I’m a screenwriter so I know you can’t create a character who is a pretty good guy for most of the story and then you find out he raped his grandmother, or ate his dog, because people will say no way, I don’t believe it, not credible. But the truth is that people who do bad things aren’t usually walking around with wild hair, death’s head tattoos, and Charlie Manson eyes. So when you ram into their shadow, it’s like hitting the side of a mountain on your Harley, and then wandering around like your head snapped off and you can’t exactly see where it rolled.
But I want to go back to the beginning, when I was scraping by as a freelance film critic doing movie reviews for Ms. Magazine, The LA Reader and a little feminist journal named Chrysalis, and writing screenplays on the side using the pen name Max Dakota so producers would think I was a guy. I figured if I joined SoCalCritix, an organization of professional film reviewers, I could see all the movies for free. My plan was to corner Bryce Greenberg, the president of SoCalCritix, at a screening of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape and invite him out for coffee so I could convince him to sponsor me as a new member.
We went to Ship’s on La Cienega — the last great coffee shop in L.A., with a personal toaster on every table – and discussed this new guy Soderbergh’s film, which we both admired. But the movie must have made Bryce horny because he came onto me afterward as we were walking to our cars. And even though I really wanted to get into SoCalCritix, I didn’t want it enough to sleep with Bryce. He just wasn’t my type, what can I say? Not that I was some great beauty or anything, just a skinny carrot top with almost no boobs to speak of, and five million freckles — like Opie’s baby sister, if he’d had one, on Mayberry RFD. So I told Bryce that I already had a boyfriend named Gary even though I didn’t, just to let him down easy.
Bryce got me into SCC anyway and we became friends. Right from the start I knew he was a funny guy, not funny haha although he laughed a lot, funny contradictory. Like on the one hand he was a stocky, Jewish tough guy with a big red clown’s bulb of a nose and a heavy Brooklyn accent, whose birth name before he changed it was Baruch, which means he who is blessed. But on the other hand, when Bryce talked about movies he became as smooth and elegant as Robert Warshow or James Agee or any of the great American film critics.
I’ll give you an example — this is Bryce talking about Down and Out in Beverly Hills. “Bette Middler’s just had this head banging, heart pounding raunchy sex with Nick Nolte, which culminates in an orgasm that all of Beverly Hills hears. But afterward, she leans her head back and sings ‘You Belong to Me’ a cappella with a sweet, gentle dignity that billows across you like a breeze on a sweltering day, and for a moment she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.” That guy could really hit some high notes.
I told Bryce all about myself, about being born in Chicago within breathing distance of the Wrigley Gum Factory, and how I was a brainy little kid who was double promoted three times in grade school, ended up in high school by the age of 11 and college at 15 — USC, where I graduated with honors. I told him about marrying an aspiring director I met in film school, an Orson Welles lookalike with a personality to match (Bryce knew him, said he was an asshole. I agreed.) We got divorced after four years and I was currently waiting for my big break, working on a screenplay entitled When Orange Becomes Red about three Jewish women who survived the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911.
Bryce told me he got his primary education on the streets of Bensonhurst and then at CUNY, moved out west to be an actor, married a sexy platinum blond who was now his ex-wife, had two kids, a boy, Damon, and a girl, Beth, and currently taught English in a San Bernardino junior college (“what a schlep twice a week!” he said with a laugh) and had a Saturday night radio show called “Cinema Now” reviewing movies on public radio.
“My father was a mean sonovabitch who died of Alzheimer’s at 58,” Bryce said. “My mother stuck with him the whole way, even though he kept abusing her until he finally couldn’t remember the word cunt anymore.”
Not one to be bested in autobiography, I said, “My father was an alcoholic high school music teacher who molested me when I was three. And I’m pretty sure my mother knew about it.” My incest survivors’ group had told us it was important to let people know what had happened. They said we should talk about it over and over until we were blue in the face and it lost its power to make us crazy. So I was used to talking about it without much emotion.
