Rachel rapped on my screen door. “Hello!” she called. “Anybody home?”
Just back from my Sunday afternoon run, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to see Rachel again, let alone now, when I was sweaty, thirsty and tired.
“Please,” she called. “I need your help.”
We’d met through the Personals. She was everything I’d ever wanted in a woman: pretty, sexy, sassy and smart. And responsibly employed. For me it was pretty much love at first sight. It took Rachel several dates, until I clicked with her young daughter and charmed her mother. We became a couple. Heaven!
For all of two weeks.
She dumped me with a message on my answering machine.
“This isn’t working,” she said. “I’m sorry. I met someone…. ”
She wouldn’t take my calls. Was never home when I rang her doorbell. Didn’t respond to my letters.
Rejection is every writer’s companion and far from my worst enemy. I was hurt, of course, but at 35, with a terrible marriage behind me, I knew I would recover. I’m not the stalker type, so I moved on.
Now, two months later, she was at my door.
I gave her a can of soda and took a seat on the couch next to her, admiring, as always, her alluring yet modestly attired figure.
“It’s good to see you, Rachel,” I said, putting an arm around her.
She pushed me away.
“I didn’t come for that,” she said.
I gave her an expectant look.
“I’m married now.”
“Why are you here, Rachel?”
“I wanted to say I’m sorry. I should have had better manners. I should have told you in person.”
“Told me what, exactly?”
“That you weren’t the man I needed. I need someone with a regular job.”
“I have a regular job.”
“You’re a free-lance writer.”
I gestured expansively. “I own this house. Me and the bank. My car is paid for. I eat regularly, pay my bills on time.”
“It’s a townhouse. Your Toyota is three years old. You always wear jeans. And you know what? That’s smart, because you never know one month to the next how much you’ll make. I really admire you. You’re very talented and you work hard. …”
Yadda yadda yadda.
“… but I need — “
“Somebody with a lot of money,” I said.
“No, no, that’s not right. I just need… more stability. And then I met Michael, and he was….”
“He’s in sales — and he does very well.”
“Let me guess. Drives a Mercedes. Lives in Beverly Hills.”
“Newport Beach. And it’s a BMW.”
She fumbled in her purse for a photo.
Michael seemed to have stepped out of a GQ ad: tall, movie-star handsome, immaculately groomed in Armani.
I’ve never owned a suit that cost more than $100, and I bought that one in Hong Kong. I’m average looking…if there isn’t too much light. And short. Very short.
“And now you’re living happily ever after?”
“I need to borrow some money,” she said.
I laughed. Surely some revelation was at hand. “Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” I said.
I was thinking Yeats. She was thinking something else and shrank from me.
“Michael’s in trouble,” she shrieked.
“What kind of trouble?”
“He’s kind of…. behind in his child support.”
“‘Kind of behind’?”
“A year or so.”
I beamed her my tell-me-more. She began sobbing.
“So he owes his ex-wife a bundle?”
“Three ex-wives! Five children!”
“You dumped me for a deadbeat dad—now you want me to pay his back child support?”
“It’s not what you think! Anyway, I didn’t know about all that until….”
Rachel wept uncontrollably. Tissue was inadequate. I got her a towel.
I let her cry, trying to savor the irony. It didn’t make me feel better about myself. Or about her.
When Rachel was cogent, I prepared my lance, then jabbed.
“Tall, dark and handsome, Beamer, lives in a waterfront mansion and dresses to make your heart go pitty-pat—but too cheap to support his own flesh and blood?”
Round two. Rachel cried for another five minutes, long past the point where I regretted my cruelty.
“The house— the car— the furniture— everything's leased,” she murmured. “He got behind… I had to make last month’s payments—He's in real estate and he hasn’t closed a deal since…”
“How much do you need. And what’s it for?”
Dabbing at her eyes, Rachel told me that police arrested Michael for failing to pay court-ordered child support. He told Rachel that one of his listings was about to close escrow; once out of jail, he’d get an advance on the commission. In a few days he’d pay everything.
Bail was $10,000; 10 percent to a bondsman in cash, non-refundable. So, two days earlier, on Friday evening, she’d written a check for $1,000 to get Michael out of orange coveralls and back into Armani.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“All my savings went for car payments and rent!”
I nodded to show that I understood. I didn’t.
“I couldn’t let him stay in jail,” she wailed. “I took $1,000 in cash from the posting drawer.”
Rachel worked for a large bank; she supervised “posting,” ensuring that each deposit or withdrawal was debited or credited to the proper account.
“Before we closed for the weekend, I wrote a personal check,” she explained. “To balance my books. Tomorrow I’ll have to deposit that check, but there’s not even a hundred dollars in my account.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked, incredulous.
