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A MAN RIDES INTO TOWN
AS IT HAPPENED, Sol Lasner was also on the train. Ben spied him first on the red carpet at Grand Central posing for photographers, like one of his stars. Shorter than Ben remembered, his barrel chest wobbling on thin legs, storklike, but with the same tailored look, natty. He gave a quick, obligatory smile to the flashbulbs, then herded a group of men in suits onto the train, back to business. At Croton, where they switched over to the steam engine, most of the suits got off for the ride back to the city, but two stayed on through dinner, so Ben didn't have a chance to talk to him until they were past Albany, when the landscape had already turned dark and there was nothing to observe from the observation car but blurs of street lamps and platform lights streaking past.
He'd been sitting near the rounded back of the car, smoking and staring out at nothing, when Lasner came in, holding a cigar. He nodded to Ben, not recognizing him, and for a moment Ben was tempted to let it wait, talk later on the Army's time. The next few days were supposed to be his, little shrouds of time to wrap himself up in, prepare for the funeral, stare out windows, get used to it.
The long-distance call to Danny's wife has taken hours to put through, her voice scratchy with bad connections, or grief. What kind of accident? "A fall. It's in the papers as an accident. You know, anyone can fall. So they put it in that way." But it wasn't? Ben had asked, disconcerted, feeling his way, listening to the precious seconds tick by. "Look," she'd said finally, "you should know. You're his only family," but then went quiet again. You mean he tried to take his life? "Take his life?" she'd said, confusing him until he realized that it was a translation problem, an idiom she hadn't picked up. Hans Ostermann's daughter. Tried to kill himself, he said. "Yes," she said reluctantly, then drew a breath, moving past it. "But they didn't want to say. You know what it's like here. Everything for the good name. Nothing bad ever happens. It's better if it's an accident, in the papers. So I said it, too." There was a snort of air, like a shrug over the phone. "But his brother -- you have a right."
Rambling on, making no sense to him now, or maybe he had just stopped listening, his head dizzy with it. Not a crash, a virus, some act of fate, but something willed, a scream of unhappiness. "I'm sorry for this news," she'd said before he could ask more. "Is it possible for you to come now? He's in a coma. So still alive. I don't know how long. They don't expect -- so if you could come." And then the reserved time was running out, and instead of questions there were logistics and plans. But what answers could anyone have? Something that only made sense to Danny, the most private act there was.
To his surprise, there had been no problem having the Army move up the trip. The problem was getting there, with the trains the way they were. Then something last minute opened up on the Chief, if he was willing to sleep sitting up on the Century to meet it, so he'd packed a duffel, sent the wire, and now found himself riding with Sol Lasner. Who could wait -- the Army's assignment -- while he took his personal leave, brooding. Days to think about it, all the way to California. Meanwhile, Lasner was lighting the cigar, looking out the window and then at his watch, checking some invisible schedule.
"Any idea where we are?"
"Just past Schenectady."
Lasner drew on the cigar, looking out again. "Upstate," he said. "Goldwyn's from here. Gloversville. They made gloves. That's what he was, a glove man. Well, why not?"
Just talking to himself, not really expecting a reply, but suddenly Ben took the opening anyway. The meeting had fallen into his lap, personal leave or not.
Lasner turned, peering at him.
"Sorry. You probably don't remember. We met last month overseas, on the Army trip. Ben Collier." He held out his hand. "I was one of the liaison officers. Translator."
Lasner took his hand, looking closely, still trying to place him. "The guy with the rooms, right? The one got Eddie Mannix the Ritz in Paris."
Ben smiled. "And Zanuck. And Balaban. Colonel Mitchell arranged it. He figured they'd want the Ritz. Kind of people used to it."
"I got news for you," Lasner said, pointing with the cigar. "You think Harry Cohn's used to the Ritz? Some hot-sheet place down on Flower -- that's what he's used to." He shook his head. "I still don't know what that trip was. A stunt. Army puts a bunch of us in uniform, takes us around. What did they get out of it?"
What did they? Harry Cohn played poker in his suite, ignoring Paris. Everywhere the jockeying for the best hotel rooms, the special transports. Ben remembered the winding road up to Berchtesgaden, lined with jeeps, a new tourist attraction, GIs hunting for souvenirs while the executives stood at Hitler's vast picture window, little tyrants finally humbled. A ride on Hitler's yacht. Hamburg, where people had melted into the pavement during the firebombing. The camps, even worse. A few survivors still there, too emaciated and stunned to be moved. In town, packs of children, foraging. How much had they seen from their requisitioned rooms?
