My son, Jonathan, lived with his mother in our old house near Chickamauga Lake in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The house wasn’t right on the lake, but it was close enough that Shelly (my ex-wife, as of three months prior) could take Jonathan over there with our jet skis on the weekends. I had thought about forbidding Lance—the plumbing contractor Shelly slept with while she and I were married—from using my jet ski, but Marlon convinced me that I would only be dredging up needless conflict.
During one of our weekends in late February, Jonathan and I were sitting on the living room sofa’s pull-out mattress and eating chicken patties and SpaghettiOs for dinner. Jonathan had made this chicken parmesan-esque sandwich thing with hamburger buns and a layer of SpaghettiOs above and beneath the chicken patty. By the time he took his last few bites, pieces of the hamburger bun were wet and stuck to his fingers. I handed him the roll of paper towels.
“How is it over there?” I asked. “With Lance coming over and everything.”
Jonathan tore off a paper towel. “I don’t know,” he said.
“I know he’s not moving in or anything. I just mean, is it all right for you?”
“I guess. It’s weird.”
I muted the TV. “Son, if something’s wrong, you can always—”
“Oh my god, will you—” Jonathan stood from the sofa mattress. “That’s all you talk about. You’re obsessed with Lance.”
After Jonathan went to sleep in the apartment’s only bedroom, I sat with Marlon Brando in the living room. The first time I had seen Marlon, six months earlier, I didn’t recognize him. I was accustomed to On the Waterfront Brando, a young man who gave viewers the impression they were discovering something perfect. This Brando, the old Brando, looked like how Terry Malloy would have looked if the union bosses from On the Waterfront had put two bullets through the roof of his mouth and his body had dragged the bottom of the Hudson River for a few months before washing up in my living room. But I understood how things that seemed destined for eternal beauty could decline.
I reclined on the sofa mattress, and Marlon sat on a beanbag next to the TV, his muumuu-covered girth nearly eclipsing the beanbag. His face was a sagging square. He was balding with a few strands of white hair across the top of his head. We watched Don Juan DeMarco on TBS. The movie wasn’t one of Marlon’s best, but he was still powerful. He could talk to this delusional Johnny Depp character and get him to listen. And the kid looked so convinced that Marlon was the one person who could understand everything.
“I wish I could do what you do,” I said. “Shelly, she can change herself to come off as this new thing that everybody actually believes, some inspiring parent. Me, I can’t ask Jonathan two questions without him wanting me to shut up.”
Marlon’s eyes scanned the carpet, the wadded-up paper towels, as if searching for his next word.
“You don’t become someone else, Paul,” he said. “The ocean, you know. It’s beautiful. It can look so beautiful. But there are sharks out there, whales, giant squid, nuclear submarines, shipwrecks, skeletons. Do you know how many skeletons there must be in the Pacific Ocean? And there are storms out there, storms that can wipe out entire islands. That same ocean that looks so beautiful. It doesn’t have to become anything else.”
The conversations with Marlon had begun after Shelly and I separated, a few months before the divorce. Jonathan was twelve and had started the terrifying transition into a tall adolescent whose responses I could never anticipate. On the weekends when Jonathan stayed with me, the only thing he wanted to watch on TV was sports—no more movies, no limited series. In the days leading up to those weekends, I would write out ideas for things to say to Jonathan, things I hoped could soften a person determined to be inscrutable.
When I was a teenager, my father forced me to watch his all-time favorite movie, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I hated it. All the characters were awful people. Stella Kowalski couldn’t see past the virility of her binge-drinking husband, Blanche DuBois was condescending, and Mitch’s love for Blanche was just depressing to watch. Marlon was something unexpected, though. He was so good that he didn’t seem like an actor. He seemed like a real guy, Stanley Kowalski, who did not know he was in a movie. A real guy surrounded by actors doing their best to approximate real people. Later, when watching On the Waterfront and Viva Zapata! with my father, I couldn’t believe how Marlon showed up as a real guy, but always a different real guy, in each of those movies. That ability to adapt, perfectly, to any storyline, was what I needed.
Along these lines, I asked my psychiatrist for Klonopin during our first session after my separation from Shelly. I had been all right at work so far, but I anticipated needing something more to help me through the challenges of apartment life, specifically the quiet, which was disturbing after twelve years of living with a heavy-footed wife whose steps could be heard throughout the house and a son who seemed to knock over every shampoo bottle when he showered in the morning. But my psychiatrist refused the Klonopin request, claiming that I should continue with the Paxil and Buspar until I was certain they were insufficient.
On the way home from the appointment, I pulled my car into an Arby’s parking lot and sat with the engine running. I couldn’t make myself go back to that apartment and its silence.
