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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
A visitor to San Francisco in the late 'fifties might well have been advised that along with the cable cars, the Coit Tower, and the Golden Gate Bridge, he should look for Big Dan Lavette. While not nearly as well known as the above, except locally, Dan Lavette was nevertheless a sort of civic fixture, and almost any morning, the weather being tolerable, he could be found striding along the Embarcadero with his wife, Jean. Asking for further facts, the visitor would be told to look for a large, heavyset man, somewhat over six feet in height, with a shock of curly snow-white hair and a brown face as lined and creased as a relief map of Northern California. He would most likely be wearing gray flannels and an Irish hand-knit pullover and his arm would be linked with the arm of a handsome, white-haired woman almost as tall as he was. From the Ferry Building to Fisherman's Wharf, they knew every shopkeeper, sidewalk vendor, fisherman, and Embarcadero drifter and walker.
Usually by nine o'clock, the Lavettes had left their home on Russian Hill and were headed down Leavenworth toward the bay, but now and again, in the summertime, when the press of tourists on the Embarcadero becomes very heavy, they would drive to Golden Gate Park and do their walking between the Japanese Tea Garden and the Pacific Ocean, and back. They were good walkers, and after almost half a century of knowing each other, their silences were as pertinent and as comfortable as their conversation.
On this morning, during the last week of August, they had decided to take their morning stroll in the Golden Gate Park. The weather had turned chilly, as it sometimes does in August, and the Pacific mist that enveloped the city showed no sign of dissipating. Once they were in the park, Jean wondered whether this might not be a better day to build a fire in Dan's study and have a cocktail before lunch. Dan was ready to agree, but he pointed out that in the mist, the Japanese garden had a haunting and unusual beauty, and since they were there, why not settle for a walk through the Tea Garden.
"As my master desires," Jean said.
"Right, old lady. That's the way I like to hear it put." Jean was wearing a gray pleated skirt and a white cashmere sweater, and her husband eyed her approvingly as she got out of the car. "You look good today."
"Not every day?"
"I like what you're wearing."
"It's old, and it has no style."
"Well, that puts me in my place."
"No, Danny boy, that makes it all the more delicious flattery, and flattery at age sixty-eight is very special." She took his arm, and they began to walk along the twisting paths of the Tea Garden. They had the place to themselves; not another soul was in sight.
Then, coming around a patch of shrubbery, they faced two men, young men in their middle twenties, wearing jeans, T-shirts and tight leather jackets. One of them had stringy, light, streaked hair that fell to his shoulders; the other was darker, low sideburns, a heavy chin. The one with the light, streaked hair had pale eyes, and he had a long, slender switchblade in his hand. He was nervously alert, on his toes, his body vibrating slightly. The darker one had a set of brass knuckles on his clenched right fist. The light-haired man was tall and well built; the other was smaller and slight.
"O.K., pops," said the one with the knife. "Empty your pockets. And you, lady, just drop your purse."
"Sure," Dan agreed. "Take it easy. No trouble at all." He felt Jean's clutch on his arm tighten, and he whispered to her, "Let go of me, baby." She let go of his arm and dropped her purse to the ground.
"No whispering," the small man said, grinning. "We want to hear it all."
"There's over a hundred dollars," Dan said, taking out his billfold. He held it out, and the man with the brass knuckles took it. "That's a good hit," Dan said. "We don't want any trouble."
"No trouble, pops. I want your watch and also the old tomato's."
As Dan took off his watch, the man with the knife said, "That old lady's stacked like a brick shithouse. You ever had a piece of old ass, Lucky?"
"You got your money," Dan said. "Play it cool and get out of here."
The light-haired man stepped forward and put the edge of his knife against Dan's throat. "You make one move, daddy, and I cut you up like cheesecake." And to the other, "See if the old biddy's real or the tits are phonies."
Jean stood quietly, not moving, not backing away as the smaller man approached her. He reached out to touch her breast, and at that moment, as the light-haired man turned his head to watch, Dan brought up his knee into the tall man's groin. He felt a nick of pain in his neck, and then, as the tall man doubled over in pain, Dan struck him on the side of his face with all his strength. At the same time, he felt the stunning blow of the brass knuckles on his left shoulder. As he leaped away, the small man came at him, and Dan, taking a glancing blow again, managed to grab the little man's arm in both his hands. With all his strength, he swung the man off the ground and threw him across the path into a clump of bushes. The tall man lay on the path, unconscious. The other one crawled out of the bushes, whimpering in pain, his arm dislocated, and stumbled away as fast as he could.
Dan stood trembling, his chest heaving, a trickle of blood running down over his sweater.
"My god, he cut you!" Jean cried.
"It's nothing. Just a scratch."
"Let me look at it. You're bleeding like a pig"
"Thank you," he panted. "Just what I need."
