shifted his legs underneath the table in front of the lonely roadside chaykhana and stared at the grass stains on his boots and khaki pants. He sipped at his tea. The dig was over. What was beginning? He dusted the thought like a clay-fresh find but he could not tag it.
Someone wheezed from within the chaykhana: the withered proprietor shuffling toward him, kicking up dust in Russianmade shoes that he wore like slippers, groaning backs pressed under his heels. The dark of his shadow slipped over the table.
“Kaman chay, chawaga?”
The man in khaki shook his head, staring down at the laceless, crusted shoes caked thick with debris of the pain of living. The stuff of the cosmos, he softly reflected: matter; yet somehow finally spirit. Spirit and the shoes were to him but aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other.
The shadow shifted. The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt. The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma. Once he could not have loved this man.
He slipped out his wallet and probed for a coin among its tattered, crumpled tenants: a few dinars; an Iraqi driver’s license; a faded plastic Catholic calendar card that was twelve years out of date. It bore an inscription on the reverse: what we give to the poor is what we take with us when we die. He paid for his tea and left a tip of fifty fils on a splintered table the color of sadness.
He walked to his jeep. The rippling click of key sliding into ignition was crisp in the silence. For a moment he paused and stared off broodingly. In the distance, shimmering in heat haze that made it look afloat like an island in the sky, loomed the flat-topped, towering mound city of Erbil, its fractured rooftops poised in the clouds like a rubbled, mud-stained benediction. The leaves clutched tighter at the flesh of his back.
Something was waiting.
“Allah ma’ak, chawaga.”
Rotted teeth. The Kurd was grinning, waving farewell. The man in khaki groped for a warmth in the pit of his being and came up with a wave and a mustered smile. It dimmed as he looked away. He started the engine, turned in a narrow, eccentric U and headed toward Mosul. The Kurd stood watching, puzzled by a heart-dropping sense of loss as the jeep gathered speed. What was it that was gone? What was it he had felt in the stranger’s presence? Something like safety, he remembered; a sense of protection and deep well-being. Now it dwindled in the distance with the fast-moving jeep. He felt strangely alone.
By ten after six the painstaking inventory was finished. The Mosul curator of antiquities, an Arab with sagging cheeks, was carefully penning a final entry into the ledger on his desk. For a moment he paused, looking up at his friend as he dipped his penpoint into an inkpot. The man in khaki seemed lost in thought. He was standing by a table, hands in his pockets, staring down at some dry, tagged whisper of the past. Curious, unmoving, for moments the curator watched him, then returned to the entry, writing in a firm, very small neat script until at last he sighed, setting down the pen as he noted the time. The train to Baghdad left at eight. He blotted the page and offered tea.
His eyes still fixed upon something on the table, the man in khaki shook his head. The Arab watched him, vaguely troubled. What was in the air? There was something in the air. He stood up and moved closer; then felt a vague prickling at the back of his neck as his friend at last moved, reaching down for an amulet and cradling it pensively in his hand. It was a green stone head of the demon Pazuzu, personification of the southwest wind. Its dominion was sickness and disease. The head was pierced. The amulet’s owner had worn it as a shield.
“Evil against evil,” breathed the curator, languidly fanning himself with a French scientific periodical, an olive-oil thumbprint smudged on its cover.
His friend did not move; he did not comment. The curator tilted his head to the side. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
The man in khaki still appeared not to hear, absorbed in the amulet, the last of his finds. After a moment he set it down, then lifted a questioning look to the Arab. Had he said something?
“No, Father. Nothing.”
They murmured farewells.
At the door, the curator took the old man’s hand with an extra firmness. “My heart has a wish: that you would not go.”
His friend answered softly in terms of tea; of time; of something
to be done.
“No, no, no! I meant home!”
The man in khaki fixed his gaze on a speck of boiled chickpea nestled in a corner of the Arab’s mouth; yet his eyes were distant. “Home,” he repeated. The word had the sound of an ending.
“The States,” the Arab curator added, instantly wondering why he had.
The man in khaki looked into the dark of the other’s concern. He had never found it difficult to love this man.
“Goodbye,” he said quietly; then quickly turned and stepped out into the gathering gloom of the streets and a journey home whose length seemed somehow undetermined.
“I will see you in a year!” the curator called after him from the doorway. But the man in khaki never looked back. The Arab watched his dwindling form as he crossed a narrow street at an angle, almost colliding with a swiftly moving droshky. Its cab bore a corpulent old Arab woman, her face a shadow behind the black lace veil draped loosely over her like a shroud. He guessed she was rushing to some appointment. He soon lost sight of his hurrying friend.
The man in khaki walked, compelled. Shrugging loose of the city, he breached the outskirts, crossing the Tigris with hurrying steps, but nearing the ruins, he slowed his pace, for with every step the inchoate presentiment took firmer, more terrible form. Yet he had to know. He would have to prepare.
A wooden plank that bridged the Khosr, a muddy stream, creaked under his weight. And then he was there, standing on the mound where once gleamed fifteen-gated Nineveh, feared nest of Assyrian hordes. Now the city lay sprawled in the bloody dust of its predestination. And yet he was here, the air was still thick with him, that Other who ravaged his dreams.
The man in khaki prowled the ruins. The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar. He sifted vibrations. At the palace of Ashurbanipal he stopped and looked up at a limestone statue hulking in situ. Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.
Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.
He bowed his head.
It was coming.
He stared at the dust and the quickening shadows. The orb of the sun was beginning to slip beneath the rim of the world and he could hear the dim yappings of savage dog packs prowling the fringes of the city. He rolled his shirtsleeves down and buttoned them as a shivering breeze sprang up. Its source was southwest.
He hastened toward Mosul and his train, his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would be hunted by an ancient enemy whose face he had never seen.
But he knew his name.
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.
The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight. A brick colonial gripped by ivy in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Across the street was a fringe of campus belonging to Georgetown University; to the rear, a sheer embankment plummeting steep to busy M Street and, just beyond it, the River Potomac. Early on the morning of April 1, the house was quiet. Chris MacNeil was propped in bed, going over her lines for the next day’s filming; Regan, her daughter, was sleeping down the hall; and asleep downstairs in a room off the pantry were the middle-aged housekeepers, Willie and Karl. At approximately 12:25 a.m., Chris looked up from her script with a frown of puzzlement. She heard rapping sounds. They were odd. Muffled. Profound. Rhythmically clustered. Alien code tapped out by a dead man.
For a moment she listened, then dismissed it; but as the rappings persisted she could not concentrate. She slapped down the script on the bed.
Jesus, that bugs me!
She got up to investigate.
She went out to the hallway and looked around. The rappings seemed to be coming from Regan’s bedroom.
What is she doing?
She padded down the hall and the rappings grew suddenly louder, much faster, and as she pushed on the door and stepped into the room, they abruptly ceased.
What the freak’s going on?
Her pretty eleven-year-old was asleep, cuddled tight to a large stuffed round-eyed panda. Pookey. Faded from years of smothering; years of smacking, warm, wet kisses.
Chris moved softly to her bedside, leaned over and whispered. “Rags? You awake?”
Regular breathing. Heavy. Deep.
Chris shifted her glance around the room. Dim light from the hall fell pale and splintery on Regan’s paintings and sculptures; on more stuffed animals.
Okay, Rags. Your old mother’s ass is draggin’. Come on, say it! Say “April Fool!”
And yet Chris knew well that such games weren’t like her. The child had a shy and diffident nature. Then who was the trickster? A somnolent mind imposing order on the rattlings of heating or plumbing pipes? Once, in the mountains of Bhutan, she had stared for hours at a Buddhist monk who was squatting on the ground in meditation. Finally, she thought she had seen him levitate, though when recounting the story to someone, she invariably added “Maybe.” And maybe now her mind, she thought, that untiring raconteur of illusion, had embellished the rappings.
