Clint Bolton’s letter to Ann Fisher, August, 1979.
(Clint Bolton’s author’s note: This may or may not be fiction. There are those who live in the City Beside the Big River who will say of this or that character . . . “That is Soando.” And there are men . . . and women . . . with long memories who may say, “Yes, there is such a man and in a certain time and place he did thus and so. And there was that time down on the Malabar Coast . . .”
And another may say, “we were in Manila and that was possibly forty years ago and he said, very casually, over a drink, ‘In the end it will be the Russian Bear and the Chinese Dragon in the real death fight. Japan may start a war. They will not finish it because they can’t. There is that vast land mass, gents, the huge area of Europe and Asia. Alexander could not do it. Genghis Khan could not do it and Napoleon failed, utterly. A nightcap, old man? Good . . . and with that it’s goodbye. My gear’s on a freighter, mixed cargo to Singapore. Just care of Raffles Hotel for the next few months.'” There are men and women who will recall things like that should they read this.
The very fine actress who is now like the man we will read about. There are no more parts for her to play . . . “My dear, they keep sending me scripts. I read very few of them. Yes, he is right. I knew him when we and the world were a lot younger. Lovers? . . . . How odd you should think that important for either of us now. We could meet and perhaps we would play the scene with some small grace . . . a slight touch of love among the ruins. There was that . . . we played the scene with grace notes . . . and if he built me a sand castle in Spain on the beach at Malibu, what difference that the next tide took it away? . . . Was that important, really?”
“No, if we were to meet again we would greet each other with outstretched hands and silly people would say, ‘Were they?’ . . . ‘Did they?’ and make all sorts of guesses and speculations. And what would he say to them? My dears, I think he would smile. We’d touch the rims of our glasses just one more time and he would say, ‘That was once-upon-a-time . . . and once-upon-a-time never comes again . . .'”
So, in what is most certainly an autumnal summer for a certain story teller, it is time for him to remember some times that were Once-Upon-A-Time for someone who is very lovely, very young and whose own once-upon-a-times are still ahead of her. Promissory notes on a bright and happy future.
It is not immodesty of the writer on an ego trip, but the modesty of a man who, on occasions, writes something sheerly as a small gift for a friend. The writer of this bit of midsummer fancy needs no more “glory times.” The bylines on the big stories, the moments of the awards . . . They are, in the end, as Kipling once wrote . . . “as one with Nineveh and Tyre” . . . . He has sailed Homer’s wine dark sea and he has written of the offshore, dawn breezes from Columbo heavy laden with the scent of cinnamon. So, at this time and place he writes what may or may not be fact or fable. But it will be a remembrance thing and like all rememberances it begins . . . . “Once Upon a Time” . . . cb).
* * * * * * * * * * * *
After they had gone, Brandon’s wife said, “I’m so glad her mother joined us. And she really is a darling!”
“Let’s make it the plural they. But you are very right. I regretted after the phone call I did not make sure young Jan’s mother would do more than drop her off. I could have called the club for their phone number. I wanted to but . . . another good intention down the tube . . . Well, it worked out fine. Yet, ever since we made the date for Jan to wheel me around the Quarter, I had one of those half feelings it would be good to tell her mother or her father not to worry too much. Until they gave us their address, which, incidentally, I am delighted to have, I didn’t know where they lived. Except I knew it was not the Quarter. Any parents have the right to need some reassurance that their daughter is not gonna get into some messy situation here in the Quarter.
“Yes, dear, I know, the Quarter is much maligned and very few non-Quarterites and, for that matter, a ton or two of actual Quarterites don’t know the clout I carry down here. It is not something to tell about. To boast about. I told Jan when we were out a little bit. Not a lot because there is no need for that and she is young and could, possibly, make it something larger than life . . . a little bit over dramatic. That young lady is perceptive as hell. I’ve known women three times her age who are four times as foolish.”
“But I really didn’t think you needed to reassure her parents. After all, her father and you belong to the same club . . . ”
“And that is like getting commisioned in the armed forces. We are automatically gentlemen. My very dear, I have known a helluva lot of non-gentlemen by the classic definition who I could tell, “This is Jan. She is under my protection” . . . and she’d be a damn sight safer in their care or custody than if surrounded by a squad of National Guardsmen. In all truth, I’ll take my riffs and raffs over the young Guardsmen. My guys would know what to do and do it. A young Guardsman might think, “Well, next week I’m home in Alex. Who’s to know?” . . . and I remind you that until they began taking that house apart up in Illinois, a guy named Gayce was a so-called good citizen.
