The princess bride, p.4
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       The Princess Bride, p.4

           William Goldman
 

  "Dear Mr. Goldman: Thank you for the book. I have not had time yet to read it, but I am sure it is a fine endeavor. I of course remember you. I remember all my students. Yours sincerely, Antonia Roginski."

  What a crusher. She didn't remember me at all. I sat there holding the note, rocked. People don't remember me. Really. It's not any paranoid thing; I just have this habit of slipping through memories. It doesn't bother me all that much, except I guess that's a lie; it does. For some reason, I test very high on forgettability.

  So when Miss Roginski sent me that note making her just like everyone else, I was glad she'd never gotten married, I'd never liked her anyway, she'd always been a rotten teacher, and it served her right her first name was Antonia.

  "I didn't mean it," I said out loud right then. I was alone in my one-room job on Manhattan's glamorous West Side and talking to myself. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I went on. "You got to believe that, Miss Roginski."

  What had happened, of course, was that I'd finally seen the postscript. It was on the back of the thank-you note and what it said was, "Idiot. Not even the immortal S. Morgenstern could feel more parental than I."

  S. Morgenstern! The Princess Bride. She remembered!

  Flashback.

  1941. Autumn. I'm a little cranky because my radio won't get the football games. Northwestern is playing Notre Dame, it starts at one, and by one-thirty I can't get the game. Music, news, soap operas, everything, but not the biggie. I call for my mother. She comes. I tell her my radio's busted, I can't find Northwestern--Notre Dame. She says, you mean the football? Yes yes yes, I say. It's Friday, she says; I thought they played on Saturday.

  Am I an idiot!

  I lie back, listening to the soaps, and after a little I try finding it again, and my stupid radio will pick up every Chicago station except the one carrying the football game. I really holler now, and again my mother tears in. I'm gonna heave this radio right out the window, I say; it won't get it, it won't get it, I cannot make it get it. Get what? she says. The football game, I say; how dumb are you, the gaaaaame. Saturday, and watch your tongue, young man, she says--I already told you, it's Friday. She goes again.

  Was there ever so ample a dunce?

  Humiliated, I flick around on my trusty Zenith, trying to find the football game. It was so frustrating I was lying there sweating and my stomach felt crazy and I was pounding the top of the radio to make it work right and that was how they discovered I was delirious with pneumonia.

  Pneumonia today is not what it once was, especially when I had it. Ten days or so in the hospital and then home for the long recuperating period. I guess it was three more weeks in bed, a month maybe. No energy, no games even. I just was this lump going through a strength-gathering time, period.

  Which is how you have to think of me when I came upon The Princess Bride.

  It was my first night home. Drained; still one sick cookie. My father came in, I thought to say good night. He sat on the end of my bed. "Chapter One. The Bride," he said.

  It was then only I kind of looked up and saw he was holding a book. That alone was surprising. My father was next to illiterate. In English. He came from Florin (the setting of The Princess Bride) and there he had been no fool. He said once he would have ended up a lawyer, and maybe so. The facts are when he was sixteen he got a shot at coming to America, gambled on the land of opportunity and lost. There was never much here for him. He was not attractive to look upon, very short and from an early age bald, and he was ponderous at learning. Once he got a fact, it stayed, but the hours it took to pass into his cranium were not to be believed. His English always stayed ridiculously immigranty, and that didn't help him either. He met my mother on the boat over, got married later and, when he thought they could afford it, had me. He worked forever as the number-two chair in the least successful barbershop in Highland Park, Illinois. Toward the end, he used to doze all day in his chair. He went that way. He was gone an hour before the number-one guy realized it; until then he just thought my father was having a good doze. Maybe he was. Maybe that's all any of this is. When they told me I was terribly upset, but I thought at the same time it was an almost Existence-Proving way for him to go.

  Anyway, I said, "Huh? What? I didn't hear." I was so weak, so terribly tired.