Looking back on it, though, I wonder if Bryce flinched when I told him. But all I remember is that he lifted his coffee cup and toasted mine with a dull clunk.
“Here’s to ya, Terry.”
The most surprising thing about Bryce, apart from what I found out later, was that in between teaching and reviewing movies and rebuilding cars and motorcyles, he was a regular Florence Nightingale, always going out of his way to visit friends who were in the hospital. One time he twisted my arm to go with him to see Isadora, another film critic from the LA Reader, after she had exploratory cancer surgery, because Bryce said it was the bad cancer, pancreatic, and that she didn’t have a lot of people in her life. We stopped off on the way for some flowers, DVD’s and chocolate covered orange peel from See’s. Bryce also brought a copy of the Best Movie Reviews annual because Isadora’s review of Joan Micklin Silver’s Crossing Delancey, entitled “Izzy’s Hat,” had just been anthologized.
“What’s this?” she said when he handed her the book.
“It’s you,” he said. “Pages 122 through 128.”
“Oh, my,” Isadora said, color rising in her pale cheeks as she turned the pages to her review.
“’How can even the ritziest Jewish princess resist a man who sends her the perfect hat? It’s the fulfillment of every pickle man’s romantic fantasies, Beauty captivated by the Beast.’”
Isadora clapped her hands together with delight. “Good heavens, Bryce. You memorized it.”
“Of course,” Bryce said, winking at me. “It’s a wonderful passage.”
“You know, Ter,” he said as we were walking through the endless corridors at Cedars, searching for the elevators. “For whom the bell tolls.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know who it tolls for,” I said, trying not to look into the rooms we passed so I wouldn’t have to see someone else dying.
Bryce would save a seat for me whenever he got to the screenings early because I was always late. Afterward we went out for coffee or grilled cheese or BLT’s or whatever we could afford and talked about the movie we’d just watched, trying out our reviews on each other before we went home and set down our ideas on paper. I always made a little mention of Gary the imaginary boyfriend each time just in case Bryce got any ideas but he never put the moves on me after that first night.
Still, I was relieved when he arrived at a screening a few months later on his Harley lowrider with a platinum blond named Myra on the back. I figured it was safe to tell him that I’d broken up with Gary after that because I didn’t like lying to him. He probably never believed there was a Gary anyway, but maybe he did.
After the screening, which was Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, Bryce said, “Myra and I would like you to come over for a 4th of July barbecue next Thursday.” His big arm was resting on her little shoulders and he was leaning so hard against her that I thought she might tip over. Then, before I could say yes or no, he bent over and gave Myra a wet, noisy kiss, his tongue doing a deep throat like he wanted to show off for my benefit. Like, see, this could have been you, or something. Ugh, it totally grossed me out. But Myra didn’t seem to mind.
Bryce’s bungalow in Burbank had a bunch of car bodies on the lawn which had pretty much killed off the grass. They looked like the herd of half-eaten buffalo after the massacre in Dances With Wolves, and the inside of the house wasn’t much better. He’d turned the living room into a car repair shop with parts strewn on the sofa and the floor and piled up precariously on all of the chairs. The dining room table was buried beneath two or three feet of mostly unopened mail, and newspapers were stacked like end tables everywhere except where end tables belonged.
Myra led me through the house, looking apologetic. “I’m sorry it’s such a mess, but Bryce won’t let me touch anything. He says he has a system – I think it’s called Chaos. He’s in the back barbecuing the chicken and ribs.”
“Smells delicious,” I said, unable to discover anywhere to sit.
“Come on outside,” Myra said, sliding open the glass door for me. “I helped him clear off the patio table and chairs this morning.”
“You’re my hero,” I said.
It was nothing fancy outside, just a lot of grass and a border of pink and orange impatiens that ran along the fence line like a little parade. But there was a big friendly tree full of peaches that already smelled like jam and a chair for me to sit in so I had no complaints.