Bullshit! I heard it!
Abruptly, she flicked a quick glance to the ceiling. There! Faint scratchings.
Rats in the attic, for pete’s sake! Rats!
She sighed. That’s it. Big tails. Thump, thump! She felt oddly relieved. And then noticed the cold. The room. It was icy.
Chris padded to the window and checked it. Closed. Then she felt the radiator. Hot.
Puzzled, she moved to the bedside and touched her hand to Regan’s cheek. It was smooth as thought and lightly perspiring.
I must be sick!
Chris looked at her daughter, at the turned-up nose and freckled face, and on a quick, warm impulse leaned over the bed and kissed her cheek. “I sure do love you,” she whispered. After that she returned to her room and her bed and her script.
For a while, Chris studied. The film was a musical comedy remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A subplot had been added that dealt with campus insurrections. Chris was starring. She played a psychology teacher who sided with the rebels. And she hated it. This scene is the pits! she thought. It’s dumb! Her mind, though untutored, never took slogans for the truth, and like a curious bluejay she would peck relentlessly through verbiage to find the glistening, hidden fact. And so the rebel cause didn’t make any sense to her. But how come? she now wondered. Generation gap? That’s a crock; I’m thirty-two. It’s just stupid, that’s all, it’s a . . . !
Cool it. Only one more week.
They’d completed the interiors in Hollywood and all that remained to be filmed were a few exterior scenes on the campus of Georgetown University, starting tomorrow. Heavy lids. She was getting drowsy. She turned to a page that was curiously ragged. Her British director, Burke Dennings. When especially tense, he would tear, with quivering, fluttering hands, a narrow strip from the edge of the handiest page of the script and then slowly chew it, inch by inch, until it was all in a wet ball in his mouth.
Crazy Burke, Chris thought.
She covered a yawn, then fondly glanced at the side of her script. The pages looked gnawed. She remembered the rats. The little bastards sure got rhythm, she thought. She made a mental note to have Karl set traps for them in the morning.
Fingers relaxing. Script slipping loose. She let it drop. Dumb, she thought. It’s dumb. A fumbling hand groping out to the light switch. There. She sighed, and for a time she was motionless, almost asleep; and then she kicked off her covers with a lazy leg. Too hot! Too freaking hot!
She thought again about the puzzling coldness of Regan’s room and into her mind flashed a recollection of working in a film with Edward G. Robinson, the legendary gangster movie star of the 1940s, and wondering why in every scene they did together she was always close to shivering from the cold until she realized that the wily old veteran had been managing to stand in her key light. A faint smile of bemusement now, and as a mist of dew clung gently to the windowpanes.
Chris slept. And dreamed about death in the staggering particular, death as if death were still never yet heard of while something was ringing, she gasping, dissolving, slipping off into void while thinking over and over, I am not going to be, I will die, I won’t be, and forever and ever, oh, Papa, don’t let them, oh, don’t let them do it, don’t let me be nothing forever and melting, unraveling, ringing, the ringing—
She leaped up with her heart pounding, hand to the phone and no weight in her stomach; a core with no weight and her telephone ringing.
She answered. The assistant director.
“In makeup at six, honey.”
“How ya feelin’?”
“Like I just went to bed.”
The AD chuckled. “I’ll see you.”
Chris hung up the phone and for moments sat motionless, thinking of the dream. A dream? More like thought in the half life of waking: That terrible clarity. Gleam of the skull. Nonbeing. Irreversible. She could not imagine it. God, it can’t be!
Dejected, she bowed her head. But it is.
She padded to the bathroom, put on a robe, then quickly pattered down old pine steps to the kitchen, down to life in sputtering bacon.
“Ah, good morning, Mrs. MacNeil!”
Gray, drooping Willie, squeezing oranges, blue sacs beneath her eyes. A trace of accent. Swiss. Like Karl’s. She wiped her hands on a paper towel and started moving toward the stove.
“I’ll get it, Willie.” Chris, ever sensitive, had seen the housekeeper’s weary look, and as Willie now grunted and turned back to the sink, the actress poured coffee, then sat down in the breakfast nook, where, looking down at her plate, she smiled fondly at a blush-red rose against its whiteness. Regan. That angel. Many a morning, when Chris was working, Regan would quietly slip out of bed, come down to the kitchen to place a flower on her mother’s empty plate and then grope her way crusty-eyed back to her sleep. On this particular morning, Chris ruefully shook her head as she recalled that she had contemplated naming her Goneril. Sure. Right on. Get ready for the worst. Chris faintly smiled at the memory. She sipped at her coffee and as her gaze caught the rose again, her expression turned briefly sad, her green eyes grieving in a waiflike face. She’d recalled another flower. A son. Jamie. He had died long ago at the age of three, when Chris was very young and an unknown chorus girl on Broadway. She had sworn she would not give herself ever again as she had to Jamie; as she had to his father, Howard MacNeil; and as her dream of death misted upward in the vapors from her hot, black coffee, she lifted her glance from the rose and her thoughts as Willie brought juice and set it down before her. Chris remembered the rats. “Where’s Karl?”
“I am here, Madam!”
He’d come catting in lithely through a door off the pantry. Commanding and yet deferential, he had a fragment of Kleenex pressed to his chin where he’d nicked himself shaving. “Yes?” Thickly muscled and tall, he breathed by the table with glittering eyes, a hawk nose and bald head.
“Hey, Karl, we’ve got rats in the attic. Better get us some traps.”
“There are rats?”
“I just said that.”
“But the attic is clean.”
“Well, okay, we’ve got tidy rats!”
“Karl, I heard them last night.”
“Maybe plumbing,” Karl probed; “maybe boards.”
“Maybe rats! Will you buy the damn traps and quit arguing?”
Bustling away, Karl, said, “Yes! I go now!”
“No not now, Karl! The stores are all closed!”
“They are closed!” chided Willie, calling out to him.
But he was gone.
Chris and Willie traded glances, and then, shaking her head, Willie returned to her tending of the bacon. Chris sipped at her coffee. Strange. Strange man, she thought. Like Willie, hardworking; very loyal, very discreet. And yet something about him made her vaguely uneasy. What was it? That subtle air of arrogance? No. Something else. But she couldn’t pin it down. The housekeepers had been with her for almost six years, and yet Karl was a mask—a talking, breathing, untranslated hieroglyph running her errands on stilted legs. Behind the mask, though, something moved; she could hear his mechanism ticking like a conscience. The front door creaked open, then shut.
“They are closed,” muttered Willie.
Chris nibbled at bacon, then returned to her room, where she dressed in her costume sweater and skirt. She glanced in a mirror and solemnly stared at her short red hair, which looked perpetually tousled; at the burst of freckles on the small, scrubbed face; and then crossing her eyes and grinning idiotically, she said, Oh, hi, little wonderful girl next door! Can I speak to your husband? Your lover? Your pimp? Oh, your pimp’s in the poorhouse? Tough! She stuck out her tongue at herself. Then sagged. Ah, Christ, what a life! She picked up her wig box, slouched downstairs and walked out to the piquant, tree-lined street.
For a moment she paused outside the house, breathing in the fresh promise of morning air, the muted everyday sounds of waking life. She turned a wistful look to her right, where, beside the house, a precipitous plunge of old stone steps fell away to M Street far below, while a little beyond were the antique brick rococo turrets and Mediterranean tiled roof of the upper entry to the old Car Barn. Fun. Fun neighborhood, she thought. Dammit, why don’t I stay? Buy the house? Start to live? A deep, booming bell began to toll, the tower clock on the Georgetown University campus. The melancholy resonance shivered on the surface of the mud-brown river and seeped into the actress’s tired heart. She walked toward her work, toward ghastly charade and the straw-stuffed, antic imitation of dust.