From the passenger seat, Marlon reached over and gripped my shoulder for the first time, and the hand felt so familiar. I told him about not being able to get Jonathan to talk anymore and how the psychiatrist wouldn’t write a Klonopin prescription and how much I hated Arby’s and their spring-shaped fries but how I had eaten at the Chick-fil-A down the street for three straight days and was too embarrassed to go back again today because then the Chick-fil-A employees would all know that I didn’t have anyone to go home to.
Marlon pointed a finger, directed me to the Arby’s drive-through line.
“I remember,” he said, “there was a pigeon once. I used to see this pigeon. I mean . . . ” He glanced upwards. “There he’d be, every time I walked outside. Every time I . . . went to get the paper, or to check the mail for a neighbor, anything. I’d always see this pigeon. Then one morning, there was a moving van outside. My upstairs neighbor—she was leaving—her children were putting her into a home. She’d been calling the FBI, the CIA, and telling them that the squirrels outside had been tracking her movements and reporting them back to the Khmer Rouge. And, so . . . I go outside to get the paper. And the pigeon is stuck, flat against the back bumper of my car, smashed flat. The moving van had, I guess, bumped into my car and parked there while the movers packed up. And I was devastated, seeing the mat of feathers and the flat beak. But I was out on the sidewalk, and I still had to get the paper. I still had to scrape that bird off my bumper with a spatula. And I still had to live there and think about that every morning and see those empty morning skies. But, we’re—” He pointed to the drive-through speaker. “You should give the curly fries another shot.”
Every day after my separation from Shelly, I would wake up in the morning, take the Paxil and Buspar, turn music on loud enough that I could hear it in the bathroom, and then force myself into the shower. It wasn’t perfect, but the music gave me something other than an empty apartment to hear. Especially tough were Mondays, which had been the loudest mornings for our family at the old house—Jonathan sleep-deprived and scrambling to find what he’d done with his books, Shelly standing in the bathroom and yelling suggestions over the sound of her hair dryer.
Every other Monday morning, after Jonathan’s visitation weekend was finished, I would take down the family picture of me, Shelly, and Jonathan that was hanging in my apartment’s living room and hide it behind the closed-up sofa bed.
During the first hour of work at the hospital, the help desk was flooded with calls about a system outage. As I spoke to callers in my conflict-defusing voice, I remembered a trip our family had taken to EPCOT when Jonathan was four years old and I ended up losing my keys in the Captain EO theater. I consulted with a security guard at the front gate and then spent an hour retracing my steps through the park. Shelly waited with Jonathan near the front gate and watched the other families leave. Exhausted by the day and by the effort required to keep Jonathan happy throughout all the walking and waiting in lines, Shelly began to cry. Jonathan, sitting on her lap, rested his head against her. “It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “We live at Disney World now.”
Throughout the week, a particular call or phrase spoken by another help desk analyst would remind me of something from the past fifteen years—mostly good things, like Jonathan’s spelling bee performance (ninth place!), or when the three of us got to see an elk crossing the road during our trip to Shelly’s grandparents in Montana, or when Shelly and I started looking for houses after I got my job at the hospital.
On the day before my next weekend with Jonathan, I overheard Vishal, another help desk analyst, on the phone laughing.
“Have a great day, ma’am.” Vishal removed his headset. “Paul, listen to this, bro. This lady tells me I’m a superhero for telling her to reboot, but it was—she says, ‘You’re like that one with the eye patch.’ Nick Fury, she means. So now I’m Black.”
I nodded and chuckled. The only superhero movie I had ever been excited to see was Superman Returns. On opening night—Jonathan was fourteen months old and still cute enough that relatives instantly agreed to babysit—Shelly and I left him with Shelly’s sister and went to the theater. At the restaurant afterward, we ate half-priced appetizers and agreed that the movie was a failure but disagreed on why. I thought Lois Lane was too self-absorbed for someone like Superman, but Shelly thought Lois was the strongest character in the movie. I thought Kevin Spacey was a wonderful Lex Luthor, but Shelly couldn’t stop wishing for Gene Hackman. I thought Marlon Brando’s appearance via unused Superman II footage was reason enough for the movie to exist.
“Brando’s dead and he still ruined that movie,” Shelly said. “He’s no Olivier.”
“Marlon’s organic,” I said.
“Olivier would have learned his lines. He was a pro.”
“Being a pro didn’t save Clash of the Titans.”
She pushed aside her pretzel sticks. “How did ‘organic’ save The Missouri Breaks?”
Shelly was right: Marlon didn’t learn his lines. Pieces of paper were strategically placed so that he could, while seemingly searching for the right words, actually be searching for the right words. He drove Coppola nuts by showing up on the set of Apocalypse Now without having looked at the script.
“But Coppola managed,” I said.
“That’s because,” she said, “Coppola’s a pro. Just ask Brando’s kids what they think of him.”
• • •
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NEAL HAMMONS's short stories have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and Kenyon Review Online. He graduated from the University of Florida's MFA program for fiction.