“Michael said that he had emergency cash hidden in his office. He said he’d pay me back right away.”
“And you believed him?”
Round three of the waterworks show. I waited until she dried her eyes. She looked more vulnerable, more appealing than ever.
I despised myself for still wanting her.
“Where’s Michael now?”
“Showing a house,” replied Rachel.
“So—a divorce? An annulment?”
“I love Michael and he loves me. We’ll get through this .”
“He lied to you, manipulated you into embezzling—what’s wrong with you?”
“It’s really more of a misunderstanding,” she said. “We’ll work it out.”
You can’t make this kind of stuff up.
“And if you don’t return the cash tomorrow,?” I asked.
“They’ll call the police,” she said. “Even if I don’t go to prison, I’ll never get another good job.”
That kind of a misunderstanding. But I didn’t say it aloud.
“Why come to me?” I asked, relishing the moment. “Surely your mother could help?”
“Mom hates Michael. Says she always knew he was a phony, that I was a fool to fall for his act and that I should have married you.”
Oddly, this did not make me feel better.
“Your mother would let you go to jail?”
“She said she’ll help with a lawyer, but she wouldn’t give me the money because I deserve to be punished.”
Wow, I thought. Tough love.
“I’m only a free-lance writer,” I said. “I live in this crappy townhouse, wear jeans and drive a crappy old Toyota. A thousand bucks is a lot to me.”
Actually, at that moment it wasn’t: I’d just scored a major reprint sale and landed a lucrative brochure project. I was flush.
Rachel worked the ring off the third finger of her left hand. The stone was easily three carats, its myriad facets refracting sunbeams as tiny rainbows.
“Take this for collateral,” she said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a zircon. No pawn shop would give her as much as $50 for it.
“I don’t want your ring,” I said.
“I’ll open a savings account for you and deposit $50 a month.”
I thought about it for a long moment, then wrote her a check.
“I can’t let you go to jail,” I said.
“Thank you! I’ll pay you back! Every cent, with interest. Thank you!”
I didn’t think she would — but I was curious: Years earlier, my then-wife committed a serious crime; although I knew nothing of it until her arrest, she tried to wriggle free by blaming me. Though shocked and horrified, I still loved her. I couldn’t let her go to prison, so I naively offered to sacrifice my freedom for hers; improbably, this became the twisting path to my own subsequent liberation.
All this cost me my savings and a promising career as an Army officer. And of course, I couldn't be married to someone that I couldn't trust.
Now I was watching a replay, gender roles reversed: Michael betrays Rachel; she risks her freedom for his. It almost restored my faith in womanhood.
It was worth a grand to see how things worked out.
A week later the mail brought a bank book with a balance of $10. Not $50. A month later Rachel deposited another $10. She was trying. Ten more the following month and ten the next.
Then nothing. Her phone was disconnected. New tenants occupied the Newport house. Rachel left the bank, though why, how or when they wouldn’t say. I never heard from her again.
Many years later, when I wrote my first movie– the first that was produced – I made my villain a tall, good-looking, well-dressed serial killer with a flashy car. He seduces a needy woman, manipulates her into embezzling, murders her for the loot. Then he does it again. My screen lothario’s last victim supervises accounts posting for a large bank. She takes cash on a Friday afternoon, believing that her lover will repay her before Monday’s reckoning. Right.
At the climax my hero swoops in, shoots the killer, saves the woman — and turns her over to the cops for embezzling.
That screenplay brought way more than $1,000.
I love being a writer: Nothing in my life goes to waste and every story ends as I choose.
Writing well is the best revenge.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
On a stultifying October day in the Central Highlands, I sought refuge from the swarms of tiny flies and the pitiless midday sun in the almost airless shade of the press tent. Perched on a footlocker while pecking out a news release on my dusty portable, a sudden shadow fell across me. Looking up, I caught the silhouetted figure of a tall man easing past the mosquito curtain. He paused in the entrance while his eyes adjusted to the murk, and I saw that he was in late middle age and bearded—and therefore must be a civilian. He wore hiking boots and cargo pants, with a tailor-made jacket resembling the old style of Army fatigue shirts, but in a different shade of green.
Obviously, he was new to Vietnam.
"Hello," he said, spotting me and taking a step forward. "I'm John Steinbeck."
I had met Winston Churchill's grandson. I had dined with six Pulitzer Prize winning newsmen, played bodyguard, driver and factotum to S.L.A. Marshall, America's most respected—and feared—author of military histories. I had escorted actor Robert Mitchum around the division and in the field, chatted at length with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and ran interference for pop superstar singer Bobby Rydell. At 25, with three stripes on my sleeve, I was no longer in awe of celebrity.