As she entered the main front gates of the campus, her depression diminished; then lessened even more as she looked at the row of trailer dressing rooms aligned along the driveway close to the southern perimeter wall; and by 8 a.m. and the day’s first shot, she was almost herself: she started an argument over the script.
“Hey, Burke? Take a look at this damned thing, will ya?”
“Oh, you do have a script, I see! How nice!” Director Burke Dennings, taut and elfin and with a twitching left eye that gleamed with mischief, surgically shaved a narrow strip from a page of her script with quivering fingers, cackling, “I believe I’ll have a bit of munch.”
They were standing on the esplanade that fronted the university’s main administration building and were knotted in the center of extras, actors and the film’s main crew, while here and there a few spectators dotted the lawn, mostly Jesuit faculty. The cameraman, bored, picked up Daily Variety as Dennings put the paper in his mouth and giggled, his breath reeking faintly of the morning’s first gin.
“Oh, yes, I’m terribly glad you’ve been given a script!”
A sly, frail man in his fifties, he spoke with a charmingly broad British accent so clipped and precise that it lofted even the crudest obscenities to elegance, and when he drank, he seemed always on the verge of a guffaw; seemed constantly struggling to retain his composure.
“Now then, tell me, my baby. What is it? What’s wrong?”
The scene in question called for the dean of the mythical college in the script to address a gathering of students in an effort to squelch a threatened sit-in. Chris would then run up the steps to the esplanade, tear the bullhorn away from the dean and then point to the main administration building and shout, “Let’s tear it down!”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Chris told him.
“Well, it’s perfectly plain,” Dennings lied.
“Oh, it is? Well, then explain it to me, Burkey-Wurky. Why in freak should they tear down the building? What for? What’s your concept?”
“Are you sending me up?”
“No, I’m asking ‘what for?’ ”
“Because it’s there, love!”
“In the script?”
“No, on the grounds!”
“Oh, come on, Burke, it just isn’t her. It’s not her character at all. She wouldn’t do that.”
“No, she wouldn’t.”
“Shall we summon the writer? I believe he’s in Paris!”
He’d clipped the word off with impeccable diction, his fox eyes glinting in a face like dough as the word rose crisp to Gothic spires. Chris fell to his shoulders, weak and laughing. “Oh, Burke, you’re impossible, dammit!”
“Yes.” He said it like Caesar modestly confirming reports of his triple rejection of the crown. “Now then, shall we get on with it?”
Chris didn’t hear him. Checking to see if he’d heard the obscenity , she’d darted a furtive, embarrassed glance to a Jesuit in his forties standing amid the cordon of spectators. He had a dark, rugged face. Like a boxer’s. Chipped. Something sad about the eyes, something grieving, and yet warm and reassuring as they fastened on hers and as, smiling, he nodded his head. He’d heard it. He glanced at his watch and moved away.
“I say, shall we get on with it?”
Chris turned, disconnected. “Yeah, sure, Burke. Let’s do it.”
“Oh, good Christ!”
She complained about the tag of the scene. She felt that the high point was reached with her line as opposed to her running through the door of the building immediately afterward.
“It adds nothing,” said Chris. “It’s dumb.”
“Yes, it is, love, it is,” agreed Burke sincerely. “However, the cutter insists that we do it,” he continued, “so there we are. You see?”
“No, I don’t.”
“No, of course you don’t, darling, because you’re absolutely right, it is stupid. You see, since the scene right after it”— Dennings giggled—“well, since it begins with Jed coming into the scene through a door, the cutter feels certain of a nomination if the scene before it ends with you moving off through a door.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Oh, I agree with you, love. It’s simply cunting, puking mad! But now why don’t we shoot it and trust me to snip it from the final cut. It should make a rather tasty munch.”
Chris laughed. And agreed. Burke glanced toward the cutter, who was known to be a temperamental egotist given to timewasting argumentation. He was busy with the cameraman. The director breathed a sigh of relief.
Waiting on the lawn at the base of the steps while the lights were warming, Chris looked toward Dennings as he flung an obscenity at a hapless grip and then visibly glowed with satisfaction. He seemed to revel in his eccentricity. Yet at a certain point in his drinking, Chris knew, he could suddenly explode into temper, and if it happened at three or four in the morning, he was likely to telephone people in power and viciously abuse them over trifling provocations. Chris remembered a studio chief whose offense had consisted in remarking mildly at a screening that the cuffs of Dennings’s shirt looked slightly frayed, prompting Dennings to awaken him at approximately 3 a.m. to describe him as a “cunting boor” whose father, the founder of the studio, was “more than likely psychotic!” and had “fondled Judy Garland repeatedly” during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, then on the following day would pretend to amnesia and subtly radiate with pleasure when those he’d offended described in detail what he had done. Although, if it suited him, he would remember. Chris smiled and shook her head as she remembered him destroying his studio suite of offices in a ginstoked, mindless rage, and how later, when confronted by the studio’s head of production with an itemized bill and Polaroid photos of the wreckage, he’d archly dismissed them as “obvious fakes” since “the damage was far, far worse than that!” Chris did not believe he was an alcoholic or even a hopeless problem drinker, but rather that he drank and behaved outrageously because it was expected of him: he was living up to his legend.
Ah, well, she thought; I guess it’s a kind of immortality.
She turned, looking over her shoulder for the Jesuit who had smiled when Burke had uttered the obscenity. He was walkingin the distance, head lowered despondently, a lone black cloudin search of the rain.
She had never liked priests. So assured. Sosecure. And yet this one . . .
“All ready, Chris?”
“All right, absolute quiet!” the assistant director called out.
“Roll the film,” ordered Burke.
Chris ran up the steps while extras cheered and Dennings watched her, wondering what was on her mind. She’d given up the arguments far too quickly. He turned a significant look to the dialogue coach, who immediately padded up to him dutifully and proffered his open script to him like an aging altar boy handing the missal to his priest at solemn Mass.
They had worked with only intermittent sun, and by four, the sky was dark and thick with roiling clouds.
“Burke, we’re losing the light,” the AD observed worriedly.
“Yes, they’re going out all across the fucking world.”
On Dennings’s instruction the assistant director dismissed the company for the day and now Chris was walking homeward, her eyes on the sidewalk, and feeling very tired. At the corner of Thirty-sixth and O she stopped to sign an autograph for an aging Italian grocery clerk who had hailed her from the doorway of his shop. She wrote her name and “Warm Best Wishes” on a brown paper bag. Waiting for a car to pass before crossing the road at N Street, she glanced diagonally across the street to a Catholic church. Holy Something-or-other. Staffed by Jesuits. John F. Kennedy had married Jackie there, she had heard, and had worshiped there. She tried to imagine it: John F. Kennedy among the votive lights and the pious, wrinkled women; John F. Kennedy with his head bowed down in prayer; I believe . . . a détente with the Russians; I believe, I believe . . . Apollo IV amid the rattlings of the rosary beads; I believe in the resurrection and the life ever—
That. That’s it. That’s the grabber.
Chris watched as a Gunther beer truck lumbered by on the cobbled street with a sound of quivering, warm, wet promises. She crossed, and as she walked down O and passed the Holy Trinity grade school auditorium, a priest rushed by from behind her, hands in the pockets of a nylon windbreaker. Young. Very tense. In need of a shave. Up ahead, he took a right, turning into an easement that opened to a courtyard behind the church.
Chris paused by the easement, watching him, curious. He seemed to be heading for a white frame cottage. An old screen door creaked open and still another priest emerged. He nodded curtly toward the young man, and with lowered eyes, he moved quickly toward a door that led into the church. Once again the cottage door was pushed open from within. Another priest. It looked—Hey, it is! Yeah, the one who was smiling when Burke said “fucking”! Only now he looked grave as he silently greeted the new arrival, putting his arm around his shoulder in a gesture that was gentle and somehow parental. He led him inside and
the screen door closed with a slow, faint squeak.