Despite the fact I never sired any children and ours is a late marriage, I am almost feudalistic in terms of my relationship toward my own kin and those souls who come under my own umbrella. I am a clansman, and I don’t spell that with a “K.” The heritage is Scottish, Irish, Norman and French. Yeah, some so-called “English” down the line but the roots, to use a word lately made popular, are Celtic and the Celts know the feud, the vendetta as thoroughly as they know it in Sicily or the Balkans. You have in me a one-legged cardiac cripple who is still, in the ancient way, “The Head of the House of Brandon.”
The major point is Jan’s parents have every right to know what kind of people we are. U-S, darling . . . W-E, darling. You and me, dear, with a nod to Cole Porter, are the ones with whom that delightful young female will spend some time. Fine. We are all dressed up and very good with the manners department at Pendennis. But at home, and in the suspect French Quarter . . . well, how are things in the Glocca Mora this fine day? So it is all to the good. In the near future, Jan and BOTH parents ought to spend a little time with us. Nothing elaborate. Some decent cold cuts, your own very good potato salad, a little wine and some good talk . . .
“Boy . . . I can’t wait until Jan starts back to school.”
“Well, she has a mild high on Shakespeare. Saw Olivier in Hamlet on the tube and liked it. I can make the whole Elizabethan period come alive for her . . . and given the chance . . . her classmates.”
“Darling, I can’t help laughing. I know you can. I’ve seen much older people than Jan enthralled by you and Shakespeare. You could teach a course in it.”
“Yeah, and I can hear the ivy rustling, very scandalized, in the Groves of Academe when I point out that Lady Macbeth was too smart to hire a hit man. I can hear myself sayin’ . . . ‘In the end, you’re better off doin’ the job yourself.’ Shakespeare knew that. You hire a hit man and then maybe you have to knock off the hit man to prevent blackmail. Then you have to get the man who hit the hit man bounced. Lady Macbeth would have had to have all hands at court knocking off each other.”
“The same holds true of the murder of Julius Caesar. This update is strictly high class Mafia. The capos, the dons all agree Julie has gotta go. But the smart way to do that is to have all of them, the top hands, knock off the head honcho. And they do it right out loud. They cop a beautiful plea. They tell all the people, “We done it for yer own good. Julie was a helluva general, yessir. But he really took the Big Job like he thought he was an ackshul god.”
You can see me making Shakespeare as hot as any script in Hollywood. His plays are classics, and deservedly so. But take away Elizabethan speech and costumes and you’d have all the PTAs in the whole country screaming, “Foul.” Take Hamlet and that darling 14 year old Jan. Of course that’s only chronological age. Some people are 64 and remain not much over 14. Jan IS 14, but she is, thanks to any and all Deities, a little older . . . and a little wiser. But take this very Hamlet she saw and liked. It is a tale of fratricide, incest, murder, poor Ophelia has gone daft and there isn’t a shrink around. Not even Shakespeare was smart enough to invent Freud, Adler, and Jung. But do I tell Jan and her classmates, “this stuff is not for you?” I do not. Earlier this week a brother-sister are in a jam according to the Times-Picayune. They live up in Pennsylvania. They want to get married. That, Sweetie, is incest. Two brothers in Tulsa quarrel. One is jealous. His sibling gets more parental attention, he thinks. So he shoots and kills his brother and both parents. Patricide, fratricide. Shakespeare deals with these subjects.”
“It’s strange. You talk about Shakespeare as if you were contemporaries. You know him, his London and the people, the street people, the aristocracy. I’ve heard you on the subject with people who teach Shakespeare and they never contradict you, but you seem to go at Shakespeare in different ways.”
“They will be better able to quote this line or that. And they would be able to prattle to a classroom about some goop like the structural implication of Good Will’s use of iambic pentameter or whatever the hell it is. But what they don’t seem to understand is that this was not an engineering exercise in English. Shakespeare wrote with a certain rhythm. It was the rhythm, the sound of his times. Who writes waltzes these days? Can you waltz to the take-off scream of a jet? Times, man’s inventions change cadences. We live faster. A kid growing up in the Newark ghetto and spending a night on our couch might wake up and hear the clop-clop of the surrey horse going by. That’s cadence, a beat he doesn’t know. He knows the disco beat. The slowest is about 120 to the minute . . . which will probably produce a lot of very youthful cardiac cases in the next few years.”
‘Well, I won’t bother to Jan about disco. Maybe some afternoon we’ll play some Ellington and she will feel good about it. Or I may put on that record of Viennese waltzes. Before the gods and goddesses of disco take it all away from her.”
“I think her parents will feel good about you.”
“I hope so . . . .” Brandon started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“You know, I always like to browse around the Mariner’s shop. So that was one of our stops. Frank Sellers, the owner, was there. He went to the Coast Guard Academy but I don’t think he graduated. Anyway, he’s not local — but from coastal New England. We get along fine. That’s why I got that bit of scrimshaw for Jan. He doesn’t deal in phonies, like a couple of trick plastics that are almost bone, but ain’t. In Hawaii and up in whale hunting Eskimo country there are still some people who know old scrimshaw art. Jan’s piece is modern, but it’s legit.
