Old Yeller

         We’ve just finished watching Old Yeller, my boy and I. A classic film, exhumed from my childhood. I’m dabbing my eyes, my throat and

nose still too full to ask Carl what he thought. He lies quietly as the credits and music run, belly down on the sofa, his heels close enough for me to grab. I can’t see his face, except for the curve of his cheek. The bowl of chips sits on the floor beneath his dangling arm. If it were his head near my hand, maybe I would tousle his thick black curls.

         Carl usually becomes subdued the last few hours of Sunday afternoons before his mother picks him up. That’s why we fill that lull with a film. This slot, I’ve told myself, is my opportunity to teach the boy about movies. They’re my business, after all. And though he’s spent time with me on sets and has an idea of how movies are made, there aren’t too many of my own films I’d let him see. Except for Son of Kong, my PG crossover blockbuster remake of the classic sequel, the slasher movies associated with my name earn their R rating. Gratuitous violence and brief frontal nudity are marketing prerequisites. I’ve never brought Carl to the set when we film breasts. Except once, because of a scheduling snafu, but I had Hans the make up genius take Carl aside and plant a bloody ax in the boy’s forehead. As a distraction. His mom gave me Hell for letting him wear it home.

        The blood on the set never bothers Carl, nor should it. He can see the canned carnage squirted out of bottles and cans.

        “It’s like Halloween!” he said, his eyes bright, the first time I brought him with me. He watched Ralphie DiGiorgia, my assistant director, lay out a murder victim and strew an armload of severed limbs around the set. With all the scaffolding and lights and cameras, who could confuse a movie set with the real world? When you see a ghoul chatting with a gaffer and sipping a Diet Pepsi a second before your dad yells, “Action!” it’s impossible to take it seriously when the same ghoul whacks a rubberized torso with a hatchet and kicks a mannequin’s arm down a pretend gutter while whistling Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman.” Not if the actor returns to his soft drink and conversation a second after Daddy calls, “Cut!”

        But Carl isn’t allowed to see the product—two months of filming boiled down to 90 minutes of gore choreographed with brilliant psychological insight to induce audience nightmares. That’s what they pay for, but it’s not for my boy. What kind of father would I be? He can watch when he’s older if he chooses.

        Christine, my darling ex, accuses me of sending Carl home every weekend depressed. I try to explain that the sadness at the end of movies like Old Yeller is the culmination of a kind of joy—a triumph of spirit it’s nearly impossible to experience in everyday life, but she doesn’t get it. She’s neither literary nor spiritual. It seems that late every Sunday night I get the same phone call:

        “He’s crying into his pillow again, Raymond. How can you do this? Are you trying to sabotage your relationship with him? Don’t you want to see him? You’re trying to poison my relationship with him. And Klaus’s, too. Is that it?”

        Klaus is Carl’s chess master stepfather. I don’t bother trying to defend myself anymore. Once in a while by way of retaliation I’ll complain about my successor teaching my boy to “think in chess,” but I’m not really worried about it. My comments manage to set Christine off, though.

        “And what are you teaching him to think about, Raymond? Violence? Sexual perversion? What’s he get from watching you play out these horrible juvenile fantasies?” I’m not sure she can distinguish between Disney classics and the movies that keep the support checks in the mail.

        I want to say that what Carl gets from me is a father, but I really don’t want to undermine his relationship with Klaus (whose talent I genuinely respect), even though the international chess circuit keeps my boy’s stepfather out of the country for weeks at a time. And with Christine managing MindGames —“the ‘zine for intelligent game players who enjoy playing intelligent games”—Carl is being raised by Greta, his caregiver. Christine works at home, but when she’s busy, which is nearly always, nobody’s allowed near her. At least I take the boy to work with me.