Bryce was wearing his usual jeans and tee shirt, mostly obscured by an enormous olive green apron that said RIBMEISTER in ketchup red letters. He was managing somehow to smoke his Marlboro, wield a pair of tongs like Benihana of Tokyo and suck on a bottle of Heineken.
“Hey-hey, Ter,” he said with his characteristic easy-peasy laugh. “I got pork ribs, beef ribs and chicken ribs.”
“I should hope so. You’re the Ribmeister,” I said, lighting a Salem.
“Hey, Myra, get Terry a beer. Beer okay, Ter?”
“Sure.” I hated beer but what the hell.
A handful of people arrived over the next hour, members of SoCalCritix who’d show up anywhere the food was free, and a few middle-aged women, one of whom turned out to be Bryce’s sister Fern. There was also a black couple who were Brice’s next door neighbors and a tall, fairly good looking guy with shoulder-length shaggy blond hair, sort of Tom Petty-ish, who Bryce introduced as Baker. It turned out that Baker was his first name. His last name was James. And he came unaccompanied on his Yamaha Raider, which definitely upped the ante on the barbecue as far as I was concerned.
Baker was not a talker, though, and I began to think he was probably some good old boy with a GED, an ex-wife named Thelma and two barefoot country kids. But he turned out to be a published novelist who taught creative writing at CalArts and a surprise intellectual like Bryce.
Just as the barbecue was winding down, Bryce’s kids arrived. His fourteen-year-old daughter Beth was a pretty brunette with a show-offy figure in skin-tight levis and a blouse that scooped practically to her navel. Her face was painted like a Glamour Magazine lipstick ad, which made it difficult to identify any expression on her face except boredom. The brother, Damon, was twelve, with the same thick brown hair and charred oak eyes as his sister. But his eyes flashed resentment like a neon sign in some late 40’s film noir, and each of his eyebrows had a life of its own, the right one arching up and down and the left one skulking around like a private detective.
Bryce was very affectionate with both of them and seemed oblivious to their bad attitudes. “Beth just got a summer job as an intern at Crown Pictures and Damon is helping me rebuild a ’66 Mustang,” he announced proudly.
Beth stuck an index finger into her mouth to make a gag-me-with-a-spoon gesture. Damon did a series of stiff boy bows and then grabbed for his father’s Heineken.
There was nothing creepy about the way Bryce loved them, even in retrospect.
I hung out with Baker, trying to be quietly alluring, although silent seduction was not my strong suit. But after stalling as long as possible to give him time to ask for my phone number, I felt like such a desperate asshole that I finally took myself home. If he wants to get in touch, I reasoned, he can always ask Bryce. If not, fuck him.
Baker called a week later, long after I had wished him a painful early death and resigned myself to a life of celibacy.
“Uh, hi,” he said and I said, “Hi, Baker.”
He still said, “It’s Baker.”
“No, really?” I said, still pissed at how long it had taken him, but then I regretted being a smart ass. “Hey, I’m glad you called.”
Our first date was dinner at a Mexican restaurant across the street from Paramount Studios, a sort of grungy cult storefront called Lucy’s El Adobe, where Linda Rondstadt and Jerry Brown used to hang out when they were an item. Our conversation was not as satisfying as the food, which was surprisingly delicious. Mostly we told stories about our bad experiences at Mexican restaurants that weren’t the ‘Mexican’ we liked (for instance, Tex-Mex, which tasted to me like it was made from bull’s blood). The rest of the time I fantasized about being in bed with him naked.
In very short order we became a foursome with Bryce and Myra and that’s the way it went for a couple of years, mostly at cheap but tasty restaurants and free movie screenings, Baker’s bike parked next to Bryce’s, nice and cozy, except when it rained and Bryce drove Myra in one of his Mustangs and Baker and I came in my beat-up yellow Miata.