"It was Ike's idea. Thinks people should see it. What happened. So the State Department sends groups over. That was the studio tour. There was another for the newsreel editors. See what it's like."
"At the Ritz."
For a moment there was no sound but the click of wheels beneath them.
"I was there," Ben said quietly. Watching Lasner stagger against a building, his face in his hands, sobbing. "I know it made an impression on you."
Lasner rounded his cigar in the stand-up tray, smoothing off the ash.
"We're making a picture about it."
"I'm in the Signal Corps. We shot film there. What the newsreels didn't."
"No, I collect the film. See it's put together for briefings, whether we can do something more. Information length, maybe features. If not, V shorts. Depending on the footage. What you do, in a way. Produce."
Lasner waved his hand. "And now you're out of a job."
"Not yet. The Battle of San Pietro got a lot of play. And the Tokyo film did okay on general release, so the exhibitors are still interested. And there's Ike's film coming."
"Who's releasing?" Lasner said quickly.
"You know how it works. War Activities Committee -- Freeman, at Paramount -- assigns the pictures on a rotating basis. All the majors. It was Columbia's turn."
"The majors. What am I? They still think Continental's a Poverty Row shop? Next year, we'll outgross RKO, but me they give the training films. You know what it costs me? We get four to five thousand a reel. But we throw in the production, the overhead, the salaries for chrissake. Add it up, it's more like seven thousand a reel and we just eat the difference." He tapped the cigar again, calmer. "Not that I mind. You know, for the war. But you don't hear Freeman calling me with a feature, either."
"He will be."
Lasner glanced up at him. "What's this, a pitch?"
Ben leaned forward. "We're sitting on a ton of footage. They're setting up trials. This is what they're all about. People need to see this. We want to work with a studio to put it together."
Lasner shook his head. "Let Columbia do it. You think people want to see this? Nobody wants to see this."
"Should. You know, Freeman asks, it doesn't mean we have to do it. These war films -- it's all strictly voluntary. And now, after the war? Nobody's going to make this picture."
"I thought you'd want to."
Lasner looked at him for a long minute, then sighed.
"Let me tell you something. Nobody needs a picture about killing Jews. What else have they been doing? Since forever."
"Not like this," Ben said quietly, so that Lasner busied himself putting the cigar out, avoiding him.
"Wonderful," he said finally. "Cohn gets Eisenhower and I get -- I'll think about it. Let Freeman call. We'll see." A dodge.
"I'll be at the Signal Corps base in Culver City. A local call."
"Fort Roach." He caught Ben's look. "Hal Roach's old studio. The Army took it over. They've got some of my people down there. Drafted. My best cutter. Splicing film on VD. How does your prick look with crabs. Talk about a waste of a good technician." He glanced up. "You want to make the picture there? Fort Roach?"
"No, I want to make it at Continental. With you."
"Because we were such good pals in Germany. Looking at things."
"Freeman said you were the first call to make. You were there for the Relief Fund. You hired refugees in 'forty. You -- "
"So back to the well."
"He said the others think they're Republicans."
Lasner snorted. "Since when did Frank get funny? If I heard two cracks from him my whole life it's a lot." He shook his head, then snorted again. "Mayer keeps a picture of Hoover in his office. Hoover. And now with the horses. A Jew with horses. So he's fooling everybody." He paused. "Don't push me on this. We'll talk. In an office. We make a picture if it makes sense to make a picture. Not just someone tells me it's good for the Jews. Anyway, what kind of name is Collier?"
Ben smiled. "From Kohler. My father. It means the same thing."
"So why change it? Who changes names? Actors."
"My mother. After the divorce, we went to England. She wanted us to have English names. My father stayed in Germany."
"He was a Mischling. Half."
"And that saved him?"
"He thought it would."
Lasner looked away. "I'm sorry. So it's personal with you? That's no good, you know, in pictures. You get things mixed up."
"Not personal that way. I just want to get this done and get out of the Army. Same as everybody."
Lasner picked up the cigar again and lit it, settling in.
"Why'd you pick the Signal Corps?"
"They picked me. My father was in the business. Maybe they thought it got passed down, like flat feet. Anyway, I got listed with an MOS for the Signal Corps."
"Military Occupational Specialty. Civilian skill the military can use. Which I didn't have, but the Army doesn't have to make sense. They probably wanted guys with German but everybody did, so they grabbed me with an MOS. And once you're assigned -- "
"Well, at least it kept you out of combat."
"Until last winter. Then they needed German speakers with the field units."