Even so, I was startled. John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist? In Vietnam? In An Khe? In the First Air Cavalry Division press tent? In my office?
"The John Steinbeck?" I said, getting to my feet.
"Oh no," he chuckled. "John Steinbeck the Third. There must be quite a few John Steinbecks."
I giggled. Steinbeck sat down on a rickety field chair, and soon I was telling him where I was from, and about my duties. That I was a combat photographer who had recently been promoted into a job that required writing and editing, and that I was still feeling my way. So disarming was Steinbeck's manner that I soon tucked away all awe; we were merely two guys, one very young and the other aging, worldly but unassuming, sharing bits of our lives with each other. I offered him water from my canteen, and as he sipped I finally asked what had first came to my mind: What was he doing in Vietnam?
"I'm with Newsday," he said, and when I looked blank he said that this was a daily newspaper serving Long Island, New York.
"I never knew that you were a reporter, too," I replied.
"More of a special correspondent,” he explained. “Came out mostly because Mr. Johnson asked me to have a look around," he said, and then my boss, Major Phillips, arrived to whisk him off to meet the commanding general.
Half an hour later the phone rang: Nick Palladino, calling from Saigon. Until a few months earlier, he had worked for me. Then Nick volunteered for another six months in Vietnam for a chance to work for Armed Forces Radio & Television in Saigon. Nick was my personal back-channel to Saigon's rumor mill, and he was calling now to share another, more interesting reason for Steinbeck's sudden appearance: The novelist's eldest son, John IV, an Army broadcaster on Armed Forces Radio, was in hot water for smoking dope. Nick explained that young John had gone on the air, “stoned out of his gourd,” to rant about his unit commander and various other individuals whom he identified by name. He had taken the precaution of chaining the door to the studio shut; to get him off the air, the Army had to shut down the transmitter.
Scuttlebutt on the senior Steinbeck, said Nick, was that he had come to Vietnam to remind the brass that it was his son that they had arrested. (Many years later, the younger Steinbeck would write a salacious, self-indulgent book about his Saigon experiences in which he bragged about using marijuana in Vietnam but omitted mention of his arrest. He died in 1991.)
Steinbeck returned the next morning in the general's jeep, and Major Phillips told me that I was to show the novelist around, take him anywhere he wanted to go, arrange for helicopters, meals, billets, if available, answer his questions to the best of my ability, and above all, not let him get killed.
The general's driver took us to the Golf Course, as our enormous grassy helicopter landing field was known, and as we waited for a pilot, Steinbeck moved close. In a low voice, he said, "Two things. Don't introduce me by my last name. People don't recognize my face, but they will know my name. I didn't come all this way to talk about myself. I came to hear what they have to say about themselves, and the war."
I nodded, yes.
"And remember what I said yesterday about Mr. Johnson?" he asked.
"You said that he asked you to have a look around."
"Right. Now please forget that I ever said that."
Only then did I realize that the Mr. Johnson he'd mentioned was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, and the one then in the White House.
If I never knew with certainty what brought Steinbeck to Vietnam, his visit to the Air Cav was easy to divine: We had pretty much invented helicopter warfare and thanks in part to Phillip’s predecessor, Major Charles Siler, and his wise guidance, we were the most publicized outfit in the war and arguably the most glamorous. In the Pentagon view, as our fortunes went, so would go the war. And just then, things were going well.
The first thing Steinbeck wanted to do was go on an air assault. He hopped a Huey with as much spring in his 65-year-old legs as the mostly teenaged grunts we rode with and we roared into the sky, headed for a jungle clearing hacked out of a mountain shoulder. We rode the third ship in; for once I was not playing door gunner. The operation was a dry hole, no enemy contact. Only Steinbeck seemed disappointed.
I soon realized that he was a brilliant interviewer; few of his subjects fully grasped that they were being ever-so-gently interrogated. He guided conversations with a few deft questions, listening carefully, saying little. He took notes, but usually later, rarely in view of a subject. I never saw what he wrote, but I suspect that he was out for atmosphere, looking to assess the moods and motivations of those fighting the war. Like the best reporters, he preferred the company of privates and noncoms, men whose occupations brought them the greatest risks. Back at base camp, he often joined a battalion or brigade commander for an evening of off-the-record conversation, an enterprise from which I was, alas, excluded.