Baker listened a lot and talked very little, but I loved the way his mind worked. When I mentioned a brain research article I’d read that said the geography of creativity and schizophrenia overlapped, he said, “I hope when they find a cure for schizophrenia, they don’t accidentally cure poetry.”
Another time, at Bryce’s favorite cheap restaurant, The Tasty Thai, Baker said, “This morning while I was washing dishes, I crushed a little bug with my sponge, and it suddenly struck me that’s how easily any of our lives could be snuffed out.”
“Does that mean I have to co-exist with cockroaches?” Bryce asked, his mouth full of pad Thai noodles.
“You already do,” Myra said, and we all laughed.
For a long time it seemed like the four of us had finally figured out a way to be happy. Then Bryce proposed to Myra and she turned him down.
“I can’t live with him,” she told me on the phone, all wrecked and weepy. “I asked him to make room for me, to clear the car parts out of the house, or at least out of the bedroom, and he accused me of trying to ruin his life.”
“He’s an asshole,” I said, “a lovable asshole.”
“I know,” Myra said, sounding angry and sad at the same time. “But I don’t want to marry another asshole.”
“She’s a cunt,” Bryce said on the phone, “and who the fuck needs a cunt? I told her, get the fuck out, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass, bitch.”
“Oh, Bryce, I’m so sorry,” I said, knowing he didn’t mean what he’d said about Myra and was just very hurt.
It was Baker’s turn next.
“There’s this girl at CalArts,” he said, lying in bed beside me one night, smoking a joint.
“Oh, fuck, Baker.” I didn’t even turn over to look at him.
It was like we were subject to some Relationship Instability Principle that we could only overcome as a foursome, each convergence bolstered by the subtle pressure exerted by the other three. But after Myra’s defection, the joists worked themselves loose, collapsing the whole structure on top of us like a freeway overpass in a nine point quake.
So then it was just me and Bryce again, but still only platonic. I invited him over to dinner because we were both lonely and also because he was the world’s most appreciative guest.
“This soup is great,” he said, making a pleasure sound with each spoonful. Mmmmmm. Mmmmmmm. Mmmmmmm. “What’s in this soup, Terry?”
“Carrots, onions, curry and yogurt.”
“Yogurt?” he said, astonished, “you’re kidding.” But he was still mmmmmmm’ing, ahhhhhh’ing and spooning like a piston engine. Slurp, slurp, slurp.
By the time we finished the bottle of zinfandel he’d brought, we were deep into the postmortem of our love affairs.
“How could anyone leave a woman like you for some little bimbo at CalArts?” he asked rhetorically. “And don’t think I didn’t ask him that exact question.”
“What did he answer?”
“He said I was right. I bet he comes crawling back and begs you to forgive him.”
“I won’t take him back.”
“Good for you. Fuck him.”
Over dessert I asked if he’d heard from Myra.
“Oh, yeah, sure, we talk all the time.”
“That’s good. At least you’re still friends.”
“Yeah,” he said, lighting a Marlboro. “I miss her.” He shook the match out and exhaled a plume of smoke. “I was even thinking that maybe I should talk to somebody about it,” he said, looking down at the grain in his jeans.
“What a good idea,” I said, pleasantly surprised.
I recommended a friend of mine named Gary who I thought was a pretty good therapist.
“Is this the Gary that was your boyfriend?” he asked.
“Jesus, no,” I said, feeling embarrassed. “This is a totally different Gary.”
It was Gary who told me about Bryce, although it was a terrible breach of ethics. He said it off-handedly while we were having dinner at California Pizza Kitchen after we saw Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies.
“He molested his daughter, you know. That’s why his wife divorced him.”
I said, “Uh-huh,” feeling obligated to pretend that I already knew. But I wanted to shout, What the fuck are you talking about?
It just didn’t make sense, looking at Bryce from the outside. But I guess that, looking at my father from the outside, it didn’t make any sense, either. How could men that I admired, that I loved, do such a terrible thing, I kept asking myself, like I needed to understand it before I could believe it.