Chris stared at her shoes. She was puzzled. What’s the drill? She wondered if Jesuits went to confession.
Faint rumble of thunder. She looked up at the sky. Would it rain? . . . the resurrection and the life ever . . .
Yeah. Yeah, sure. Next Tuesday. Flashes of lightning crackled in the distance. Don’t call us, kid, we’ll call you.
She tugged up her coat collar and slowly moved on. She hoped it would pour.
A minute later she was home. She made a dash for the bathroom. After that, she walked into the kitchen.
“Hi, Chris, how’d it go?”
Pretty blonde in her twenties sitting at the table. Sharon Spencer. Fresh. From Oregon. For the last three years, she’d been tutor to Regan and social secretary to Chris.
“Oh, the usual crock.” Chris sauntered to the table and began to sift messages. “Anything exciting?”
“Do you want to have dinner next week at the White House?”
“Oh, I dunno, Marty; whadda you feel like doin’?”
“Eating candy and getting sick.”
“Downstairs in the playroom.”
“Sculpting. She’s making a bird, I think. It’s for you.”
“Yeah, I need one,” Chris murmured. She moved to the stove and poured a cup of hot coffee. “Were you kidding me about that dinner?” she asked.
“No, of course not,” answered Sharon. “It’s Thursday.”
“Big dinner party?”
“No, I gather it’s just five or six people.”
She was pleased but not really surprised. They courted her company: cabdrivers; poets; professors; kings. What was it they liked about her? Life? Chris sat at the table. “How’d the lesson go?”
Sharon lit a cigarette, frowning. “Had a bad time with math again.”
“Really? That’s strange.”
“Yeah, I know; it’s her favorite subject.”
“Oh, well, this ‘new math.’ Christ, I couldn’t make change for the bus if—”
Her slim arms outstretched, Chris’s young daughter had come bounding through the door toward her mother. Red pigtails. A soft, shining face full of freckles.
“Hi ya, stinkpot!” Beaming, Chris caught her in a bear hug and kissed her pink cheek with smacking ardor; she could not repress the full flood of her love. “Mmum-mmum-mmum!” More kisses. Then she held Regan out and probed her face with eager
eyes. “So what’djya do today? Anything exciting?”
“So what kinda stuff? Good stuff? Huh?”
“Oh, lemme see.” She had her knees against her mother’s, swaying gently back and forth. “Well, of course, I studied.”
“An’ I painted.”
“Oh, well, flowers, ya know. Daisies? Only pink. An’ then—oh, yeah! This horse!” She grew suddenly excited, eyes widening. “This man had a horse, ya know, down by the river? We were walking, see, Mom, and then along came this horse, he was beautiful! Oh, Mom, ya should’ve seen him, and the man let me sit on him! Really! I mean, practically a minute!”
Chris twinkled at Sharon with secret amusement. “Himself?” she asked, lifting an eyebrow. On moving to Washington for the shooting of the film, the blonde secretary, who was now virtually one of the family, had lived in the house, occupying an extra bedroom upstairs. Until she’d met the “horseman” at a nearby stable, at which point Chris decided that Sharon needed a place to be alone, and had moved her to a suite in an expensive hotel and insisted on paying the bill.
“Yes, himself,” Sharon answered with a smile.
“It was a gray horse!” added Regan. “Mother, can’t we get a horse? I mean, could we?”
“We’ll see, baby.”
“When could I have one?”
“We’ll see. Where’s the bird you made?”
At first Regan looked blank, then she turned around to Sharon and grinned with a mouth full of braces and shy rebuke. “You told!” she said before turning to her mother and snickering, “It was supposed to be a surprise.”
“You mean . . . ?”
“With the long funny nose, like you wanted!”
“Oh, Rags, you’re so sweet. Can I see it?”
“No, I still have to paint it. When’s dinner, Mom?”
“Gee, it’s not even five. When was lunch?” Chris asked Sharon.
“Oh, twelvish,” Sharon answered.
“When are Willie and Karl coming back?”
Chris had given them the afternoon off.
“I think seven,” said Sharon.
“Mom, can’t we go Hot Shoppe?” Regan pleaded. “Could we?”
Chris lifted her daughter’s hand; smiled fondly, kissed it, then answered, “Run upstairs and get dressed and we’ll go.”
“Oh, I love you!”
Regan ran from the room.
“Honey, wear the new dress!” Chris called out after her.
“How would you like to be eleven again?” mused Sharon.
Reaching for her mail, Chris began sorting through scrawled adulation. “With the brain I’ve got now? All the memories?”
“Think it over.”
Chris dropped the letters and picked up a script with a covering letter from her agent, Edward Jarris, clipped neatly to the front of it. “Thought I told them no scripts for a while.”
“You should read it,” said Sharon.
“Yes, I read it this morning.”
“I think it’s great.”
“And I get to play a nun who discovers she’s a lesbian, right?”
“No, you get to play nothing.”
“Shit, movies are better than ever! What in freak are you talking about, Sharon? What’s the grin for?”
“They want you to direct,” Sharon exhaled coyly along with the smoke from her cigarette.
“Read the letter.”
“Oh, my God, Shar, you’re kidding!”
Chris pounced on the letter, her eyes snapping up the words in hungry chunks: “. . . new script . . . a triptych . . . studio wants Sir Stephen Moore . . . accepting role provided—”
“I direct his segment!”
Chris flung up her arms, letting loose a hoarse, shrill cry of joy. Then with both her hands she cuddled the letter to her chest. “Oh, Steve, you angel, you remembered!” Filming in Africa, drunk and in camp chairs watching the vermilion and gold end of day. “Ah, the business is bunk! For the actor it’s crap, Steve!” “Oh, I like it.” “It’s crap! Don’t you know where it’s at in this business? Directing. Then you’ve done something, something that’s yours; I mean, something that lives!” “Well, then do it, love! Do it!” “Oh, I’ve tried, Steve. I’ve tried; they won’t buy it.” “Why not?” “Oh, come on, you know why: they don’t think I can cut it.”“Well, I think you can.” Warm smile. Warm remembrance. Dear Steve . . .
“Mom, I can’t find the dress!” Regan called from the landing.
“In the closet!” Chris answered.
“I’ll be up in a second!” Chris called. She flipped through the pages of the script, and then stopped, looking wilted as she murmured, “I’ll bet it’s probably crap.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Chris! No! I really think it’s good!”
“Oh, you thought Psycho needed a laugh track.”
“Got a date, Shar?”
Chris motioned at the mail. “You go on, then. We can catch all this stuff in the morning.”
Sharon got up.
“Oh, no, wait,” Chris amended. “No, I’m sorry, there’s a letter that’s got to go out tonight.”
“Oh, okay.” Sharon reached for her dictation pad.
A whine of impatience. “Moth-therrrr!”
Chris exhaled a sigh, stood up and said, “Back in a minute,” but then hesitated, seeing Sharon checking the time on her watch. Chris said, “What?”
“Gee, it’s time for me to meditate, Chris.”
Chris eyed her narrowly with fond exasperation. In the last six months, she had watched her secretary metamorphose into a “seeker after serenity.” It had started in Los Angeles with self-hypnosis, which then yielded to Buddhistic chanting. During the last few weeks that Sharon was quartered in the room upstairs, the house had reeked of incense, and lifeless dronings of “Nam myoho renge kyo” (“See, you just keep on chanting that, Chris, just that, and you get your wish, you get everything you want . . .”) were heard at unlikely and untimely hours, usually when Chris was studying her lines. “You can turn on the TV,” Sharon generously told her employer on one of these occasions. “It’s fine. I can chant when there’s all kinds of noise.” Now it was Transcendental Meditation.
“You really think that kind of stuff is going to do you any good, Shar?”
“It gives me peace of mind,” responded Sharon.