I was still very much a novice writer; most of my published work was heavily edited. Nevertheless I clung to the expectation that I’d eventually learn better techniques. So one day, riding next to Steinbeck in a twin-engine Caribou, I screwed up my courage and asked him about writing. I found it terribly hard, I said. I was intimidated by the blank page. I feared making stupid mistakes. I knew that I should edit my copy more, that I should rewrite stories again and again before submitting them, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Worse, by the time I finished a piece, I was mentally exhausted by the whole process, sick of the material and anxious to move on.
He grinned. “It’s not brain surgery,” he shouted, over the roar of the twin turboprops. “It’s a craft. Not much different from carpentry.”
I frowned, not getting it at all.
“Carpenters make all sorts of different things," he explained. "Forms for pouring cement. Tables. Cabinets. Boxes. Even violins. Each requires a different kind of wood. Sometimes more than one kind.”
I shook my head, still not there.
“Think of words as wood. Choose different kinds of wood—words—for different kinds of writing. Short, simple words for news. Longer, more complex words for maybe a critical review or an essay. Get it now?”
Comprehension slowly dawned. I nodded, yes. But then what?
“Carpenters use all sorts of tools. Different saws for different kinds of cuts. Different planes, files, sandpaper, depending on the job, the finish required. Different kind of sealants—varnish or shellac or paint. Different types of nails, different kinds of hammers to drive them.
“Writers tools are techniques. Read different writers—many, many different riders. See how they use their craft to handle similar situations. Think of yourself as a carpenter, not an artist. If you make a mistake, fix it. Throw a sentence away, like it was a piece of wood that you’d ruined. So what — it’s just a piece of wood! Get another piece and go back to work.”
I sort of got it. It was a lot to think about. I wanted to talk more, to ask more questions, but I never again found the right moment in our time together.
When Steinbeck was ready to leave, I drove the section jeep to the Golf Course. Baking in the late morning sun, we watched his plane float down. Steinbeck shook my hand. "Thanks for everything," he said. "I mean it."
"Just doing my job," I replied.
"Then thanks for never asking me what I meant on page thirty-seven of Tortilla Flat or the last paragraph in Of Mice and Men. I appreciate your discretion."
I inspected imaginary mud on my boots. "I had to read The Red Pony in the ninth grade," I said. "Aside from that…"
Steinbeck threw back his head and roared. "They told me you'd been chosen specially for this job," he said. "I didn't understand how that worked, but I do now!"
My face was a boiled lobster. "I haven't been to college yet," I protested, and then the twin-engine C-123 taxied up, its fierce turboprops making conversation impossible.
We stood watching as the rear hatch slowly opened.
The first man off the plane wore a cream-colored safari suit, a bulky redhead who looked around anxiously, then approached me, the only sergeant not scurrying about.
"I've got to wee-wee!", he bellowed—just as the near engine shut down. Heads swiveled toward his famous and unmistakable baritone.
I pointed at a cluster of four-foot-long gray plastic shipping tubes angled up from a gravel patch. Once they had held aerial rockets. Now they served as a pissoir. A grimy strip of canvas, intended for user privacy, lay crumpled nearby, long since blown over by prop blast.
"There?" objected the redhead. "But everyone will see!"
Steinbeck hefted his bag and started toward the aircraft. He came back to shake the newcomer's hand. "John Steinbeck," he said.
"Arthur Godfrey," returned the redhead, unnecessarily.
Godfrey was the host of a variety show syndicated nationwide on radio and television, a man more famous, in that era, than many movie stars.
"And I've really got to wee-wee," he added.
In the months to come, safely stateside, I hunted up a copy of Steinbeck's The Log From The Sea of Cortez in a used-book shop. I found it fascinating; to this day its imagery lingers in my mind. As the years went by, I read Steinbeck’s novels, one by one, losing myself in the sweep of East Of Eden, feeling pity and outrage through The Grapes of Wrath and weeping over Of Mice And Men. I learned much about my craft from Steinbeck's lean, careful cadences and his use of apparently simple language to convey fine subtleties. Every now and then I came to a phrase or a thought that conjured up a moment that we had shared in Vietnam, the way he cocked his head to listen to somebody, or the look in his eyes when he contemplated a mangled body in black pajamas.
And when I came to some particularly humorous line, I often flashed on my last glimpse of Steinbeck, climbing the steep ramp of the C-123 as the pilot restarted the engines, then shaking his head in mirth while dozens of soldiers and airmen gaped at a fleshy, red-headed man standing at a piss tube, his clothing soaked by a propeller-driven hurricane of his own essence, a surreal vignette that became my personal metaphor for a war that I still struggle to understand.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
My plan required me to drive from Los Angeles to Ft. Benning, Georgia, in four days. I had thought everything through and there were risks, but not many. I had faith in my personal powers. Although success rested on one key assumption, I was certain that this was rock solid fact. Dead certain.
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.