But after that night, there it was, like some giant ruby-eyed toad. My friend Bryce would be sitting across from me – and seated next to him was the terrifying, child molesting toad. Still, I didn’t say anything. I could never find the right words with either of them, Bryce or my father. It was just easier to go on being my father’s daughter and Bryce’s friend, protecting the brand like they said about the guys at Penn State because anything else seemed like heresy. I don’t know, maybe you would have handled it differently. But you weren’t there.
Six months or so later, Bryce couldn’t find his Mustang after a screening of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and everything got turned upside down again.
He said he was sure he’d parked it somewhere in the hills and he spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the little side streets above the Strip, getting more and more frantic until he found a cop and reported the car stolen. But the next day the cops found it parked at a meter on Sunset a few streets away from the screening room with two parking tickets stuffed under the windshield wipers.
After that, Bryce kept forgetting other things, like the combination to his gym locker that he’d had for twenty years or which bank his money was in even though the address was on his checks, until he finally went to see some doctors at UCLA to find out what was wrong with his memory. They gave him all kinds of tests and scans to rule out a brain tumor and finally diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s, “early onset” like his father’s. He told me all this on the phone, matter of fact, like it wasn’t a big deal finding out that he was going to lose his mind. Who knows, maybe he thought he deserved it.
After the diagnosis, things went further downhill – as if finding out he was going to turn into a cauliflower wasn’t bad enough. Bryce lost his job at the college in San Bernardino when some student he flunked accused him of sexual harassment, and then the management of the radio station changed and they cancelled his show.
“After 19 years!” he shouted, “those fucking ingrates.”
I felt so sorry for him that it made me sick to my stomach. But it got harder and harder to be friends with him. One time we agreed to meet for dinner on a Wednesday at Versailles, a Cuban restaurant in Culver City, and he called me from the restaurant on Monday all upset because he’d been waiting there for hours wondering where I was.
He’d leave semi-incoherent messages about plans for another radio show and half the time I didn’t bother to call back. After a while, he couldn’t even remember how to dial the phone anymore, so he had other people call and ask me to come visit him.
I never did — maybe because of what I knew about him, but mostly because I was a coward.
Bryce stopped coming to the SoCalCritix meetings because he couldn’t sit still or concentrate any longer and he couldn’t find anyone to drive him, and then his ex-wife got some kind of legal control over his estate “on behalf of the children,” and she and the kids sold his house, his cars and his Harley, pocketing most of the money for themselves. Bryce kept one car back and tried to kill himself in it, but the tow truck driver heard the car running in the garage and got him out while he was still alive.
After that, I quit SoCalCritix and did my best to lose track of Bryce. But it was like running away in place because every time I watched a movie we’d seen together, or read about a film we’d argued over, like Spielberg’s ET, which I thought had social value and he thought was a piece of sentimental shit, he was back in my head like an infestation of fleas on a dog.
It was at least six years later, long after I’d gotten over Baker and married a sitcom writer named Justin, that Bryce’s daughter Beth called. I don’t know how she found me because I had moved and the home phone was in my husband’s name, but I agreed to meet her for drinks at a sushi bar in West Hollywood. I didn’t know what had happened to her father, didn’t even ask if he was alive or dead until I got there.
“He’s in a nursing home,” she told me. “You wouldn’t recognize him now.”
I groaned, not wanting to imagine.
“It’s for the best, though,” she said, “because of what’s happened to my brother.”
“What happened to your brother?” I asked.
“He’s just totally fucked up,” she said, looking down into her wine glass uncomfortably.
“Do you hate him?” I asked, not wanting to pretend any longer that I didn’t know what Bryce had done to her.
“No, I don’t hate my brother.”
“I meant your father.”
“Oh,” she said, a little surprised. “You know about that?”
