The princess bride, p.5
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       The Princess Bride, p.5

           William Goldman
 

  Sandy Sterling, in the next chair, smiled dead into my eyes.

  "Argosy doesn't have the book, nobody has the book, good-by, Willy." She hung up.

  "Wife again?"

  I nodded, put the phone on the table by my lounge chair. "You sure talk to each other a lot."

  "I know," I told her. "It's murder trying to get any writing done."

  I guess she smiled.

  There was no way I could stop my heart from pounding.

  "Chapter One. The Bride," my father said.

  I must have jerked around or something because she said, "Huh?"

  "My fa--" I began. "I thou--" I began. "Nothing," I said finally.

  "Easy," she said, and she gave me a really sweet smile. She dropped her hand over mine for just a second, very gentle and reassuring. I wondered was it possible she was understanding too. Gorgeous and understanding? Was that legal? Helen wasn't ever understanding. She was always saying she was--"I understand why you're saying that, Willy"--but secretly she was ferreting out my neuroses. No, I guess she was understanding; what she wasn't was sympathetic. And, of course, she wasn't gorgeous too. Skinny, yes. Brilliant, yes.

  "I met my wife in graduate school," I said to Sandy Sterling. "She was getting her Ph.D."

  Sandy Sterling was having a little trouble with my train of thought.

  "We were just kids. How old are you?"

  "You want my real age or my baseball age?"

  I really laughed then. Gorgeous and understanding and funny?

  "Fencing. Fighting. Torture," my father said. "Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Truths. Passion. Miracles."

  It was 12:35 and I said, "One phone call, okay?"

  "Okay."

  "New York City information," I said into the receiver, and when I was through I said, "Could you give me the names of some Fourth Avenue bookshops, please. There must be twenty of them." Fourth Avenue is the used and out-of-print book center of the English-speaking chapter of the civilized world. While the operator looked, I turned to the creature on the next lounge and said, "My kid's ten today, I'd kind of like for him to have this book from me, a present, won't take a sec."

  "Swing," Sandy Sterling said.

  "I list one bookstore called the Fourth Avenue Bookshop," the operator said, and she gave me the number.

  "Can't you give me any of the others? They're all down there in a clump."

  "If yew we-ill give mee they-re names, I can help you," the operator said, speaking Bell talk.

  "This one'll do," I said, and I got the hotel operator to ring through for me. "Listen, I'm calling from Los Angeles," I said, "and I need The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern."

  "Nope. Sorry," the guy said, and before I could say, "Well, could you give me the names of the other stores down there," he hung up. "Get me that number back, please," I said to the hotel operator, and when the guy was on the line again, I said, "This is your Los Angeles correspondent; don't hang up so fast this time."

  "I ain't got it, mister."

  "I understand that. What I'd like is, since I'm in California, could you give me the names and numbers of some of the other stores down there. They might have it and there aren't exactly an abundance of New York Yellow Pages drifting around out here."

  "They don't help me, I don't help them." He hung up again.

  I sat there with the receiver in my hand.

  "What's this special book?" Sandy Sterling asked.

  "Not important," I said, and hung up. Then I said, "Yes it is" and picked up the receiver again, eventually got my publishing house in New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and, after a few more eventuallys, my editor's secretary read me off the names and numbers of every bookstore in the Fourth Avenue area.

  "Hunters," my father was saying now. "Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies." He was camped in my cranium, hunched over, bald and squinting, trying to read, trying to please, trying to keep his son alive and the wolves away.

  It was 1:10 before I had the list completed and rang off from the secretary.

  Then I started with the bookstores. "Listen, I'm calling from Los Angeles on the Morgenstern book, The Princess Bride, and..."

  "...sorry..."

  "...sorry..."

  Busy signal.

  "...not for years..."

  Another busy.

  1:35.

  Sandy swimming. Getting a little angry too. She must have thought I was putting her on. I wasn't, but it sure looked that way.

  "...sorry, had a copy in December..."

  "...no soap, sorry..."

  "This is a recorded announcement. The number you have dialed is not in working order. Please hang up and..."

  "...nope..."

  Sandy really upset now. Glaring, gathering debris.