  "Chapter One. The Bride." He held up the book then. "I'm reading it to you for relax." He practically shoved the book in my face. "By S. Morgenstern. Great Florinese writer. The Princess Bride. He too came to America. S. Morgenstern. Dead now in New York. The English is his own. He spoke eight tongues." Here my father put down the book and held up all his fingers. "Eight. Once, in Florin City, I was in his cafe." He shook his head now; he was always doing that, my father, shaking his head when he'd said it wrong. "Not his cafe. He was in it, me too, the same time. I saw him. S. Morgenstern. He had head like this, that big," and he shaped his hands like a big balloon. "Great man in Florin City. Not so much in America."

  "Has it got any sports in it?"

  "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."

  "Sounds okay," I said, and I kind of closed my eyes. "I'll do my best to stay awake ... but I'm awful sleepy, Daddy...."

  Who can know when his world is going to change? Who can tell before it happens, that every prior experience, all the years, were a preparation for ... nothing. Picture this now: an all-but-illiterate old man struggling with an enemy tongue, an all-but-exhausted young boy fighting against sleep. And nothing between them but the words of another alien, painfully translated from native sounds to foreign. Who could suspect that in the morning a different child would wake? I remember, for myself, only trying to beat back fatigue. Even a week later I was not aware of what had begun that night, the doors that were slamming shut while others slid into the clear. Perhaps I should have at least known something, but maybe not; who can sense revelation in the wind?

  What happened was just this: I got hooked on the story.

  For the first time in my life, I became actively interested in a book. Me the sports fanatic, me the game freak, me the only ten-year-old in Illinois with a hate on for the alphabet wanted to know what happened next.

  What became of beautiful Buttercup and poor Westley and Inigo, the greatest swordsman in the history of the world? And how really strong was Fezzik and were there limits to the cruelty of Vizzini, the devil Sicilian?

  Each night my father read to me, chapter by chapter, always fighting to sound the words properly, to nail down the sense. And I lay there, eyes kind of closed, my body slowly beginning the long flow back to strength. It took, as I said, probably a month, and in that time he read The Princess Bride twice to me. Even when I was able to read myself, this book remained his. I would never have dreamed of opening it. I wanted his voice, his sounds. Later, years later even, sometimes I might say, "How about the duel on the cliff with Inigo and the man in black?" and my father would gruff and grumble and get the book and lick his thumb, turning pages till the mighty battle began. I loved that. Even today, that's how I summon back my father when the need arises. Slumped and squinting and halting over words, giving me Morgenstern's masterpiece as best he could. The Princess Bride belonged to my father.

  Everything else was mine.

  There wasn't an adventure story anywhere that was safe from me. "Come on," I would say to Miss Roginski when I was well again. "Stevenson, you keep saying Stevenson, I've finished Stevenson, who now?" and she would say, "Well, try Scott, see how you like him," so I tried old Sir Walter and I liked him well enough to butt through a half-dozen books in December (a lot of that was Christmas vacation when I didn't have to interrupt my reading for anything but now and then a little food). "Who else, who else?" "Cooper maybe," she'd say, so off I went into The Deerslayer and all the Leatherstocking stuff, and then on my own one day I
stumbled onto Dumas and D'Artagnan and that got me through most of February, those guys. "You have become, before my very eyes, a novel-holic," Miss Roginski said. "Do you realize you are spending more time now reading than you used to spend on games? Do you know that your arithmetic grades are actually getting worse?" I never minded when she knocked me. We were alone in the schoolroom, and I was after her for somebody good to devour. She shook her head. "You're certainly blooming, Billy. Before my very eyes. I just don't know into what."

  I just stood there and waited for her to tell me to read somebody.

  "You're impossible, standing there waiting." She thought a second. "All right. Try Hugo. The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

  "Hugo," I said. "Hunchback. Thank you," and I turned, ready to begin my sprint to the library. I heard her words sighed behind me as I moved.

  "This can't last. It just can't last."

  But it did.