She took some time to think about her answer before she said, “I loved him like crazy when I was a kid, and then I hated him, you know? When it really hit me what he’d done. But after he got sick —” she broke off, shrugging her shoulders, “I just felt sorry for him.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”
Beth wanted me to go with her afterward to see Bryce at the hospice, I guess to say goodbye.
“Your father used to visit sick people in the hospital all the time,” I said, feeling sadness overtake me like an Olympic sprinter.
“I know,” she said. “He had a big heart.” I realized we were both talking about him in the past tense.
I numbed myself with three glasses of pinot noir and followed behind Beth in my car. Bryce was stashed in North Hollywood, a couple of blocks from his favorite Italian restaurant, Little Tony’s, where he used to polish off a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs and half a loaf of garlic bread.
It was a one-story, L-shaped white building shaded by tall birch trees, with a small plaque that read Angels Rest. The heavy doors opened onto a central corridor with several rooms on both sides. When we entered the last room on the left, I was surprised to see Myra, sitting in a chair next to the bed. If she hadn’t been there, I would have thought I was in the wrong room, especially since the room was lit mostly by a wall-mounted television and one small table lamp. The person in the bed looked like a cadaver, with sparse, greasy white hair and eyes that protruded from their sockets, as wide and empty as the buttons on a stuffed animal. The skin was an anemic, raw chicken yellow and only the nose looked familiar, despite the tubes feeding into it.
Beth went over to her father and kissed him on the forehead.
“Hi, daddy,” she said, as if it was just another day in the life.
Bryce’s eyes fixed on Beth with vague recognition, the way babies seem to recognize their mother’s faces without really comprehending the relationship.
“Look who I brought, daddy. It’s Terry.”
He continued to stare at Beth.
I went around the bed to Myra and bent down to hug her. “I’m so glad to see you,” I said, feeling guilty about not calling her for so many years.
She looked haggard, with a couple months’ growth of dark roots ruining the illusion of her platinum hair.
“I didn’t know you two got back together,” I whispered.
“We didn’t,” Myra said. I realized then that it must have been her compassion that drew her to Bryce’s bedside. Now I felt ashamed as well as guilty, although Myra looked at me without reproach. It was my own reproach that roared in my ears, and I had no alibis.
“Can I get you something?” I asked Myra. “Coffee or a sandwich or something?” I was hoping she’d say Maine lobster or Steak Diane so I could leave that sour-smelling room and go fetch something worthy of her.
Myra stood up from the chair stiffly as if parts of her body had atrophied during her vigil. “Would you just sit here with him for a few minutes? I need to go to the bathroom and I’ll get something to drink from the machines.”
I traded places with her, sitting down at Bryce’s bedside.
Beth noisily dragged another chair over to the bed and sat down opposite me.
“Daddy, I got promoted and I’m doing all the accounting on two features now. You should see my office, I painted it myself, three different shades of blue, of course, you know how I feel about blue, and I have a ficus and a palm and two big windows with a little balcony. You’d love it daddy, you’d be so proud of me. . .”
I figured she was saying this for my benefit mostly. “Two windows and a balcony, huh?” I said, holding up two thumbs.
Sullivan’s Travels was playing on the television, part of TCM’s month-long salute to Joel McCrea. I was staring at the screen, half asleep from all the wine, when a commotion erupted in the hallway.
Beth got up quickly and hurried out of the room. I heard her join in the argument.
“Are you trying to kill him, Damon? Is that what you want to do?” she hollered.
“Get your hands off me, I’m going in there, I don’t want him to die without knowing who I really am. . .”
I turned to Bryce. He was staring at me in the vacant way people look at each other on buses.
A red-headed woman with heavy make-up and bright blue acrylic nails burst into the room, pulling away from Beth.
“Hi, dad, it’s me, Damon, but now my name is Deena. But you can’t fuck this daughter, dad, because this one will kill you if you try, you fucking pervert.”
“Stop it!” Beth shouted and began to slap and kick her brother, grabbing hold of his hair.
“You bitch,” Damon howled, hitting her flat-handed in the neck and shoulders.