  "...who reads Morgenstern today?..."

  Sandy going, going, gorgeous, gone.

  Bye, Sandy. Sorry, Sandy.

  "...sorry, we're closing..."

  1:55 now. 4:55 in New York.

  Panic in Los Angeles.

  Busy.

  No answer.

  No answer.

  "Florinese I got I think. Somewhere in the back."

  I sat up in my lounge chair. His accent was thick. "I need the English translation."

  "You don't get much call for Morgenstern nowadays. I don't know anymore what I got back there. You come in tomorrow, you look around."

  "I'm in California," I said.

  "Mashuganuh," he said.

  "It would mean just a great deal to me if you'd look."

  "You gonna hold on while I do it? I'm not gonna pay for this call."

  "Take your time," I said.

  He took seventeen minutes. I just hung on, listening. Every so often I'd hear a footstep or a crash of books or a grunt--"uch--uch."

  Finally: "Well, I got the Florinese like I thought."

  So close. "But not the English," I said.

  And suddenly he's yelling at me: "What, are you crazy? I break my back and he says I haven't got it, yes I got it, I got it right here, and, believe me, it's gonna cost a pretty penny."

  "Great--really, no kidding, now listen, here's what you do, get yourself a cab and tell him to take the books straight up to Park and--"

  "Mister California Mashuganuh, you listen now--it's coming up a blizzard and I'm going no place and neither are these books without money--six fifty, on the barrel each, you want the English, you got to take the Florinese, and I close at 6:00. These books don't leave my premises without thirteen dollars changing hands."

  "Don't move," I said, hanging up, and who do you call when it's after hours and Christmas on the horizon? Only your lawyer. "Charley," I said when I got him. "Please do me this. Go to Fourth Avenue, Abromowitz's, give him thirteen dollars for two books, taxi up to my house and tell the doorman to take them to my apartment, and yes, I know it's snowing, what do you say?"

  "That is such a bizarre request I have to agree to do it."

  I called Abromowitz yet again. "My lawyer is hot on the trail."

  "No checks," Abromowitz said.

  "You're all heart." I hung up, and started figuring. More or less 120 minutes long distance at $1.35 per first three minutes plus thirteen for the books plus probably ten for Charley's taxi plus probably sixty for his time came to...? Two hundred fifty maybe. All for my Jason to have the Morgenstern. I leaned back and closed my eyes. Two hundred fifty not to mention two solid hours of torment and anguish and let's not forget Sandy Sterling.

  A steal.

  They called me at half past seven. I was in my suite. "He loves the bike," Helen said. "He's practically out of control."

  "Fabbo," I said.

  "And your books came."

  "What books?" I said; Chevalier was never more casual.

  "The Princess Bride. In various languages, one of them, fortunately, English."

  "Well, that's nice," I said, still loose. "I practically forgot I asked to have 'em sent."

  "How'd they ge
t here?"

  "I called my editor's secretary and had her scrounge up a couple copies. Maybe they had them at Harcourt, who knows?" (They did have copies at Harcourt; can you buy that? I'll get to why in the next pages, probably.) "Gimme the kid."

  "Hi," he said a second later.

  "Listen, Jason," I told him. "We thought about giving you a bike for your birthday but we decided against it."

  "Boy, are you wrong, I got one already."

  Jason has inherited his mother's total lack of humor. I don't know; maybe he's funny and I'm not. We just don't laugh much together is all I can say for sure. My son Jason is this incredible-looking kid--paint him yellow, he'd mop up for the school sumo team. A blimp. All the time stuffing his face. I watch my weight and old Helen is only visible full front plus on top of which she is this leading child shrink in Manhattan and our kid can roll faster than he can walk. "He's expressing himself through food," Helen always says. "His anxieties. When he feels ready to cope, he'll slim down."

  "Hey, Jason? Mom tells me this book arrived today. The Princess thing? I'd sure like it if maybe you'd give it a read while I'm gone. I loved it when I was a kid and I'm kind of interested in your reaction."

  "Do I have to love it too?" He was his mother's son all right.

  "Jason, no. Just the truth, exactly what you think. I miss you, big shot. And I'll talk to you on your birthday."