  And it has. I am as devoted to adventure now as then, and that's never going to stop. That first book of mine I mentioned, The Temple of Gold--do you know where the title comes from? From the movie Gunga Din, which I've seen sixteen times and I still think is the greatest adventure movie ever ever ever made. (True story about Gunga Din: when I got discharged from the Army, I made a vow never to go back on an Army post. No big deal, just a simple lifelong vow. Okay, now I'm home the day after I get out and I've got a buddy at Fort Sheridan nearby and I call to check in and he says, "Hey, guess what's on post tonight? Gunga Din." "We'll go," I said. "It's tricky," he said; "you're a civilian." Upshot: I got back into uniform the first night I was out and snuck onto an Army post to see that movie. Snuck back. A thief in the night. Heart pounding, the sweats, everything.) I'm addicted to action/adventure/call-it-what-you-will, in any way, shape, etc. I never missed an Alan Ladd picture, an Errol Flynn picture. I still don't miss John Wayne pictures.

  My whole life really began with my father reading me the Morgenstern when I was ten. Fact: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is, no question, the most popular thing I've ever been connected with. When I die, if the Times gives me an obit, it's going to be because of Butch. Okay, now what's the scene everybody talks about, the single moment that stays fresh for you and me and the masses? Answer: the jump off the cliff. Well, when I wrote that, I remember thinking that those cliffs they were jumping off, those were the Cliffs of Insanity that everybody tries to climb in The Princess Bride. In my mind, when I wrote Butch, I was thinking back further into my mind, remembering my father reading the rope climb up the Cliffs of Insanity and the death that was lurking right behind.

  That book was the single best thing that happened to me (sorry about that, Helen; Helen is my wife, the hot-shot child psychiatrist), and long before I was even married, I knew I was going to share it with my son. I knew I was going to have a son too. So when Jason was born (if he'd been a girl, he would have been Pamby; can you believe that, a woman child psychiatrist who would give her kids such names?)--anyway, when Jason was born, I made a mental note to buy him a copy of The Princess Bride for his tenth birthday.

  After which I promptly forgot all about it.

  Flash forward: the Beverly Hills Hotel last December. I am going mad having meetings on Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, which I am adapting for the Silver Screen. I call my wife in New York at dinnertime, which I always do--it makes her feel wanted--and we're talking and at the close she says, "Oh. We're giving Jason a ten-speed bike. I bought it today. I thought that was fitting, don't you?"

  "Why fitting?"

  "Oh come on, Willy, ten years, ten speeds."

  "Is he ten tomorrow? It went clean outta my head."

  "Call us at suppertime tomorrow and you can wish him a happy."

  "Helen?" I said then. "Listen, do me something. Buzz the Nine-nine-nine bookshop and have them send over The Princess Bride."

  "Lemme get a pencil," and she's gone a while. "Okay. Shoot. The what bride?"

  "Princess. By S. Morgenstern. It's a kids' classic. Tell him I'll quiz him on it when I'm back next week and that he doesn't have to like it or anything, but if he doesn't, tell him I'll kill myself. Give him that message exactly please; I wouldn't want to apply any extra pressure or anything."

  "Kiss me, my fool."

  "Mmmm-wah."

  "No starlets now." This was always her sign-off line when I was alone and on the loose in sunny California.

  "They're extinct, dummy." That was mine. We hung up.

  Now the next afternoon, it so happened, from somewhere, there actually appeared a living, sun-tanned, breathing-deeply starlet. I'm lolling by the pool and she moves by in a bikini and she is gorgeous. I'm free for the afternoon, I don't know a soul, so I start playing a game about how can I approach this girl so she won't laugh out loud. I never do anything, but ogling is great exercise and I am a major-league girl watcher. I can't come up with any approach that connects with reality, so I start to swim my laps. I swim a quarter-mile a day because I have a bad disc at the base of my spine.

  Up and back, up and back, eighteen laps, and when I'm done, I'm hanging on in the deep end, panting away, and over swims this starlet. She hangs on the ledge in the deep end too, maybe all of six inches away, hair all wet and glistening and the body's under water but you know it's there and she says (this happened now), "Pardon me, but aren't you the William Goldman who wrote Boys and Girls Together? That's, like, my favorite book in all the world."