“Stop it,” Myra cried, “stop it, both of you, get out of here, do you hear me or I swear I’ll call the police –-”
Two orderlies appeared, a large black woman with hair sheared almost to her scalp and a stocky, pock-marked Latino with small dark eyes nearly hidden by his high cheekbones. The woman grabbed Damon around the waist, pulling him off balance. He started to kick backward at her with his high heeled black boots but she wrapped a hefty leg around his calves and he fell to the ground on top of her. The Latino dragged Beth from the room, ignoring her slaps and screams of protest. The black woman pulled herself out from underneath Damon, grabbed his flailing arms while he was still down and dragged him into the hallway. I ran to the door and slammed it shut, leaning against it hard to keep Bryce’s children out. I felt relieved to have finally found something I could do for him.
Suddenly Bryce started to howl. Then he made some terrible sounds which sounded like words he could no longer remember how to say. Myra climbed up onto the bed and took him in her arms.
“Shhhhh,” she said, “shhhhhhhh. It’s okay, sweetheart, everything’s okay now, shhhhhhhh.” She cradled his wasted body and rocked him back and forth, murmuring reassurances in a lullaby voice. They looked like Michelangelo’s Pieta.
There wasn’t much traffic on the way home to my condo in West Los Angeles, but I drove slowly, realizing how easily life could slip into death, like losing your balance on a wet floor. Baruch, I thought bitterly, tasting the irony like a rusted spoon. He who is blessed.
For some reason, I remembered the night in 1992 when Bryce and I had reviewed Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. We’d really been on it that evening, lyrical and articulate like we sometimes were with each other, like a couple of musicians just rocking out. And I remembered that we made a big deal about the dialogue at the end of the film, something about getting what you deserve, or not deserving what you got, but I couldn’t recall the exact words.
Back home, I closed the door to the bedroom where my husband was already asleep and put on the Unforgiven DVD that the Academy had sent all the movie critics that year, skipping to the final few scenes. The gunfighter William Money, “killer of women and children,” stands over the corrupt sheriff Little Bill, who’s lying on the barroom floor in a pool of his own blood, and Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this, to die like this.” And William Money looks down at him pitilessly, ready to finish him off with his rifle, and says, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”
A few weeks later, at Bryce’s memorial service, I spoke about the movie and how it ends with one bad guy dead and another worse guy living out the rest of his life in peace and prosperity.
“Okay, we get it, there’s no such thing as justice, and we walk out of the movie theater with the illusion that we’ve grasped something profound,” I said, looking out at the room full of critics, a few I liked, a handful I respected, and several others I thought were pretentious or idiotic. Still, I was glad to see such a large turnout, glad for Bryce’s sake, and perhaps even for myself, that we had this little community, however ragtag.
“But I’ll tell you something,” I continued. “When I saw Bryce on his deathbed with all the poetry and vitality and virility sucked out of him, it wasn’t anything like watching some actor who could get up, rinse off the fake blood, and go on to win Academy Awards. No matter how great they are, those movies about a pitiless world that metes out our fates like Nazi officers at Auschwitz are meant to be digested in comfortable seats in air conditioned theaters with fresh buttered popcorn. Because you really don’t get the horror that a universe which doesn’t give a shit can perpetrate until it grabs hold of you by the shoulders, knocks you on your ass and takes a dump on your face in real life. And “deserves got nothing to do with it.”
“So let me just say one more thing about my friend Bryce –- if you’ll be kind enough to imagine some gorgeous black and white lighting, a tinkling piano, a corrupt and bloated sheriff lying dead in murky water and Marlene Dietrich in a jet black wig.”
Some of the critics were already smiling. A few were mouthing the words before I recited them.
“He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago at the end of the Second World War. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!), an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, a playwright and screenwriter, director of development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, a psychoanalyst in private practice and a mother. Nineteen of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and she has been nominated twice for the Kirkwood Prize in Fiction at UCLA.