  "Boy, are you wrong. Today is my birthday."

  We bantered a bit more, long past when there was much to say. Then I did the same with my spouse, and hung up, promising a return by the end of one week.

  It took two.

  Conferences dragged, producers got inspirations that had to carefully get shot down, directors needed their egos soothed. Anyway, I was longer than anticipated in sunny Cal. Finally, though, I was allowed to return to the care and safety of the family, so I quick buzzed to L.A. airport before anybody's mind changed. I got there early, which I always do when I come back, because I had to load up my pockets with doodads and such for Jason. Every time I get home from a trip he runs (waddles) to me hollering, "Lemmesee, lemmesee the pockets," and then he goes through all my pockets taking out his graft, and once the loot is totaled, he gives me a nice hug. Isn't it awful what we'll do in this world to feel wanted?

  "Lemmesee the pockets," Jason shouted, moving to me across the foyer. It was a suppertime Thursday and, while he went through his ritual, Helen emerged from the library and kissed my cheek, going "what a dashing-looking fellow I have," which is also ritual, and, laden with gifts, Jason kind of hugged me and belted off (waddled off) to his room. "Angelica's just getting dinner on," Helen said; "you couldn't have timed it better."

  "Angelica?"

  Helen put her finger to her lips and whispered, "It's her third day on but I think she may be a treasure."

  I whispered back, "What was wrong with the treasure we had when I left? She'd only been with us a week then."

  "She proved a disappointment," Helen said. That was all. (Helen is this brilliant lady--junior Phi Bete in college, every academic honor conceivable, really an intellect of startling breadth and accomplishment--only she can't keep a maid. First, I guess she feels guilty having anybody, since most of the anybodys available nowadays are black or Spanish and Helen is ultra-super liberal. Second, she's so efficient, she scares them. She can do everything better than they can and she knows it and she knows they know it. Third, once she's got them panicked, she tries to explain, being an analyst, why they shouldn't be frightened, and after a good solid half-hour ego search with Helen, they're really frightened. Anyway, we have had an average of four "treasures" a year for the last few years.) "We've been running in bad luck but it'll change," I said, just as reassuringly as I knew how. I used to heckle her about the help problem, but I learned that was not necessarily wise.

  Dinner was ready a little later, and with an arm around my wife and an arm around my son, I advanced toward the dining room. I felt, at that moment, safe, secure, all the nice things. Supper was on the table: creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, gravy and pot roast; terrific, except I don't like pot roast, since I'm a rare-meat man, but creamed spinach I have a lech for, so, all in all, a more than edible spread was set across the tablecloth. We sat. Helen served the meat: the rest we passed. My pot-roast slice was not terribly moist but the gravy could compensate. Helen rang. Angelica appeared. Maybe twenty or eighteen, swarthy, slow-moving. "Angelica," Helen began, "this is Mr. Goldman."

  I smiled and said "Hi" and waved a fork. She nodded back.

  "Angelica, this is not meant to be construed as criticism, since what happened is all my fault, but in the future we must both try very hard to remember that Mr. Goldman likes his roast beef rare--"

  "This was roast beef?" I said.

  Helen shot me a look. "Now, Angelica, there is no problem, and I should have told you more than once about Mr. Goldman's preferences, but next time we have boned rib roast, let's all do our best to make the middle pink, shall we?"

  Angelica backed into the kitchen. Another "treasure" down the tubes.

  Remember now, we all three started this meal happy. Two of us are left in that state, Helen clearly being distraught.

  Jason was piling the mashed potatoes on his plate with a practiced and steady motion.

  I smiled at my kid. "Hey," I tried, "let's go a little easy, huh, fella?"

  He splatted another fat spoonful onto his plate.

  "Jason, they're just loaded," I said then.

  "I'm really hungry, Dad," he said, not looking at me.

  "Fill up on the meat then, why don't you," I said. "Eat all the meat you want, I won't say a word."

  "I'm not eatin' nothin'!" Jason said, and he shoved his plate away and folded his arms and stared off into space.

  "If I were a furniture salesperson," Helen said to me, "or perhaps a teller in a bank, I could understand; but how can you have spent all these years married to a psychiatrist and talk like that? You're out of the Dark Ages, Willy."