"Give me your handkerchief." His hand shook as he held it out to her. "This will hold it. Thank God for turtleneck sweaters! What a hoodlum you are!"
He nodded, grimacing.
"Are you all right, Danny?"
The pain in his chest eased. "Sure I'm all right." He took several deep breaths. "Wouldn't you know it? Midmorning in the park, and not a cop or a soul in sight. There's civilization for you."
Jean had picked up his wallet and her purse. "I think you killed him, Danny. He hasn't moved."
"Not likely." He bent over and reached into the unconscious man's pocket.
"What are you doing?"
"I want my watch. I paid two hundred dollars for that watch."
The man groaned.
"Danny, let's get out of here," Jean begged him.
"And leave this shithead here to mug someone else? Not likely."
The man was on his hands and knees now, groaning with pain. Dan picked up the knife and handed it to Jean. Then he pulled the man to his feet by the collar, twisted one arm behind his back, and said to him, "We're going to walk back up there, sonny. You make one move, and I'll break your arm — and believe me, it will give me pleasure."
It was past lunchtime when they finally finished with the police and the depositions. Jean had washed out the cut and put a Band-Aid on it, and Dan had changed his clothes and sat sprawled in a chair in the study, a cigar in one hand, a drink in the other.
"I want you to see Dr. Kellman," Jean said. "Don't think I didn't see you sucking in your breath and feeling your chest."
"It's nothing. I'm fine."
"And the cigar!"
"Woman, for God's sake, I saved you from a fate worse than death."
"I don't know. To be raped at my age — that would be an experience. And what a monster you are! I never would have believed it, that sweet, white-haired old man our Mayor has called a civic treasure."
"Do you know, baby, I haven't been in a real brawl in thirty-five years. I guess, like riding a bicycle, it's something you don't forget. Only I didn't want it. All I wanted was for them to take the money and get out of there."
"It was very brave and noble of you, Danny."
"You're damn right it was! And also stupid — to jump a guy with a knife at my throat."
"Ah, well, it's not every woman who's fought over at my age. Only from now on, we shall walk on the Embarcadero. The world is changing, Danny."
"It certainly is," he agreed.
"The sense of being a woman," Dan's daughter, Barbara Lavette, wrote in her first novel, which was entitled Driftwood, "is the sense of being an outsider. There have been other outsiders, slaves, minorities, the Jews, and at one point or another both the Catholics and the Protestants, but through all of remembered history, there has been only one constant outsider, the woman. She is never of the world; she always remains at the edge of it, tolerated, loved occasionally, respected less occasionally, and once in a while given a small gift of power. But even with the power, she is never free to leave the edge of the circle and walk into the center of it."
William Goldberg, who was producing a film based on Barbara's book, singled out that paragraph and said to Barbara, "It seems to me that there's the root of your problem. I'm not arguing with what you put in a book. That's just you. A film is something else. Not that I buy the notion. I don't put my wife in that category, and I've almost got Kelly Jones to play the lead. We're very close, damn close, and if you got any notion of what an arrogant, demanding bitch she is, you wouldn't put her in that category either. Anyway, I'm not sure I understand what in hell you mean. I just smell it all over your screenplay, and that's what's wrong with it."
"I've tried to explain it to you, Bill," Barbara said tiredly. "It's not something I created or invented. It's the essence of the film."
"I never understood why you insisted on writing the screen-play."
"Because it's my story."
"The book is, not the film. Well, sure, it's your story," he added hastily, seeing the expression on her face, "but at the same time it isn't. Anyway, I'm putting another writer on it. I have to."
Jerry Kanter, already assigned as director for the film to be made of Driftwood, had with bleak satisfaction informed her that it would happen sooner or later. "It always happens. You got no kick, Barbara. You got paid fifty grand for the first draft, and that's a damn nice price. Anyway, it's a fluke when a book almost twenty years old gets bought for the screen."
"Then why let me do it at all?"
"It's a gesture. This industry's full of gestures, mostly obscene. Anyway, give Bill Goldberg credit. He's the first one with enough guts to break the blacklist out here, and the book's being made into a film. That's what counts."
Barbara was far from sure that it counted or for how much it counted. Now, in December of 1958, she was finishing her third month in Los Angeles. There had been a time when she enjoyed being in Los Angeles, years before, when her father had lived there. Now — well, now she had lived too long in a hotel suite, and now she walked to the window after Goldberg had left her and watched the rain pouring down, sheets of rain falling in an apparently vengeful fury that would make up for all the dry months since last April. From where she stood, through the rain, she could make out a vague outline of the Santa Monica Hills. She wrapped herself in a forlorn yet not too uncomfortable cloak of loneliness, aware that the defeat she had just suffered was a very minor one, but still trapped in the impotence of having her own precious work snatched from her — to be cut up, mauled, and contrived. Nevertheless, the defeat was not overwhelming. Precious was perhaps not the proper word, and she wondered how much she really cared about this story she had set down so long ago. Time is a gentle eraser, and when the telephone rang, she shrugged off the mood and decided that soon, very soon, she would return home to San Francisco and be out of this whole wretched world of film and filmmaking.