“Right,” Chris commented tonelessly, and then turned and started away with a murmured “Nam myoho renge kyo.”
“Keep it up about fifteen or twenty minutes,” Sharon called to her. “Maybe for you it would work.”
Chris halted and considered a measured response. Then gave it up. She went upstairs to Regan’s bedroom, moving immediately to the closet. Regan was standing in the middle of the room staring up at the ceiling.
“So what’s doin’?” Chris asked Regan as she hunted in a closet for the dress. It was a pale-blue cotton. She’d bought it the week before, and remembered hanging it in this closet.
“Funny noises,” said Regan.
“Yeah, I know. We’ve got friends.”
Regan looked at her. “Huh?”
“Squirrels, honey; squirrels in the attic.” Her daughter was squeamish and terrified of rats. Even mice upset her. The hunt for the dress proved fruitless.
“See, Mom, it’s not there.”
“Yes, I see. Maybe Willie picked it up with the cleaning.”
“Yeah, well, put on the navy. It’s pretty.”
After a matinee screening of Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie at an art-house cinema in Georgetown, they drove across the river on the Key Bridge to the Hot Shoppe in Rosslyn, Virginia, where Chris ate a salad while Regan had soup, two sourdough rolls, fried chicken, a strawberry shake, and blueberry pie topped with chocolate ice cream. Where does she put it, Chris wondered. In her wrists? The child was slender as a fleeting hope.
Chris lit a cigarette over her coffee and looked through the window on her right at the spires of Georgetown University before lowering a pensive and moody gaze to the Potomac’s deceptively placid surface, which offered no hint of the perilously swift and powerful currents that surged underneath it. Chris shifted her weight a little. In the soft, smoothing light of evening, the river, with its seeming dead calm and stillness, suddenly struck her as something that was planning. And waiting.
“I enjoyed my dinner, Mom.”
Chris turned to Regan’s happy smile, and, as so often had happened before, caught a quick, gasping breath as once again she experienced that tugging, unsummoned little ache that she sometimes felt on suddenly seeing Howard’s image in her face. It was the angle of the light, she often thought. She dropped her glance to Regan’s plate.
“Going to leave that pie?”
Regan lowered her eyes. “Mom, I ate some candy before.”
Chris stubbed out her cigarette and smiled. “Come on, Rags, let’s go home.”
They were back before seven. Willie and Karl had already returned. Regan made a dash for the basement playroom, eager to finish the sculpture for her mother. Chris headed for the kitchen to pick up the script. She found Willie brewing coffee; coarse; open pot. She looked irritable and sullen.
“Hi, Willie, how’d it go? Have a real nice time?”
“Do not ask.” Willie added an eggshell and a pinch of salt to the bubbling contents of the pot. They had gone to a movie, Willie explained. She had wanted to see the Beatles, but Karl had insisted on an art-house film about Mozart. “Terrible,” she simmered as she lowered the flame. “That dumbhead!”
“Sorry ’bout that.” Chris tucked the script underneath her arm. “Oh, Willie, have you seen that dress that I got for Rags last week? The blue cotton?”
“Yes, I see it in her closet this morning.”
“Where’d you put it?”
“It is there.”
“You didn’t maybe pick it up by mistake with the cleaning?”
“It is there.”
“With the cleaning?”
“In the closet.”
“No, it isn’t. I looked.”
About to speak, Willie tightened her lips and scowled. Karl had walked in.
“Good evening, Madam.”
He went to the sink for a glass of water.
“Did you set those traps?” asked Chris.
“Did you set them?”
“I set them, of course, but the attic is clean.”
“Tell me, how was the movie, Karl?”
“Exciting,” he said. His tone of voice, like his face, was a resolute blank.
Humming a song made famous by the Beatles, Chris started to leave the kitchen, but then abruptly turned around. Just one more shot!
“Did you have any trouble getting the traps, Karl?”
His back to her, Karl said, “No, Madam. No trouble.”
“At six in the morning?”
Chris softly slapped a hand against her forehead, stared at Karl’s back for a moment, and then turned to leave the kitchen, softly muttering, “Shit!”
After a long and luxurious bath, Chris went to the closet in her bedroom for her robe, and discovered Regan’s missing dress. It lay crumpled in a heap on the floor of the closet.
Chris picked it up. The purchase tags were still on it. What’s it doing in here?
Chris tried to think back, then remembered that the day she had purchased the dress she had also bought two or three items for herself. Must’ve put ’em all together, she decided.
Chris carried the dress into Regan’s bedroom, put it on a hanger and slipped it onto the clothes rack in Regan’s closet. Hands on her hips, Chris appraised Regan’s wardrobe. Nice. Nice clothes. Yeah, Rags, look here, not over there at the daddy who never writes or calls.
As she turned from the closet, Chris stubbed her toe against the base of a bureau. Oh, Jesus, that smarts! Lifting her foot and massaging her toe, Chris noticed that the bureau was out of position by about three feet. No wonder I bumped it. Willie must have vacuumed.
She went down to the study with the script from her agent.
Unlike the massive living room with its large bay windows and view of Key Bridge arching over the Potomac to Virginia’s shore, the study had a feeling of whispered density; of secrets between rich uncles: a raised brick fireplace, cherrywood panelling and crisscrossed beams of a sturdy wood that looked as if hewn from some ancient drawbridge. The room’s few hints of a time that was present were a modern-looking bar with suede and chrome chairs set around it, and some color-splashed Marimekko pillows on a downy sofa where Chris settled down and stretched out with the script from her agent.
Stuck between the pages was his letter. She slipped it out now and read it again. Faith, Hope and Charity: a film with three distinct segments, each one with a different cast and director. Hers would be “Hope.” She liked the title. Maybe dull, she thought; but refined. They’ll probably change it to something like “Rock Around the Virtues.”
The doorbell chimed. Burke Dennings. A lonely man, he dropped by often. Chris smiled ruefully, shaking her head, as she heard him rasp an obscenity at Karl, whom he seemed to detest and continually baited.
“Yes, hullo, where’s a drink!” he demanded crossly, entering the room and moving to the bar with his glance averted and his hands in the pockets of his wrinkled raincoat. He sat on a barstool looking irritable, shifty-eyed and vaguely disappointed.
“On the prowl again?” Chris asked.
“What the hell do you mean?” Dennings sniffed.
“You’ve got that look.” She had seen it before when they’d worked on a picture together in Lausanne. On their first night there, at a staid hotel overlooking Lake Geneva, Chris had difficulty sleeping. At a little after 5 a.m., she flounced out of bed and decided to dress and go down to the lobby in search of either coffee or some company. Waiting for an elevator out in the hall, she glanced through a window and saw the director walking stiffly along the lakeside, hands deep in the pockets of his coat against the glacial February cold. By the time she reached the lobby, he was entering the hotel. “Not a hooker in sight!” he snapped bitterly as he hurriedly walked past Chris without even a glance, and then entered an elevator that whooshed him up to his floor and to his room and to bed. When Chris had teasingly mentioned the incident later, the director had grown furious and accused her of promulgating “gross hallucinations” that people were “likely to believe just because you’re a star!” He had also referred to her as “simply raving mad,” but then pointed out soothingly, in an effort to assuage her feelings, that “perhaps” she had seen someone after all, and had simply mistaken him for Dennings. “Not out of the question,” he’d offhandedly conceded; “my great-great-grandmother happens to have been Swiss.”
Chris moved behind the bar and reminded him of the incident.
“Yeah, that look, Burke. How many gin and tonics have you had already?”
“Oh, now, don’t be so silly!” snapped Dennings. “It so happens that I’ve spent the entire evening at a tea, a bloody faculty tea!”
Chris folded her arms and leaned them on the bar. “You were where?” she said skeptically.
“Oh, yes, go ahead; smirk!”
“You got smashed at a tea with some Jesuits?”
