by Michael Koenig
Michael Koenig's stories have appeared in recent issues of The MacGuffin, Harpur Palate, Drunk Monkeys, Literary Orphans, Hardboiled, and the Paterson Literary Review. His work has also been anthologized in Awake! A Reader for the Sleepless (Soft Skull Press) and The Shamus Sampler 2, an international detective fiction collection.
Hello, old friend. Hard to believe it’s been nearly 60 years; you’re looking well.
So now we’ve come to speak about the past. You’ve made a habit of this; some might say a career. So many things have been written about those days; I’ve never read any of them. The factual errors and inconsistencies would drive me mad.
When we met, we thought that we were incredibly cynical, though now it seems as if we were impossibly naïve. It was 1937, and though the whole world was falling apart, after a few years of false hope, all my memories are tied up in my impressions of you.
I’m not even sure I can say that we were ever really friends, though we were inseparable, because we shared the same ambitions, or so it seemed at the time. You brought me a play, called The Price of Coal. None of the characters had names: The Boss, The Landlord, The Pimp, The Young Man, The Girl. I told you I found your writing derivative and distressingly literal-minded. You smiled.
“So, does that mean that you’re going to direct it?,” you said. I was the hottest young director in New York at the time, or so I had convinced myself.
“It needs a lot of work.”
“Yes, yes, of course. And by the way it’s going to be a socialist musical.”
“All right then. Let’s get started.”
You came up with the grandiose ideas; I was the one who had to figure out how to put them on stage. Even in those days you called me a sellout because I didn’t want the play to be four hours long.
We immediately developed a perfect working partnership. I would tell you that the play didn’t work, that the characters were stock, and immediately threaten to quit. You would return the next morning with pages typed in a frenzy, mad scribbles all around, red arrows pointing to where new sentences would go, fragments of paper pasted on top of other paragraphs.
I would threaten to quit again. And then we’d get back to work.
And the result would be better, but only a little. For a moment, hope would abide, though we were scheduled to open in only two months, and there were threats to pull our funding, and it seemed as if we would lose the theater, and John D. Rockefeller himself called us a bunch of itinerant pipsqueaks, or so the legend goes. Well, that was fun.
The last few weeks, we didn’t sleep at all. We slept in the back of taxi cabs, or in the back of the theater, while the actors rehearsed. And as the opening approached, it seemed as if we had something that might not be totally embarrassing, though perhaps our perceptions were warped by the collective lack of sleep.
“Well,” I told you, as we approached the theater. “There’s no turning back now.”
And if you believed the accounts you’ve read about opening night, you’d think the house was packed and the earth trembled in recognition of our unfettered idealism. If the house was indeed packed, it was with friends of the actors, all of whom got in for free. The reviews were mixed, what reviews there were, and the play closed in two weeks, not because of any organized political resistance, but because audiences were scarce.
So we decided to open our own theater. Were you the one who came up with the name, American Theater Collective? It sounds so grand. All you need are a few chairs and a place to rehearse and suddenly you’re a THEATRICAL PROFESSIONAL, even if the roof leaks every time it rains.
A year later, I became the first of your many Judases. I received an offer from RKO, promises that I could make whatever movies I wanted, as long as I stayed within a certain budget. The offer of a lifetime, even if it was a gold plated lie.
It saddened me deeply to hear that our little company fell apart so soon after I left, even though it confirmed the warnings that I’d been making all along. And even though I was the first to leave for Los Angeles, you soon followed, grumbling all the way.
I followed your Hollywood career at a distance. You were doing well when they were making the kind of pictures you like to make, and then the work dried up. After the war ended, nobody wanted to go see Our Soviet Cousins anymore. Those were dark days for idealists and absolutists like you.
I shuddered when I heard that you had been subpoenaed. I thought about reaching out to you, but what could I say? It was an unpleasant time.
I thought you gave a magnificent performance in front of the committee. I would have expected nothing less. I watched the newsreels in my screening room and insisted the projectionist run it back again, laughing at your audacity. You looked scared. I could see that, even with the defiance.
It is not the right of this committee or any other committee to interrogate a man based solely upon his personal beliefs.
See? I have it memorized. Brilliant, but I would have trimmed it down.
Who would have thought then that you could have spent a half century of free lunches bragging about the sacrifices you made, even though you only spent a few days in jail?
You ask how this whole thing with me began, though surely you must already know. The committee contacted me first by letter, full of innocuous language about American ideals. I ignored their letter; I received a great deal of mail in those days.
Within a few weeks, another letter arrived by courier, saying largely the same things; I ignored it as well. A few days later, I received a phone call from an investigator. He spoke in the smarmy tones of a career lackey; he encouraged my cooperation, he said he was a fan of my work. He said he was going to be out on the west coast soon; he said, he would like to meet me. I agreed to see him, as long as he didn’t take up too much of my time.
I played dumb, but certainly I was aware of what was going on in the country at that time, even though by then I had become largely apolitical.
I knew that what he wanted was a symbolic offering, a sacrifice. He wanted me to prove my loyalty to American ideals by committing an act of indecency.
He mentioned your name specifically. He knew better than I did what you believed; you had never kept it a secret. I was not the instigator of your destruction; it was inevitable, given the hysteria of the times.
He said that I could testify voluntarily, in a few months time; if I refused, they would compel me to do so. He sent me a train ticket and made a hotel reservation in my name.
My new friend met me at the station. We chattered innocuously in the car. He did not take me to the hotel, but directly to the offices of the committee.