        But here it is, the end of Old Yeller, and as soon as I shiver out my last sniffle, I’ll tell Carl to load up his backpack so he can be ready for his mom. Theme music plays on, as do memory shots of the big yellow dog romping with the boys, that crazy hound, mischievous and courageous, and I bite my lip again. It’s dizzyingly sappy, and I’m ashamed of myself and the movie for softening the impact of the young hero’s call to manhood: shooting his beloved, rabid dog is as solitary and clean and generous a gesture as George’s shooting of Lennie. Maybe next week we’ll graduate from animal movies to Of Mice and Men. I could tell Christine afterwards that I thought the story was about pets.

        I wish I could see Carl’s eyes. If his leg didn’t rise and fall rhythmically into the sofa like a lazy ax, I might think he was asleep. How much of what he feels about the film can he put into words?

        “Son of Kong,” I say after the credits have spooled out and the music stops, “time to get a move on.”

        “Yes, Papa Kong,” he answers. He hoists himself onto the sofa, his dark eyes still on the black screen. He’s thinking. What if he’s assessing Old Yeller through the patterns of chess?

        “Dad—” he says, blinking lazy lids, “—I want to be an actor.”

        There’s a mature set to Carl’s lips that reminds me of the mantle photograph of a smiling corporal I never knew. Your Dad, Mom insisted, a War Hero. He was also my first Doubt. But my foundation of disbelief cracks a little each weekend as I watch the Hero’s smile develop, as through time lapse photography, on my boy’s face.

        It’s hard to deny my son; I’m mired waist deep in the film industry. But an actor? Is it possible he’s misconstrued his own feelings after watching Old Yeller? Being an only child is lonely, I know. Your imagination is your only companion.

        “Listen,” I say, “maybe you could talk your mom and Klaus into getting you a dog. Or maybe I could get one here for you to play with on weekends. I suppose Sylvia could walk and feed it.” My middle-aged housekeeper spends half her day hunched on the back stoop, huffing her generic cigarettes. She might actually enjoy having an excuse to get outside. I can see the little rascal tugging at his leash—

        “No, Dad. You’re away too much. And Klaus is allergic. Really allergic. He’s always worried about getting a sinus infection right before a big match, like, he’d be sitting over the board, and his nose would drip. Right on the pawn, he says.” My son smiles faintly as he mimics: “ ‘The king and queen or the brave knights—no they are too noble too be dripped upon.’” I forgot how recently Carl had lost his lisp. I have to admit, he’s got Klaus’s accent down, though it pains me to hear how thoroughly the man has been absorbed into my boy’s life. “‘The bishop—ach, he would have me excommunicated! Only the lowly pawn remains—it is his lot in life to receive the fluids of my nose!’”

        Carl captures Klaus’s perplexed concentration with an arched eyebrow. I’d forgotten my son’s memory is nearly photographic. Or “phonographic.” He can repeat what he hears, even if he doesn’t know what the words mean.” His face relaxes, and he is ten year old Carl again.

        “What’s ‘excommunicate’?” he asks.

        “It means to get thrown out of the church.”

        “You mean like for talking too much in class?”

        “Sort of—” my thoughts are elsewhere. Does Carl treat his mom and Klaus and Greta the governess to imitations of me? “—but, no, not really. Not just thrown out of any one specific building. It means you’re not supposed to be part of that religion any more. It doesn’t recognize you.”

        “Who doesn’t recognize you?”

        “I don’t know. The powers that be.”

        “What powers? God?”

        “I suppose so,” I say. “The Big Fellow himself gives you the boot. Just like I’m about to do. Get your stuff together, Son of Kong, and your rear in gear. Your momma will be here in a minute.”

        When Carl stands up he upsets the potato chip bowl.

        “Don’t worry,” I say. “The imaginary dog will clean that up.”

        “What about acting?” he asks.

        “We’ll talk to your mother. I’m sure she’ll have plenty of excellent ideas about it. You know how she loves it when you join me on the set.”

        Carl gazes at me a second with an ambiguous smile. First one eyebrow lifts, then the other. They ride up higher on his forehead than I’ve ever seen them. It’s another adult look. It’s not surprise or dismay, exasperation or tolerance. I don’t know if it’s an imitation of somebody—it is oddly familiar—or a personal expression he’s grown into. Then he’s off to fetch his bag.