“No, the Jesuits were sober.”
“They don’t drink?”
“Are you out of your mind? They swilled! Never seen such capacities in all my life!”
“Hey, come on, hold it down, Burke! Regan can hear you!”
“Yes, Regan,” said Dennings, lowering his voice to a whisper.
“Of course! Now where in Christ is my drink?”
Slightly shaking her head in disapproval, Chris straightened up and reached for a bottle and a glass. “Want to tell me what on earth you were doing at a faculty tea?”
“Bloody public relations; something you should be doing. I mean, my God, the way we’ve mucked up their grounds,” the director uttered piously. “Oh, yes, go ahead, laugh! Yes, that’s all that you’re good for, that and showing a bit of bum!”
“I’m just standing here innocently smiling.”
“Well, now someone had to make a good show.”
Chris reached out a hand and lightly ran a finger along a scar above Dennings’s left eyelash, the result of a punishing blow by Chuck Darren, the muscular action-adventure star of Dennings’s previous film, delivered by the actor on the last day of filming. “It’s turning white,” Chris said caringly.
Dennings’s eyebrows lowered into grimness. “I’ll see he never works again at any of the majors. I’ve already put out the word.”
“Oh, come on, Burke. Just for that?”
“The man’s a lunatic, darling! He’s damned well bloody mad and he’s dangerous! My God, he’s like an old dog who’s always peacefully napping in the sun and then one day out of nowhere he jumps up and viciously bites somebody’s leg!”
“And of course his putting your lights out had nothing to do with you telling him in front of the cast and crew that his acting was ‘a cunting embarrassment somewhere near the level of Sumo wrestling’?”
“Darling, that’s crude,” Dennings piously rebuked her while accepting a glass of gin and tonic from her hands. “My dear, it’s all very well for me to say ‘cunting,’ but not for America’s sweetheart. But now tell me, how are you, my little dancing and singing mini-nova?”
Chris answered with a shrug and a despondent look as she leaned over and rested her weight on folded arms atop the bar.
“Come on, tell me, my baby, are you glum?”
“Tell your uncle.”
“Shit, I think I’ll have a drink.” Chris abruptly straightened up and reached out for a vodka bottle and a glass.
“Oh, yes, excellent! Splendid idea! Now, then, what is it, my precious? What’s wrong?”
“Ever think about dying?” Chris asked.
Dennings furrowed his brow. “You said ‘dying’?”
“Yeah, dying. Ever really really think about it, Burke? What it means? What it really means?” She poured vodka into the glass.
Faintly edgy now, Dennings rasped, “No, love, I don’t! I don’t think about it, I just do it. Why on earth bring up dying, for heaven’s sakes!”
Chris shrugged and plopped an ice cube into her glass. “I dunno. I was thinking about it this morning. Well, not thinking, exactly; I sort of dreamed it just as I was waking up and it gave me cold shivers, Burke, it hit me hard; what it means. I mean, the end, Burke, the really freaking end, just like I’d never even heard of dying before!” She looked aside and shook her
head. “Oh man, did that spook me! I felt like I was falling off the freaking planet at a hundred and fifty million miles an hour.”
Chris lifted the glass to her lips. “I think I’ll have this one neat,” she murmured. She took a sip.
“Oh, well, rubbish,” Dennings sniffed. “Death’s a comfort.”
Chris lowered the glass. “Not for me.”
“Come, you live through the works you leave behind, or through your children.”
“Oh, that’s bullshit! My children aren’t me!”
“Yes, thank heaven. One’s entirely enough.”
Chris leaned forward, her glass in her hand at waist level and her pixie face tight in a grimace of concern. “I mean, think about it, Burke! Not existing! Not existing forever and forever
“Oh, now stop that! Stop this driveling and think about flaunting your much-adored body-makeup-covered long legs at the faculty tea next week! Perhaps those priests can give you
Dennings banged down his glass on the bar. “Let’s another!”
“You know, I didn’t know they drank?”
“Well, you’re stupid,” the director said grumpily.
Chris eyed him. Was he reaching his point of no return? Or had she in fact touched a hidden nerve?
“Do they go to confession?” she asked.
“How would I know!” Dennings erupted.
“Well, didn’t you once tell me that you’d studied to be a—”
Dennings slammed his open hand down on the bar, cutting her off as he squalled, “Come on, where’s the bloody drink?”
“Why don’t I get you some coffee?”
“Don’t be fatuous, darling! I want a drink!”
“You’re getting coffee.”
“Oh, come along, ducks,” Dennings wheedled in a suddenly gentle voice. “Just one more for the road?”
“The Lincoln Highway?”
“Now that’s ugly, love. Truly. Not like you.” Looking pouty, Dennings pushed his glass forward. “ ‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’ ” he intoned; “no, it falleth from heaven like the gentle Gordon’s Dry Gin, so come along now, just one and I’ll be off and that’s a promise.”
“A real one?”
“Word of honor and hope to die!”
Chris appraised him, and then, shaking her head, she picked up the bottle of gin. “Yeah, those priests,” she said abstractedly while pouring gin into Dennings’s glass; “I guess maybe I should ask one or two of them over.”
“They’d never leave,” Dennings growled, his eyes reddening and suddenly growing even smaller, each one of them a separate, particular hell; “they’re fucking plunderers!” Chris picked up the tonic bottle to pour, but Dennings testily waved it off. “No, for heaven’s sake, straight, can’t you ever remember? The third one is always straight!” Chris watched him pick up his glass, gulp down the gin, then set the glass back down, and with his head bent, staring into it, he muttered, “Thoughtless bitch!”
Chris eyed him warily. Yeah, he’s starting to blow. She changed the subject from priests to the offer she’d received to direct.
“Oh, well good,” Dennings grunted, still looking down into his glass. “Bravo!”
“To tell the truth, though, it kinda scares me.”
Dennings instantly looked up at her, expression now benign and paternal. “Twaddle!” he said. “You see, my baby, the difficult thing about directing is making it seem as if the damned thing were difficult. I hadn’t a clue my first time out, but here I am, you see. There’s no magic involved, love, just bloody hard work and the constant realization from the day you start shooting that you’ve got a Siberian tiger by the tail.”
“Yeah, I know that, Burke, but now that it’s real, now that they’ve offered me my chance, I’m not so sure I could even direct my grandmother across the street. I mean, all of that technical stuff!”
“Oh, now, don’t be hysterical! Leave all of that nonsense to your editor, your cinematographer and the script supervisor. Get good ones and, I promise you, they’ll have you smiling through. What’s important is your handling of the cast, the performances, and at that you’d be marvelous, my pretty; you could not only tell them what you want, you could show them.”
Chris looked doubtful. “Oh, well, still,” she said.
“Well, the technical stuff. I mean, I need to understand it.”
“Well, for instance. Give your guru an example.”
From there, and for almost an hour, Chris probed the acclaimed director to the outermost barricades of minutiae. The technical ins and outs of film directing were available in numerous texts, but reading always tended to fray Chris’s patience. So instead, she read people. Naturally inquisitive, she would juice them, she would wring them out. But books were not wring able. Books were glib. They said “therefore” and “clearly” when it wasn’t clear at all, and their circumlocutions could never be challenged; they could never be stopped for a shrewdly disarming,“Hey, now, hold it. I’m dumb. Could I have that again?”
Books could never be pinned, or made to wriggle, or dissected. Books were like Karl.
“Darling, all you really need is a brilliant cutter,” Dennings cackled at the end; “I mean a cutter who knows his doors.” He’d grown charming and bubbly, and seemed to have passed the threatened danger point. Until the voice of Karl was heard.
“Beg pardon. You wish something, Madam?”
He was standing attentively at the open door to the study.
“Oh, hullo, Thorndike!” Dennings greeted him, giggling. “Or is it Heinrich?” he asked. “I simply can’t seem to keep the name straight.”