  I clutch the ledge and nod; I don't remember what I said exactly. (Lie: I remember exactly what I said, except it's too goon-like to put it down; ye gods, I'm forty years old. "Goldman, yes Goldman, I'm Goldman." It came out like all in one word, so there's no telling what language she thought I was responding in.) "I'm Sandy Sterling," she said. "Hi."

  "Hi, Sandy Sterling," I got out, which was pretty suave, suave for me anyway; I'd say it again if the same situation came up.

  Then my name was paged. "The Zanucks won't leave me alone," I say, and she breaks out laughing and I hurry to the phone thinking was it really all that clever, and by the time I get there I decide yes it was, and into the receiver I say that, "Clever." Not "hello." Not "Bill Goldman." "Clever" is what I say.

  "Did you say 'clever,' Willy?" It's Helen.

  "I'm in a story conference, Helen, and we're speaking tonight at suppertime. Why are you calling at lunch for?"

  "Hostile, hostile."

  Never argue with your wife about hostility when she's a certified Freudian. "It's just they're driving me crazy with stupid notions in this story conference. What's up?"

  "Nothing, probably, except the Morgenstern's out of print. I've checked with Doubleday's too. You sounded kind of like it might be important so I'm just letting you know Jason will have to be satisfied with his very fitting ten-speed machine."

  "Not important," I said. Sandy Sterling was smiling. From the deep end. Straight at me. "Thanks though anyway." I was about to hang up, then I said, "Well, as long as you've gone this far, call Argosy on Fifty-ninth Street. They specialize in out-of-print stuff."

  "Argosy. Fifty-ninth. Got it. Talk to you at supper." She hung up.

  Without saying "No starlets now." Every call she ends with that and now she doesn't. Could I have given it away by something in my tone? Helen's very spooky about that, being a shrink and all. Guilt, like pudding, began bubbling on the back burner.

  I went back to my lounge chair. Alone.

  Sandy Sterling swam a few laps. I picked up my New York Times. A certain amount of sexual tension in the vicinity. "Done swimming?" she asks. I put my paper down. She was by the edge of the pool now, nearest my chair.

  I nod, staring at her.

  "Which Zanuck, Dick or Darryl?"

  "It was my wife," I said. Emphasis on the last word.

  Didn't faze her. She got out and lay down in the next chair. Top heavy but golden. If you like them that way, you had to like Sandy Sterling. I like them that way.

  "You're out here on the Levin, aren't you? Stepford Wives?"

 
"I'm doing the screenplay."

  "I really loved that book. That's, like, my favorite book in all the world. I'd really love to be in a picture like that. Written by you. I'd do anything for a shot at that."

  So there it was. She was putting it right out there, on the line.

  Naturally I set her straight fast. "Listen," I said, "I don't do things like that. If I did, I would, because you're gorgeous, that goes without saying, and I wish you joy, but life's too complicated without that kind of thing going on."

  That's what I thought I was going to say. But then I figured, Hey wait a minute, what law is there that says you have to be the token puritan of the movie business? I've worked with people who keep card files on this kind of thing. (True; ask Joyce Haber.) "Have you acted a lot in features?" I heard myself asking. Now you know I was really passionate to know the answer to that one.

  "Nothing that really enlarged my boundaries, y' know what I mean?"

  "Mr. Goldman?"

  I looked up. It was the assistant lifeguard.

  "For you again." He handed me the phone.

  "Willy?" Just the sound of my wife's voice sent sheer blind misgivings through each and every bit of me.

  "Yes, Helen?"

  "You sound funny."

  "What is it, Helen?"

  "Nothing, but--"

  "It can't be nothing or you wouldn't have called me."

  "What's the matter, Willy?"

  "Nothing is the matter. I was trying to be logical. You did, after all, place the call. I was merely trying to ascertain why." I can be pretty distant when I put my mind to it.

  "You're hiding something."

  Nothing drives me crazier than when Helen does that. Because, see, with this horrible psychiatrist background of hers, she only accuses me of hiding things from her when I'm hiding things from her. "Helen, I'm in the middle of a story conference now; just get on with it."

  So there it was again. I was lying to my wife about another woman, and the other woman knew it.

 
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