"So you saw some action?" The standard welcome-back question.
"Some. The camera crews got the worst of it. They had to work the front lines. We lost a lot of them."
Sometimes just yards away. Ed Singer, so glued to his lens that he never saw the shell that ripped his arm off, just turned and looked down, amazed to see blood gushing out. Ben scooting over. To do what? Dam the blood with a wad of shirt? A stump, spraying blood as it moved, even the camera covered with it. Ed looking at him, frantic, knowing, until his eyes got calmer as shock set in, then closed, no longer there to watch his life run out.
"I was lucky," Ben said. "The closest I came was in a plane. When nothing was supposed to happen. You see Target Berlin? Some of the night footage in that. They told us the AAs had been wiped out, but they forgot to tell the Germans. Our gunner was hit. We get back, the plane is full of holes."
He stopped, embarrassed, then took out a cigarette.
"Sorry. What am I doing now, telling war stories?" He inhaled, then blew smoke up toward the round observation roof, in this light oddly like the glass bubble of the Lancaster. "The thing was, I used to live there. Berlin. So it was the enemy, but also someplace you knew. It's a funny feeling, bombing someplace you know. You think what it must be like on the ground."
Lasner stared at him for a minute, saying nothing. "And then -- what? You're showing Zanuck around Europe. In uniform. He had it made, you know that? A tailor." Almost a wink, a joke between them. "And for that they needed -- what's it again? -- an MOS. Because your father was in pictures. Where, Germany?"
"Uh huh," Ben said casually, sorry now that he had brought it up. "He came here for a while. Years ago. I was born here, in fact. California. But he went back."
"Collier," Lasner said, thumbing a mental file.
"Kohler then. Otto Kohler. He was a director." The old hesitancy, as if the name, once his own, would somehow brand him.
"Otto? My god, why didn't you say so? Wait a minute. I thought his kid was already over here -- at Republic or some place. We were going to do something with him once, but then it didn't work out. I forget why." He stopped, confused. "Same name, though, as Otto. Kohler."
"My brother," Ben said, about to say more, and then the moment was gone. Why not tell him? But why would Lasner care? Something still private, and somehow not real. "He changed it back. Kids pick sides in a divorce. He was closer to my father." Moving away from it. "You knew him? Otto?"
"Of course I knew him. He worked for me. You didn't know that?" He glanced at Ben, a slight suspicion. "We made Two Husbands. You must have seen that."
Ben spread his hands. "I was only -- "
"That picture was a classic. He didn't keep a print? Never mind. I'll run it for you. You should see it. The talent that man had." Lasner was off now, waving his cigar to draw Ben along with him. "He was the one that got away. The Ufa directors who came over. The great ones." He raised three fingers. "Murnau -- well, he got away, too, that car crash. Lang we've still got. And Otto. His trouble? Expensive. Sets. He thought we were making Intolerance." He looked again at Ben. "Why didn't you tell me before? Now I know who you are," he said, leaning back and opening his jacket, visibly relaxing.
Ben smiled to himself. An industry, but still a family business.
"He was ahead of his time with those sets, you know," Lasner was saying. "But they were all like that, the Ufa people. Even the ones who came later. You know why? No Westerns. They never learned to shoot outside. It was all controlled light with them. Of course, they had the facilities. In those days, what they had in Berlin -- I'm still knocking my brains out in Gower Gulch trying to borrow arc lamps, and over there they're making cities. Otto," he said, shaking his head. "I can see the resemblance now, around the eyes. I knew your mother, too. A looker. So what happened? They split, you said."
"Another woman, I guess. That's what I heard. My mother never talked about it."
"Well, he was like that. He always had an eye. So that's why he stayed there? Some skirt?"
"I don't know. He probably thought he'd get through it -- that's what people thought then. He was making pictures with Monika Hoppe. Goebbels liked her. Maybe he thought that would protect him, they'd look the other way. Anyway, they didn't. He was arrested in 'thirty-eight. They sent a notice to my mother. This was when they still thought they had to explain it."
"So," Lasner said, looking away. "Some story."
With everything Ben remembered left out. The good days in the big house on Lützowplatz. The parties, sometimes with just a piano, but sometimes with a whole band, the air full of perfume and smoke, Ben looking down through the banister. Faces even a child recognized. Hertzberg, the comedian with the surprised round eyes; Jannings, jowly and grave even with a glass in his hand. And afterward, sometimes, the quarrels -- were there women even then?