“It is Karl, sir.”
“Yes, of course. I’d forgotten. Tell me, Karl, was it public relations that you did for the Gestapo, or was it community relations? I believe there’s a difference.”
Karl replied politely, “Neither one, sir. I am Swiss.”
The director guffawed, “Oh, yes, of course, Karl! Right! You’re Swiss! And you never went bowling with Goebbels, I suppose!”
“Knock it off, Burke!” Chris scolded.
“Or went flying with Rudolph Hess?” Dennings added.
His manner cool and unperturbed, Karl turned his gaze to Chris and asked her blandly, “Madam wishes?”
“Burke, how about that coffee, huh? Whaddya say?”
“Oh, well, fuck it!” the director declared belligerently, abruptly getting up from the bar and striding out of the room with his head bent forward and his hands clenched into fists.
Moments later the front door was heard forcefully slamming shut. Expressionless, Chris turned to Karl and said tonelessly, “Unplug all the phones.”
“Yes, Madam. Something else?”
“Oh, well, maybe some decaf.”
“I bring it.”
“Down in playroom. I call her?”
“Yeah, it’s bedtime. Oh, no, wait a second, Karl! No, never mind. I’m going down there myself.” She’d remembered the bird and was heading for the stairs to the basement. “I’ll have the decaf when I come back up.”
“Yes, Madam. As you wish.”
“And for the umpty-eighth time, I apologize for Mr. Dennings.”
“I pay no attention.”
Chris stopped and turned partway around. “Yes, I know. That’s exactly what’s driving him nuts.”
Turning back around, Chris walked to the entry hall of the house, pulled open the door to the basement staircase and began to descend.
“Hi ya, stinky! Whatchya doin’ down there? You got that bird done for me yet?”
“Oh, yes, Mom! Come and see! Come on down! It’s all finished!”
The playroom was paneled and brightly decorated. Easels. Paintings. A phonograph. Tables for games and a table for sculpting. Red and white bunting left over from a party for the previous tenant’s teenage son.
“Oh, honey, that’s so great!” Chris exclaimed as Regan grandly handed her the figure. Not quite dry, it resembled a “worry bird” and was painted orange, except for the beak, which was laterally striped in green and white. A tuft of feathers was glued to the head.
“You really like it?” Regan asked, grinning broadly.
“Oh, honey, I do, I really do. Got a name for it?”
Regan shook her head. “No, not yet.”
“What’s a good one?”
“I dunno,” Regan answered, lifting her hands palm upward and shrugging.
Lightly tapping her fingernails against her teeth, Chris furrowed her brow in exaggerated ponder. “Let me see, let me see,” she said softly, mulling, then abruptly she lit up and said, “Hey, how about ‘Dumbbird’? Huh? Whaddya think? Just plain old ‘Dumbbird’!”
Reflexively covering her mouth with a hand to hide the braces on her teeth, Regan snickered and vigorously nodded her head.
“Okay, it’s ‘Dumbbird’ by a landslide!” Chris declared triumphantly as she held up the sculpture in the air. When she lowered it again, she said, “I’m going to leave it here to dry for a while and then I’ll put him in my room.”
Chris was setting down the bird on a game table a few feet away when she noticed the Ouija board there. She’d forgotten that she had it. As curious about herself as she was about others, she’d originally bought it as a possible means of exposing clues to her subconscious. It hadn’t worked, though she’d used it a time or two with Sharon, and one other time with Dennings, who had willfully steered the plastic planchette (“Are you the one moving it, ducky? Are you?”) so that all of the “spirit messages” were obscene, and then afterward blamed it on “cunting evil spirits!”
“You been playin’ with the Ouija board, Rags, honey?”
“You know how?”
“Oh, well, sure. Here, I’ll show you.”
Regan was moving to sit before the board.
“Well, I think you need two people, honey.”
“No ya don’t, Mom; I do it all the time.”
A hesitation. And then, “Well—okay.” The child had her fingertips lightly positioned atop the planchette and as Chris reached out to position hers, it made a swift, sudden move to the position on the board marked No. Chris smiled at her slyly. “ ‘Mother, I’d rather do it myself’?
Is that it? You don’t want me to play?”
“No, I do! Captain Howdy said ‘no.’ ”
“Honey, who’s Captain Howdy?”
“Oh, you know: I make questions and he does the answers.”
“He’s very nice.”
Chris tried not to frown as she began to feel a dim but prickling concern. Regan had loved her father deeply, yet had never shown the slightest reaction to her parents’ divorce. Maybe Regan cried in her room; who knew? But Chris was fearful that her daughter was repressing both anger and grief and that one day the dam would break and her emotions would erupt in some unknowable and harmful form. Chris pursed her lips. A fantasy playmate. It didn’t sound healthy. And why the name “Howdy”? For Howard? Her father? Pretty close.
“So how come you couldn’t even come up with a name for a dum-dum bird, and then you hit me with something like ‘Captain Howdy’? Why do you call him that, Rags?”
Regan giggled. “ ’Cause that’s his name, of course.”
“Oh, well, of course.”
“And what else does he say to you?”
Regan shrugged and looked aside. “I dunno. Just stuff.”
“Well, for instance.”
Regan turned back and said, “Okay, then, I’ll show you. I’ll ask him some questions.”
Setting the fingertips of both her hands on the heart-shaped beige plastic planchette, Regan closed her eyes tightly in concentration. “Captain Howdy, don’t you think my mom is pretty?” she asked.
Five seconds passed. Then ten.
No movement. Chris was surprised. She’d expected her daughter to slide the planchette to the section marked yes. Oh, what now? she fretted. Some unconscious hostility? She blames me for losing her father? I mean, what?
Regan opened her eyes, looking stern. “Captain Howdy, that’s not very polite,” she chided.
“Honey, maybe he’s sleeping,” said Chris.
“Do you think?”
“I think you should be sleeping.”
Chris stood up. “Yeah, come on, hon. Uppy-uppy! Say good night to Captain Howdy.”
“No, I won’t. He’s a poop,” muttered Regan sulkily.
She got up and followed Chris up the stairs.
Chris tucked her into bed and then sat on the bedside. “Honey, Sunday’s no work. You want to do somethin’?”
“Sure, Mom. Like what?”
When they’d first come to Washington, Chris had made an effort to find playmates for Regan. She’d uncovered only one, a twelve-year-old girl named Judy. But Judy’s family was away for Easter, and Chris was concerned now that Regan might be lonely for companions her age. Chris shrugged.
“Oh, well, I don’t know,” she said. “Somethin’. You want we should drive around town and see the monuments and stuff? Hey, the cherry blossoms, Rags! That’s right, they’re out early this year! You want to see ’em?”
“Oh, yeah, Mom!”
“Well, okay! And then tomorrow night a movie!?”
“Oh, I love you!”
Regan gave her mother a hug and Chris hugged her back with an extra fervor, whispering, “Oh, honey, I love you so.”
“You can bring Mr. Dennings if you like.”
Chris pulled back from the hug and looked at Regan quizzically. “Mr. Dennings?”
“Sure, Mom. It’s okay.”
“Oh, no, it isn’t !” Chris said, chuckling. “Honey, why would I want to bring Mr. Dennings?”
“Well, you like him, don’t you?”
“Oh, well, sure I like him, honey. Don’t you?”
Looking off, Regan made no answer.
Her mother eyed her with concern. “Baby, what’s going on?” Chris prodded.
“You’re going to marry him, aren’t you, Mommy.” It was less a question than a sullen statement of fact. Chris exploded into a laugh.
“Oh, my baby, of course not! What on earth are you talking about? Mr. Dennings? Where’d you get that idea?”
“But you like him, you said.”
“I like pizzas, but I wouldn’t ever marry one! Regan, he’s a friend, just a crazy old friend!”
