In case you have a few minutes and feel like reading something new, here is the first chapter (or the first part of it anyway) of my novel. The book is due from the printer next week, and then I head for a Chaplin conference in Ohio end of the week. I hope you enjoy this.
An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.
- J. D. Salinger
Creativity takes courage.
- Henri Matisse
“You like Charlie Chaplin?”
The guy in the next seat obviously had noticed the book I was reading. From the tone of his voice, I knew he wasn’t a Chaplin fan.
“Yeah, I think he’s pretty funny.” I wasn’t really interested in getting into a conversation with him, not with a four-hour flight ahead of me.
“You look like an intelligent guy. Let me ask you a question.” He rolled up his Sports Illustrated and jammed it into the magazine pocket. “How can you find running around in circles and poking people with a cane and throwing pies funny?”
I kept my book open. “Chaplin did more than that. He wasn’t big with pies either. Other comics did pies.” I couldn’t believe we were discussing pies at thirty-thousand feet. I felt trapped in my seat, there wasn’t enough leg room, my sneakers looked dumb.
“Anything in that book about him being a Commie?” he said.
The captain’s voice interrupted with information about altitude, cruising
speed, and the approximate time we’d be landing in LA Even though I didn’t want to go any further with this guy, the Commie remark bothered me.
“That actually was never a fair accusation,” I said. “He wasn’t a Communist. Maybe if you’d read a little about him, you’d know what that was all about.”
“I know they kicked him out of this country. I don’t have to read more than that. And what about all those little girls he was messing around with? You saying that didn’t happen?” With each accusation, his voice grew louder.
I didn’t answer. Confrontation makes me uneasy. Given a different situation I might have launched into a stout defense of Chaplin and his personal life. Like when you stick up for a friend who’s not there. Not this time, though. I just wanted to be left alone, read my book, prepare for the opportunity ahead in Los Angeles.
“I guess there’re some people who don’t like him,” I said. “I just think he’s funny, that’s all.”
I missed Lauren. I still felt the need to reach over and hold her hand on takeoffs and landings. That’s when I get nervous. Lauren was always there, reassuring me with her warmth and strength. But Costa Rica had ended that. I hadn’t flown since then, nor gone bike riding, our favorite sport.
“Now Bob Hope...he was funny,” he said and returned to his Sports Illustrated.
I picked up my laptop, briefcase and book, and moved to an empty seat further back. I was still trying to get a handle on my interview tomorrow. Their consideration of hiring a freelancer from Columbus, Ohio, to write a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, still baffled me. Sure, I had good credentials on Chaplin, and writing for film had been my goal for the last several years. My shelves were stacked with scripts, treatments, and concepts, none of which had aroused much interest. Sometimes luck follows persistence. Still, why me?
The rest of the flight was smooth. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last smooth period in my life for awhile.
The following day in LA shaped up as relatively predictable. I’d grab breakfast in the coffee shop at nine, spend a couple of hours in my room reviewing notes, take a walk to put my thoughts in order, eat a light lunch, then be at the production house a little before one for the interview. By late afternoon I’d be on a plane headed back to Columbus, either to continue my gradual decay there or pack for the return trip to LA That was the only part I couldn’t predict. Or so I thought.
The phone rang after breakfast.
“Mr. Thiery, this is the front desk. We have a package for you.”
“A package? For me?”
“Yes, sir. A large manila envelope. Shall I send it up, or would you prefer to fetch it?” The clerk with a British accent seemed to be the hotel’s attempt to add some class to a pleasant but otherwise undistinguished Hollywood establishment.
“I’ll come down.” I hadn’t expected a package, not even mail or messages. I was here for only the one day. Maybe it had something to do with my pending interview. I “fetched” the envelope, opened it on the elevator and a book slid out, one that was appropriate for the day’s events: David Robinson’s acclaimed biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art. I flipped through it and saw no note, no explanation for its presence, no name or address. I already owned the book, had read it more than once, referred to it dozens of times. This was, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written about Chaplin. My copy was sitting on a shelf back home, along with another hundred or so books about him.
I called the front desk. “Where did this package come from?”
“A gentleman left it here, Mr. Thiery, just minutes before I called you.”
“What did he look like?”
“Rather short, looked to be in his fifties, white hair. Steel-rimmed glasses, I believe.”
“Did he leave a name? Or a message?”
“No, sir. All he said was, ‘I think Mr. Thiery needs this.’ Something like that. He was a cheerful sort, pleasant smile. Is there anything wrong, sir?”
I told him no and hung up. The book was obviously used, the dust-jacket well worn, the black and white cover photo of Chaplin slightly faded, the edges of the pages stained. My sense of order began to unravel as I looked through the book. Notes had been written in the margins, words and phrases underlined or circled, large “X’s” scrawled, seemingly at random, with comments such as “rubbish” and “not so” and “Yes.” Not an abundance of comments, but enough to hold my interest. The previous owner, it seemed, had either possessed a keen insight into Chaplin or a willingness to question the author. Why it had been passed on to me, and who had delivered it, puzzled me. I worked my way through the book, paying closer attention to the markings, balancing them with my knowledge of Chaplin’s life. I didn’t know if the comments were accurate. They were, however, within the realm of possibility, with some intriguing speculation about his life and art.
I forgot about my walk, about lunch, and spent the rest of the time engrossed in the book. If I got the job, I would spend my next three months focused on my favorite personality of all time, attempting to define the line between an artist’s work and his private life. One other line would become significant, a line that would test my sense of reality, a line that I had previously believed to be impossible to cross.