  "Helen, the boy is overweight. All I suggested was he might leave a few potatoes for the rest of the world and stuff on this lovely prime pot roast your treasure has whipped up for my triumphant return."

  "Willy, I don't want to shock you, but Jason happens to have not only a very fine mind but also exceptionally keen eyesight. When he looks at himself in the mirror, I assure you he knows he is not slender. That is because he does not choose, at this stage, to be slender."

  "He's not that far from dating, Helen; what then?"

  "Jason is ten, darling, and not interested, at this stage, in girls. At this stage, he is interested in rocketry. What difference does a slight case of overweight make to a rocket lover? When he chooses to be slender, I assure you, he has both the intelligence and the willpower to become slender. Until that time, please, in my presence, do not frustrate the child."

  Sandy Sterling in her bikini was dancing behind my eyes.

  "I'm not eatin' and that's it," Jason said then.

  "Sweet child," Helen said to the kid, in that tone she reserves on this earth only for such moments, "be logical. If you do not eat your potatoes, you will be upset, and I will be upset; your father, clearly, is already upset. If you do eat your potatoes, I shall be pleased, you will be pleased, your tummy will be pleased. We can do nothing about your father. You have it in your power to upset all or one, about whom, as I have already said, we can do nothing. Therefore, the conclusion should be clear, but I have faith in your ability to reach it yourself. Do what you will, Jason."

  He began to stuff it in.

  "You're making a poof out of that kid," I said, only not loud enough for anybody but me and Sandy to hear. Then I took a deep, deep breath, because whenever I come home there's always trouble, which is because, Helen says, I bring tension with me, I always need inhuman proof that I've been missed, that I'm still needed, loved, etc. All I know is, I hate being away but coming home is the worst. There's never really much chance to go into "well, what's new since I'm g
one" chitchat, seeing that Helen and I talk every night anyway.

  "I'll bet you're a whiz on that bike," I said then. "Maybe we'll go for a ride this weekend."

  Jason looked up from his potatoes. "I really loved the book, Dad. It was great."

  I was surprised that he said it, because, naturally, I was just starting to work my way into that subject matter. But then, as Helen's always saying, Jason ain't no dummy. "Well, I'm glad," I said. And was I ever.

  Jason nodded. "Maybe it's even the best I read in all my life."

  I nibbled away at my spinach. "What was your favorite part?"

  "Chapter One. The Bride," Jason said.

  That really surprised me. Not that Chapter One stinks or anything, but there's not that much that goes on compared with the incredible stuff later. Buttercup grows up mostly is all. "How about the climb up the Cliffs of Insanity?" I said then. That's in Chapter Five.

  "Oh, great," Jason said.

  "And that description of Prince Humperdinck's Zoo of Death?" That's in the second chapter.

  "Even greater," Jason said.

  "What knocked me out about it," I said, "was that it's this very short little passage on the Zoo of Death but yet somehow you just know it's going to figure in later. Did you get that same feeling?"

  "Umm-humm." Jason nodded. "Great."

  By then I knew he hadn't read it.

  "He tried to read it," Helen cut in. "He did read the first chapter. Chapter Two was impossible for him, so when he'd made a sufficient and reasonable attempt, I told him to stop. Different people have different tastes. I told him you'd understand, Willy."

  Of course I understood. I felt just so deserted though.

  "I didn't like it, Dad. I wanted to."

  I smiled at him. How could he not like it? Passion. Duels. Miracles. Giants. True love.

  "You're not eating the spinach either?" Helen said.

  I got up. "Time change; I'm not hungry." She didn't say anything until she heard me open the front door. "Where are you going?" she called then. If I'd known, I would have answered.

  I wandered through December. No topcoat. I wasn't aware of being cold though. All I knew was I was forty years old and I didn't mean to be here when I was forty, locked with this genius shrink wife and this balloon son. It must have been 9:00 when I was sitting in the middle of Central Park, alone, no one near me, no other bench occupied.

  That was when I heard the rustling in the bushes. It stopped. Then again. Verrry soft. Nearer.

 
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