“You don’t like him like Daddy?”
“I love your daddy, honey; I’ll always love your daddy. Mr. Dennings comes by here a lot ’cause he’s lonely, that’s all; he’sjust a lonesome, goofy friend.”
“Well, I heard . . .”
“You heard what? Heard from who?”
Whirling slivers of doubt in the eyes; hesitation; then a shrug of dismissal. “I don’t know,” Regan sighed. “I just thought.”
“Well, it’s silly, so forget it.”
“Now go to sleep.”
“I’m not sleepy. Can I read?”
“Yeah, read that new book I got you.”
“Good night, hon. Sleep tight.”
Chris blew her a kiss from the door and closed it, then walked down the stairs to her study. Kids! Where do they get their ideas! She wondered if Regan had connected Dennings somehow to her filing for divorce. Howard had wanted it. Long separations. Erosion of ego as the husband of a superstar. He’d found someone else. But Regan didn’t know that, only that Chris was the one who had filed. Oh, quit all this amateur psychoanalyzing and try to spend some more time with her. Really! In the study, Chris had settled down to read “Hope” when, halfway through it, she heard steps and looked up to see Regan coming toward her sleepily while rubbing a knuckle at the corner of an eye.
“Hey, honey! What’s wrong?”
“There’s these real funny noises, Mom.”
“In your room?”
“Yes, in my room. It’s like knocking and I can’t go to sleep.”
Where the hell are those traps!
“Honey, sleep in my bedroom and I’ll see what it is.”
Chris led Regan to the master bedroom and was tucking her in when Regan asked, “Can I watch TV for a while till I sleep?”
“Where’s your book?”
“I can’t find it. Can I watch?”
“Oh, well, I guess so. Sure.”
Chris picked up the remote from a bedside table and tuned in a channel. “That loud enough?”
“Yes, Mom. Thanks.”
Chris placed the remote on the bed. “Okay, honey; just watch it till you’re sleepy? Okay? Then turn it off.”
Chris turned out the light and then went down the hall, where she climbed up the narrow, green-carpeted stairs that led to the attic, opened the door, felt around for the light switch, found it, flicked it on, and then entered the unfinished attic, where she took a few steps and then stopped and slowly glanced all around. Press clippings and correspondence in boxes were neatly stacked on the pinewood floor. She saw nothing else. Except the rat traps. Six of them. Baited. Yet the space looked spotless. Even the air smelled clean and cool. The attic was unheated. No pipes. No radiator. No little holes in the roof for entry. Chris took a step forward.
“There is nothing!” came a voice from behind her.
Chris jumped from her skin. “Oh, good Jesus!” she gasped, turning quickly and putting a hand to her fluttering heart. “Jesus Christ, Karl, don’t do that!”
He was standing two steps down on the staircase to the attic.
“Very sorry. But you see, Madam? Everything is clean.”
Still a little short of breath, Chris said weakly, “Thanks for sharing that with me, Karl. Yeah, it’s clean. Thanks. That’s terrific.”
“Madam, maybe cat better.”
“Cat better for what?”
“To catch rats.”
Without waiting for an answer, Karl turned to walk back down the stairs and soon was lost from Chris’s sight. For a time she kept staring at the open doorway as she wondered whether Karl had been subtly insolent. She wasn’t sure. She turned around again, looking for some cause of the rappings. She lifted her gaze to the angled roof. The street was shaded by enormous trees, most of them gnarled and entangled by vines, and the branches of one of them, a massive basswood tree, lightly touched the front third of the house. Was it squirrels after all? Wondered Chris. Must be. Or maybe even just the branches. Recent nights had been windy.
“Maybe cat better.”
Chris turned around and stared at the doorway again. Pretty smart-ass, are we Karl? she reflected. Then in a flash her expressionturned pertly mischievous. She went down to Regan’s bedroom,picked something up, brought it back to the attic, and then aftera minute went back to the bedroom. Regan was sleeping. Chrisreturned her to her room, tucked her into her bed, then wentback to her own bedroom, where she turned off the televisionand went to sleep.That night, the house was especially quiet.
Eating her breakfast the following morning, Chris told Karl in an offhand way that during the night she thought she’d heard one of the rat traps springing shut.
“Like to go and take a look?” Chris suggested, sipping coffee and pretending to be engrossed in the Washington Post, while, without any comment, Karl went up to the attic to investigate the matter.
As he was returning a few minutes later, Chris passed him in the hall on the second floor. His gaze straight ahead, he was stolidly walking without any expression, in his hands the large Mickey Mouse doll whose snout he had pried from one of the traps.
As he and Chris passed one another, she heard him mutter, “Someone is funny.”
Chris entered her bedroom, and as she slipped off her robe before dressing for work, she murmured softly, “Yeah, maybe cat better . . . much better.” When she grinned, her entire face crinkled up.
The filming went smoothly that day. Later in the morning, Sharon came by the set and during breaks between scenes, in her portable dressing room, she and Chris handled items of business: a letter to her agent (she would think about the script); “okay” to the White House; a wire to Howard reminding him to telephone on Regan’s birthday; a call to her business manager asking if she could afford to take off a year; and then plans for a dinner party April twenty-third.
Early in the evening, Chris took Regan to a movie, and the following day they drove around to points of interest in Chris’s red Jaguar XKE. The Capitol. The Lincoln Memorial. The Cherry Blossoms. A bite to eat. Then across the river to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where Regan turned solemn, while later, at the grave of John F. Kennedy, she seemed to grow distant and sad. She stared at the “eternal flame” for a time, and then, mutely reaching up to grip her mother’s hand, she said tonelessly, “Mom, why do people have to die?”
The question pierced her mother’s soul. Oh, Rags, you too? You too? Oh, no! And yet what could she tell her? Lies? No,she couldn’t. She looked at her daughter’s upturned face, at hereyes misting up with tears. Had Regan sensed her thoughts? Shehad done it so often before. “Honey, people get tired,” she toldRegan tenderly.
“Why does God let them?”
Looking down at her daughter, Chris was silent. Puzzled. Disturbed. An atheist, she had never taught Regan religion. She thought it would have been dishonest. “Who’s been telling you about God?” she asked.
“Oh.” She would have to speak to her.
“Mom, why does God let us get tired?”
Looking down at the pain in those sensitive eyes, Chris surrendered; couldn’t tell her what she really believed. Which was nothing. “Well, after a while God gets lonesome for us, Rags.
He wants us back.”
Regan folded herself into silence. She stayed totally quiet all during the drive home, her mood persisting all the rest of that day and then, disturbingly, all through Monday.
On Tuesday, Regan’s birthday, the spell of strange silence and sadness seemed to break. Chris took her along to the filming, and when the shooting day was over, a huge cake with twelve lighted candles on it was brought out while the film’s cast and crew sang “Happy Birthday.” Always a kind and gentle man when sober, Dennings had the lights rewarmed and, loudly calling it a “screen test,” filmed the scene as Regan blew out the candles and cut the cake, and then promised he would make her a star. Regan seemed cheerful, even gay.
But after dinner and the opening of presents, the mood seemed to fade. No word from Howard. Chris placed a call to him in Rome, and was told by a clerk at his hotel that he hadn’t been there for several days and that he had left no forwarding number. He was somewhere on a yacht.
Chris made excuses.
Regan nodded, subdued, and shook her head to her mother’s suggestion that they go to the Hot Shoppe for a shake. Without a word, she went down to the basement playroom, where she remained until time for bed.
The following morning when Chris opened her eyes, she found Regan in bed with her, half awake.
“Well, what in the . . . Regan, what are you doing here?” Chris said chuckling.
“Mom, my bed was shaking.”
“Oh, you nut!” Chris kissed her and pulled up her covers.
“Go to sleep. It’s still early.”
What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.
© William Peter Blatty 1971, 2011 Buy the book from Amazon here