Sunday mornings, the room still smelling of stale ashtrays, his father got them ready for their walk. Scarves in winter. Umbrellas if it rained. But the walk without fail, because that's what you did on Sundays in Berlin. Down Budapesterstrasse to the zoo, afterward a cake at Kranzler's, his father desperate by now for a drink. Later, when they were too old for the zoo, they would head straight for the cafés, where his father met friends and Danny tried to sneak cigarettes. Then, a few years after that, they were on a train for Bremen, an American woman with her two boys, their father back on the platform at Lehrter Bahnhof.
They were meant to go home, but stayed in London. Did his mother think Otto would follow, that it was somehow important to be near him, at least on a map? When it didn't matter anymore, after the official letter, she lacked the will to leave, and they stayed longer. By the time Ben finally did get back to America, to the Army training camp, he was grown up. The accent they teased him about now was English so he lost that one, too. And then, full circle, the Army wanted the old language of his boyhood. They polished off the rust, and it came back, as fluent as memory, bringing everything else with it, even the smell of the cakes, until finally the war took him to Berlin and he saw that it was gone for good -- Kranzler's, the zoo, all of it just rubble and dust, as insubstantial now as his father, all ghosts.
"Then what?" Lasner said, an old hand at story conferences. "She remarried? A woman like that -- "
"No, she died. During the war." He caught Lasner's expectant look and shook his head. "She got sick." No drama, a daily wearing away, medicines to keep the retching down, then a final exhaustion.
"So now it's just the brother?" Lasner said, suddenly sentimental. "Let me tell you something. Stay close. What else have we got? Family. You trust blood. Don't be like -- " He took a puff on the cigar, moving farther away, drifting into anecdote again. "Look at Harry Warner. Jack makes him crazy. Screaming. Shouting. Sometimes, they're in the same room, you don't even want to watch. Don't be like that."
"But they're still -- "
Lasner shrugged. "Who else would work with Jack? He is crazy. You know, I said to him once, you hate him so much, come work with me, partners, your name first, I don't care. At the time, this is worth a fortune to him. You know what he said? 'You want that bastard to run my studio?' His studio. So they're stuck with each other, till one of them keels over. You put that kind of pressure here," he said, touching his heart, "and sooner or later they wheel you out on a stretcher. Well." He stood up, glancing at his watch again, then out the window. "What I hate, this time of night, is you never know where you are." He put his hand on Ben's shoulder, an uncle. "Remember what I said. Don't be like Jack. Stay close."
And what was there to say to that? Danny had gone to California in '40, using Otto's name to get a Second Unit job at Metro. Just to see what it was like. And then the war had closed the door behind him, eight thousand miles away, so that all they'd had for years were sheets of blue tissue V-mail. Danny playing parent. Keep safe, out of combat. Their mother's health. War news. But still Danny's voice, the same wink in it. Stories he knew Ben would like, could pass on to his friends. Meeting Lana Turner. Going to hear the King Cole Trio. You have to come out here. The whole make-believe world real when Danny wrote about it, the same kid sneaking cigarettes, talking late at night from his bed across the room. About what? Anything. Ben wrapped up in the sound of it.
He got up, feeling Lasner's hand still on his shoulder. "Don't forget to call Freeman."
"I don't forget anything," Lasner said, peering at him. "I'll tell you one thing I don't forget. Your father cost me a bundle. So maybe I'd better watch out -- you're an expensive family."
"No sets this time," Ben said.
Lasner nodded, finally dropping his hand. "We'll talk. Where are you staying in Chicago?"
"I'm just changing trains."
"The Chief? That's seven fifteen. That gives you what? Nine hours to kill." Everything measured and counted. "What're you going to do for nine hours?"
"See Chicago, I guess."
Lasner waved his hand. "You've seen it. You need a place to rest up, I'm at the Ambassador East. They get me a suite. Plenty of room." He started to move toward the end of the car. "Otto's kid. You live long enough -- " He turned. "He was shot?"
"That's what the letter said."
"But who knows with the Nazis." The unspoken question, a quick bullet or days of pain, clubs and wires, and screams. Years ago now.
"Anyway, he's dead," Ben said. "So it doesn't matter."
Lasner nodded. "No. It's just my age, you think about the how." He was silent for a minute, then looked up. "You got a budget on this thing?"
Ben held up his hand, checking items off his fingers. "Hard costs. The footage we've got. Prints, I can req the raw stock from the War Production Board. You do the prints. And the sound -- an engineer for the track, some bridge scoring, somebody to do the narration. American. Fonda, maybe?"
Lasner shook his head. "Use contract. Frank Cabot?"