I remember sitting in the lobby, enclosed entirely in marble, as commodious as the waiting room of the railway station, if not quite as crowded. Because of my nervousness, I was whistling and tapping my feet, while trying to keep an eye on my bags.
They kept me waiting awhile. They were interviewing other people, I think; but they kept us separated. We entered through the front door and left through the back, so that none of us would have the chance to speak.
My little friend was sitting with me on the bench; he had taken to giving me advice. He patted me on the back as I walked in the door.
They asked me about my beliefs and I told them of my youthful indiscretions, memberships in idealistic organizations, plotting the overthrow of capitalism in various New York apartments while drinking jug wine and sharing bowls of spaghetti. I acknowledged that I had signed a few of the 25 petitions that changed the world, probably because of a few of them were carried by pretty girls. The chairman laughed. I worked in the anecdote about the two chess players who came to the meetings, pondering a move as they nibbled on thinly sliced apples. At the conclusion of every argument, the chess players would silently nod their assent.
Pause for emphasis. They asked me who was there with me and I scratched my chin and mentioned a name I knew to be harmless, as if it had just occurred to me, as well as a handful more, some of whom were deceased.
They thanked me for my service to our country; I checked my watch: 45 minutes, almost on the dot. Looking back on it, I am extraordinarily impressed with how much humility I showed.
This was the dress rehearsal. We agreed to meet again in one week. They handed me a typewritten statement to read; my words, with the music removed.
In the next few days, I had difficulty sleeping; the mattress in my hotel was too soft.
When the day came, I remember being blinded by a flash as I was giving the oath. This is the photograph you have in your hands.
I recited my statement in their trite terminology; it went exactly as planned. Anyone can be quite charming if they know exactly what everyone else is going to say.
The chairman of the committee thanked me and let me off with a stern lecture. I told him that I had learned my lesson and would never engage in unamerican activities again.
(As far as I know, you suffered no additional consequences. At least your name was in the papers again.)
And when the whole mess ended, you moved back to New York. I stayed in Los Angeles.
The studio brought me a script called Infiltrator, about a communist spy who infiltrates a local elementary school. I refused to do it. They threatened me with suspension, but I walked away until eventually they gave it to another, less accomplished director. I cackled with delight when the picture flopped. I resist cartoon explanations, on whichever side.
Eventually I went on to make a movie called Witness to a Murder in which an ordinary man must get up the courage to testify and put a group of mobsters in jail. You always accused me of making an obvious allegory about our situation. It’s widely considered a classic now, the best thing I’ve ever done. I might have hired you to punch up the dialogue, if only to give you the opportunity to refuse, but my hands were tied and my mouth gagged. It doesn’t really matter anyway, does it? I’m absolutely certain that you never would have done it, no matter how much you needed the money.
These days, you’re the only person left who’s still interested in interrogating me about my political beliefs. And though I appreciate the fervency of your ideals, what’s the point really? We only ever had the sketch of a revolution. There was a joke I would tell my friends in that era. I was never a dedicated leftist. I have always been a social Socialist.
During the Depression, everyone else was as desperate as we theater people had always been. We had become a nation of day workers and trashcan fishermen. It seemed as if the whole rotten system was ready to collapse. You saw an opportunity to renovate the world. For awhile I got swept up in it too. Who couldn’t help but be angry at what had happened all around us?
Unlike most of us you never got tired of hearing your own romantic spew, though politics was far more appealing than any lover could be. This made you the perfect martyr; you were steadfast, even when proven wrong.
I’m sick of this topic; I cannot tell you how many times I have answered these questions. People don’t understand; yes, it was an awful thing I did; it was an awful time. If they wanted their little act of contrition, how could I refuse? Meanwhile you’ve spent the last 20 years attending ceremonies. How many lifetime achievement awards does a person need in only one lifetime? I suppose I shall have to console myself with my mansion and my money, and all the work I’ve done.
I get honored too, but for my work—the kind of honors you receive when they hear you’ve gotten a fatal diagnosis. As far as I’m concerned, the only prize worth winning is one more breath. Recognition is pointless, says the man who has received them all. If I were still struggling, I’d want to burn the building down.
That book you wrote about me was bullshit, do you know that? Well, I suppose it wasn't just about me, but I was the second leading character. Your villains are always so sharply drawn. You can spot them ten miles away.
I have no plans to write my memoirs. I no longer grovel for the approval of strangers. I don't even open fan mail anymore, except to reuse the stamps on the return envelopes. Don’t worry about me; I have plenty of money.
I don’t even care about money, says the man who has millions. All I ever wanted to do was work. My life is the same as it was, whether you have a budget of a million dollars or need to get up a collection to buy sandwiches for the cast. Every show is a disaster. And then you create a miracle. I only wish I hadn’t grown too old to do it anymore.
At least I respect you enough not to offer an apology. These days most of them read like elaborate forms of self-promotion. Conversation is dead, replaced by the sales pitch. God, I sound like an old man. It’s your fault. Nobody listens to me for more than a few minutes anymore.
So I return all your hatred with love, knowing full well that this pisses you off immensely. Who will you have to bicker with when I’m gone? Don’t worry—I’m planning to outlive you.
I only agreed to this meeting because I wanted to see you again, old friend. How is your health? Have you been feeling the chill? I have forgiven you for your vitriol; I don’t see why you cannot forgive me. No one can stand up to this sort of scrutiny. Everyone makes exceptions. I have nothing more to say.