        The clock on the DVD player reads 6:15, which means Christine will be here in ten minutes. When it comes to removing my son from my company she will be remarkably punctual. I hope it’s because she misses him. I turn on the TV and the screen brightens to a doll-faced newscaster. Her porcelain cuteness dooms her to weekend anchor. Has she satisfied her ambitions?

        “Another—” she shrills, and I mute her with a quick thumb.

        Carl wants to act. I know a dozen casting agents, and half of them owe me favors. If I put Allison, my assistant, on the case tomorrow, she’d have a gig for the boy by sundown, even though she can’t stand him. Children frighten her, she says, flaring yellow smoker’s nostrils. Since Carl is the only child she ever sees, I take it personally for him. And Carl distrusts her. He never ate the licorice sticks and lemon drops she foisted on him when he was younger. “She maketh them out of dead children,” he’d lisp to me privately. He kept the candy in a glass bowl on his dresser at my place. The sight of the stiff red and black twists and the hard yellow pellets made my skin crawl.

        I could give Carl a job myself. It wouldn’t be so hard to script a small role for him in the untitled quickie we’re shooting now. He could be a victim’s narrowly escaping child or little brother, sent running down a dark alley in a futile search for help. Later we could have him round his deep brown eyes in terror at the discovery of a body, or parts of one, and then disappear down the same alley. We economize by recycling alleys and limbs, the fundamental raw materials of my genre.

        I’m thinking of ways to use my boy, considering the virtues and problems, when I sense him behind me. His breath tickles the bald spot I pretend isn’t there, but glimpse in mirrors and store windows. (When I watched myself on the “Making of Son of Kong,” I followed that patch of flesh as if it were the bouncing ball under the lyrics of a sing-a-long.)

        When Carl doesn’t speak, I gather that he’s focused on the TV. The doll-faced anchor is gone. Instead, there is a pair of photographs, school pictures of a boy and a girl not much older than Carl. The children look alike. Maybe twins: they share the same gap between large front teeth, the same lank hair and protruding ears. The same pale eyes, the girl’s slightly crossed behind her glasses.

        A woman stands on uneven porch steps, grasping a collapsing iron rail. Paint flakes from the door behind her. To one side is a battered trash can. On the other a bush shrivels against the porch like a starving mongrel.

        Microphones labeled with the letters of local TV stations urge my focus to the woman’s face. Curious neighbors crowd the frame, a grandmother with a purple scarf and scabbed nose, a boy with a Florida Marlins hat straddling a bicycle, but the shot is locked on the first woman. Of course she is related to the two children, the twins from the photographs. She squints with incomprehension or grief behind glasses like her daughter’s. Her nose is red and her loose cheeks quiver as her gapped teeth clamp again and again on her lower lip. Her ear slides through her dull hair like an actor peeking through a curtain.

        Something very bad has happened. As in my slasher films, the possibilities are limited, but all point toward a tragic end. An accident, a kidnapping, a murder. I shut off the TV. Carl doesn’t need to see this. It’s not a movie under production; it’s life. There’s no theme music. I try to deflect any difficult questions.

        “A story that was on before you came in,” I say. “Very sad. A couple of kids lost their dog. Nobody can find it.” I feel my throat constrict around my fiction, and my eyes sting. “It’s thought to be dead,” I add, as solemn as any anchorman.

        I feel Carl at my side and allow myself a sidelong glance, wary that he’ll read my lie. His features sag with grief. Has he taken my dog story to heart? Maybe he’s devastated by his discovery that his father is a liar. More likely, he has sensed the tragedy I tried to conceal. His chin is trembling, and I reach to console him. But then I see his face: his lips have drawn back and exaggerate the size of his teeth; his nose is red and swollen; a pale ear sticks out of his flattened curls. A trick of lighting has rinsed color from his irises. He wears the face of the mother on the news.

        The doorbell rings. Christine has come to claim her son, but neither the boy nor I move. Carl’s eyes well with tears. My God, I think. He’s acting!

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