“That’s another part of you. Your passion, almost obsession . . . that anything BE REAL.”
“I guess so. Well, anyone Jan’s age may still believe in Camelot or that lovely misty place called Avalon. Nothing wrong with that. But also nothing wrong with the realization that the road to Camelot is very long.”
“We rest here the night, here and there, and in the cold reality of the moonlight, that is just one more silly coyote howlin’ my darling, and this is not Transylvania, and if Count Dracula comes messing around, I take this tent peg and wave it at him. The wooden stake through the heart? No. An old Yiddish adage says it is better to run away than get poked in the eye with a sharp stick. So both Count Dracula and the coyote have one thing in common. They are cowards. The moonlight is very real, Jan, my darling. And for now we have some champagne, the good glasses, and some pleasant music.”
“That is very real, dear . . . but once upon a time on a tropic beach there was moonlight and very damn little romance . . . ”
“Two Japanese snipers. I moved in and out of the shadows and, Sweetheart, my rhythm was not waltz time. I made it an uneven pattern. I held these two Japanese on me, m’dear. No romance in that. Moonlight and shadows, but it was very damn real, the grey fear in me. Just stay still a fraction too long. Just let those dummies figure your pattern, and the tune is Death March from Saul, if anyone should ask you. But with some luck those two will be hooked on me. The bleating of the sheep attracts the tiger. And our guys will nail them. Quietly, efficiently with knives. No noise. And our guys will come back, not only with enemy IDs and other useful stuff, but with two heads in a gunny sack. Before dawn the heads will be on long poles on the fringe of the beach.”
“It is their fate this should happen this way and my fate I should be part of this. I do not like it, but their Emperor has surrendered. They will not. So we must teach them and the other hold-outs on this crumby little island that it is over. The killing time is over. And the only way we can do that is to kill a few more of them. And put their heads on bamboo poles. Seabirds will pluck at them . . . the heads . . . their naked, unburied, headless bodies . . . spiders, insects, rodents. And that is a great shame. Tell me not about the Geneva Convention. Did they observe the Geneva Convention? And now, as I said, the time for killing is over.”
“But it is not over and we will kill these two snipers and degrade them. I don’t like it. But it is something I decree and we will not tell our officers about it because mostly they would tell us not to do this thing. But it is something that must be done and two days after those heads are up on the long, bending poles, the other hold-outs will come in. This they will understand. It is a very primitive thing but ancient. To defile the enemy’s body. To dishonor it. That is terrible and the great curse.”
“For when it is done, it is as if I say, ‘I killed you. But I did not kill you in honor. Because you have no honor. Therefore the seabirds . . . and the wasting headless body in the jungle. No burial at home. You are nothing. Not a warrior. Lost . . . forever.'”
“So I may tell you such things because there was this lovely tropic isle, moonlight, shadows, and the scent of exotic flowers in the air . . . and no coyote howled. Nor did Count Dracula prowl. Yes, real and unreal . . . I did the Shadow Waltz . . . an airy arabesque with a smiling partner who was Death. But I will also say to that darling girl . . . it was a very long time ago . . . . Once upon a time. And once upon a time never comes again.”
Clint Bolton, New Orleans, August, 1979
Ann’s thoughts: Clint Bolton was larger than life. He was my Hemingway. I’ve kept this letter for thirty-seven years, and I don’t keep many things.
I carry Clint close. Had he been younger, and I older, we would have been lovers. He was elemental. He was REAL, and not afraid of much. My first husband was jealous of the place this one-legged-72-year-old-cardiac-cripple had in my life, and at one point he told me that he never wanted me to mention Bolton again. I thought about that for two years. And when I moved out into my own apartment, I had a scotch and toasted Clint and thought of my soon to be ex, “To hell with you and the horse you rode in on — I will live my life my way.”
Another thing I would say is this. Asking me to forget Clint would be much the same as saying I could never talk of my grandmother or grandfather. And what I mean is this. Without Clint, I would not be Ann.
When I finally met the love of my life, my Drew, he got Clint. We enjoyed each other’s stories. We amused one another with tales of former lovers and our lives — it was what made me, me and him, him. Never any jealousy. One trip to New Orleans we went to 1231 Decatur and then over to the Richelieu Hotel bar. It was one of Clint’s favorite watering holes. We sat under Clint’s poem at the bar and drank to him and to having story-worthy lives. The Richelieu Hotel has taken down Clint’s poem. That’s what happens when there are no longer people who understand and know . . .
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