"Fine. All I need is a cutting room and a couple of hands. We can do it either place, but yours would be better -- Army studio, someone's always taking your equipment. You provide the space, I can get the hands from Fort Roach. The stock would be an Army expense," Ben said, looking at him directly. "We'll make it for you. If you put it out."
"Nobody makes pictures for me," Lasner said, looking back, the rhythm of negotiation. "At my studio." He held Ben's eyes for another second, then smiled. "You know, if your father had been like you, he'd still be -- " He looked away, at a loss. "I mean -- "
Ben said nothing, waiting.
Lasner held up a finger. "Don't take advantage. People don't forget that." He lowered the hand, a dismissal, and walked away, followed by his moving reflection on the glass roof. "We'll talk in the morning," he said, the words in a slipstream over his shoulder.
BUT WHEN the train pulled into LaSalle Street it was the scene from Grand Central all over again -- Lasner surrounded by hats, tips given out, telegrams handed over, the group moving down the platform in a huddle. Ben followed behind, not wanting to interrupt, then lost him outside in the line of waiting taxis. Dearborn Street, where the Chief would pull out, was only a few blocks away, but what would he do there? He turned east instead, past the murky bars and shadowy streets under the El, light poking through the girders in latticework patches. Off the train, things seemed to pass in a plodding slow motion. Nothing whizzed by the window. He had all day.
He crossed Michigan to the lakefront, hoping for a breeze, but the lake was flat, a sheet of hot tin. In the park, dogs panted under bushes. He thought of Warner being wheeled out on a stretcher in Lasner's imagination. But anyone could have an attack, even someone as young as Danny. Except he hadn't. What had his life been like? Maybe the same pressure cooker the Warners steamed in. Not the easy California you saw in magazines, men in open-necked shirts. Did he look like that? His wife would have pictures. Hans Ostermann's daughter, the only thing Ben knew about her. She'd be at the hospital now, waiting things out.
He got up from the park bench, restless. How could he not know Danny's life? Ben had followed him everywhere, just wanting to be part of things. Wild, just like your father, his mother had said, meaning impulsive. But he wasn't. A letter every week, staying in touch, still taking care of him. And now gone, without even a note. Maybe he hadn't really meant to do it, not at the very end. A fall. How did she know for sure it hadn't been like that? He stopped in the street, caught not just by the heat and the night of half sleep, but a deeper weariness, tired of thinking about it, going round in circles.
On State Street he saw an AIR COOLED banner running along a marquee and went inside. The picture was a Betty Grable on second run, something with snow. Caesar Romero danced. Charlotte Greenwood did her split high kick, right over her head. Betty was put out over some romantic mix-up with John Payne, all of it so airy that it melted away as you saw it, like touching beer foam. The newsreel brought him back with a jolt. Europe in grainy black and white, where he'd been just two weeks ago. People going through PX garbage cans. Then war criminals passing sentences on themselves before the courts could -- cyanide capsules for the privileged, amateur nooses for the others. Not a botched accident, a Hollywood indulgence. Meaning it. In the camps, they threw themselves on electric fences. You never asked why, not over there. He stood up, desperate to move again.
Outside there was everything he'd been too preoccupied to notice before. Taxis. Buildings with glass. Stores. No debris in the street. Doormen walking dogs. The bar at The Drake, with silver dishes of nuts. A country so rich it didn't even know its own luck. Where anyone could be happy.
At the station, busy with redcaps pushing luggage carts, he saw flashbulbs near the Chief. Not Lasner this time, real stars. Paulette Goddard. Carole Landis. Two girls he didn't recognize. All of them smiling, holding up a bond drive poster as they perched on the compartment car steps. Other passengers stopped to watch. You'll never guess who was on the train.
They left at seven fifteen exactly, sliding out so smoothly that it wasn't until they began clicking over the points in the yard that Ben looked up to see they were moving. Past sidetracked box cars, then clotheslines and coal sheds and scrap metal yards, the backside of the city, until finally the open country of the prairie. Another day before they saw mountains. Los Angeles Monday morning, half a continent in under forty hours. He opened his bag to change. People dressed up for dinner on the Chief. A wash, a drink in the club car. He looked out again at the late summer's light on the unbroken fields, a pale gold. Farther away from the newsreel with every mile. And then, not paying attention, he nicked his finger on his razor and watched, dismayed, as blood welled out of the cut. Had there been blood? She hadn't said. A pool spreading under his head? Where had he fallen? But there must have been blood. There always was.
Copyright © 2009 by Joseph Kanon