The call was from Carson Devron, and Barbara said, "Thank heavens it's you. I needed to hear your voice. Bless you."
"I'll have an explanation for that later. Meanwhile, this rain will be over in about an hour. I'll pick you up before then. We'll drive to the beach and walk in the wet sand. And then I promise you good seafood. Yes?"
"Yes. Absolutely. What shall I wear?"
"Jeans. Heavy sweater, sandals."
"I'll be out front, waiting," Barbara said. "And saved."
"Then I'm happy I saved you," Carson said. "About thirty minutes."
She had met Carson Devron three months before, on the evening of her fourth day in Los Angeles. Goldberg, her producer, had given her a party in his mansion in Beverly Hills. The mansion was a great oversized neoclassic house, vaguely modeled after Southern antebellum plantation houses; and as Goldberg put it, everyone who really mattered was there. Since Barbara was completely unaware of who mattered and who did not matter in what passed as Los Angeles society, she took him at his word but remained unimpressed. Aside from half a dozen film stars whose faces she recognized, she knew no one, and after a number of introductions, both faces and names merged into a confusing and meaningless pattern. Barbara disliked parties, and parties where everyone present was a stranger she disliked intensely. She was not a heavy drinker and not very good at casual conversation. Surrounded by a small cluster of people whom Goldberg had dutifully led to her, she was trying to be agreeable and not too ill at ease when Carson Devron saw her. He saw her first as a woman who caught his interest, not as Barbara Lavette, but simply a tall, large-boned, handsome woman in her mid-forties, her honey-colored hair caught in a bun at her neck and still untouched by gray. Her features were well cut, the brows straight, the eyes slate-blue, the mouth well formed and rather wide — but mostly it was her carriage that caught him, her height, the way she held herself, the set of her head. Carson Devron was talking to Jack Sheldon, a Los Angeles councilman, at that moment when he noticed Barbara, and he asked Sheldon who she was.
"The tall woman in the blue dress."
"That, my boy, is Barbara Lavette, the famous or infamous — depending on how you look at it — guest of honor."
"I'd like to meet her," Carson said.
"Go over and introduce yourself. I haven't met her yet. Goldberg was after me, but I haven't made up my mind whether I want to meet her."
"Can't you guess why?"
"You're a horse's ass, Sheldon, if you'll forgive me."
"You can afford it," Sheldon said unhappily.
Barbara had noticed Carson Devron and had taken him for an actor. It was a reasonable assumption. Devron was an inch over six feet tall, blond, handsome enough, hazel eyes, a good face, wide shoulders and the easy stance of an athlete. He had competed in the Olympics and had taken a bronze medal in the decathlon. He had spent summers on the beaches as a surfer; he was a golden California lad, and that was evident enough. It was not that Barbara despised the emblems he wore all over himself; they were simply emblems outside of her world and of no interest to her. So when he pushed through to face her and introduce himself, she nodded and then went on talking. Afterwards, she could not remember to whom she had been talking. What was clear in her mind afterwards and for a long time to come was the way Devron stood in front of her, firmly stationed there, watching her and smiling slightly.
"Miss Lavette," he said for a second time, "my name is Carson Devron, and I very much want to talk to you."
The man to whom she had been speaking slipped away. Devron remained there.
"So you told me. Carson Devron. You're an actor," for want of anything better to say. She was becoming irritated — by the party, by the boring inanity of it, by this man who stood facing her, by his good looks and his blond hair. It made her rejoinder as inane as everything else that passed in that place as conversation.
"Why do you say that?" he wanted to know.
"You're plastic," she was saying to herself. "If I told you that — that you're plastic, that you're ridiculous — how would you react, I wonder? Why don't you go away?"
Instead, she muttered something about his looking like an actor.
"I'm not an actor, Miss Lavette, and I wish you would not decide to dislike me until you can base it on something hideous that you have discovered. I know a great deal about you. You know nothing about me."
"That's true," she admitted. "I'm sorry. I'm not being very pleasant." Now the two of them were alone, or at least as alone as two people can be in a room shared with forty or fifty men and women. "I don't like parties."
"No, I wouldn't think so. But I'm pleased about this one. I mean I'm that delighted to meet you."
"Because I've admired you for years, because I've read your books and because I think you're quite a person."
"Thank you. That's very flattering."
Excerpted from The Legacy by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1981 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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