Every night the dream begins the same way: Alan and I running through fields of wheat, shirts off, heads glistening in the sun. We hold hands and sing my favorite Beatles song, “My Life,” over and over, tapping our thighs to Ringo’s marvelous drum work. When the song ends we act out scenes from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Little Miss Sunshine. For the latter I ask him to do his van monologue and when he says the f-word over and over I giggle. At this point in the dream I reflect on how fortunate I am to share this moment with Alan Arkin—a damn fine actor, yes, but an even better friend.
The problem is that every morning, when I wake from the dream, a thick depression sets in. I know it was only a dream, that it shouldn’t have such a lasting effect on me. But I can’t change how I feel, and when I wake up I’m miserable. I drag myself out of bed, drink a cup of coffee, shower, and go to work.
My work is what keeps me going. I design tourist brochures for second-tier travel destinations like Cedar City, Utah; Hartford, Connecticut, and Valdosta, Georgia. My job is to convince folks from around the country that these second-tier destinations are really first-tier, that they can’t say they’ve lived until they’ve visited, say, Hartford. The only problem is that if you’ve ever been to Hartford you know that there is no such thing as vacationing in Hartford. So my job is to create artifice. To make up a tourist brochure that feels real and authentic.
You might say that Alan and I hold this in common: we are both artists.
Oh Alan of the acting world
I sing to celebrate you
Your expressive hand gestures
Your foul mouth
Your fifties-style buzzcut
And your fifty-thousand-dollar speaking fee . . .
Oh, Alan, I sing. Oh Arkin.
I began saving every penny fifteen years ago after I saw Al play John Singer, who is deaf, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. We watched the film in high school after reading the McCullers novel. My favorite scene is when Mick Kelly and John Singer wave their arms in the air like orchestral conductors to the music Singer can’t hear. When the music ends Mick stops moving her hands and watches in horror as Singer continues to wave his hands because he doesn’t know that the music has stopped. The magic is that “Alan Arkin,” who can hear, really can’t hear in the scene.
At that moment I knew I had to meet him. Not like some desperate fan, however, but like the contemporaries we are. And I had to find a way to create this opportunity for myself like a great artist might create his or her masterwork.
A year ago I reached the fifty-thousand dollar mark, and tomorrow Al arrives in Columbus, Georgia. It’s taken me a long time, but it will be worth it. Al is the keynote speaker for a small film festival in his honor. After I pick him up from the airport we will dine together, during which I will ask him to do me one favor before he speaks—an easy favor for such a gifted actor.
Oh, Alan, of the acting world,
How do you do it?
How do you encapsulate the human condition
In a single smirk?
You are a national treasure
A tribute to the humanity in all of us.
Your shiny bald spot
Is a symbol
Of everything good in the world
And I shall rub it to the ends of the earth!
Al is a young 75, but when he steps into the terminal at the Columbus airport he is hunched over like my grandfather was before he died. This worries me but I take consolation in the fact that he may not be acting his age. Perhaps he is in the middle of doing research for another angry elderly person role. Seventy-five playing eighty-five, perhaps.
He glances about, presumably looking for me. Behind him he drags a petite carry-on, a Hollywood luxury item probably from the 2007 after-Oscar party.
I take a deep breath with the understanding that this moment is larger than me, that so many years of preparation simply cannot be distilled into this airport scene. It would not be too melodramatic to say that this is the most important day of my life, and yet how can anyone expect me to act that way. No, I am only one man here to pick up another man.
I approach the greatest living actor on the face of the earth today and bow my head. “Good day to you, Sir! My name is Lewis Burbank, but please call me Lou. Welcome to Columbus, Georgia!”
The ever-quick-witted Al replies: “Nice to meet you Lou.”
Outside, he seems a bit put off by my 2002 Nissan Sentra—of course he doesn’t say this; I’m reading his magnificent hand gestures—but as we drive Al pretends to be “tired” so he doesn’t have to discuss my car, which gets great gas mileage. No, he leans his head against the window and closes his eyes.
I sneak a peek of the world’s greatest actor every minute or so on our drive to the restaurant. On his left hand he wears a gold band, his knuckles show through his skin. I turn off the air conditioner so I can listen to his breathing while I drive. I lean into him and take a deep breath. He smells like cotton candy.
At the BBQ joint, Al excuses himself to use the bathroom so I order for him. Pork platter, sweet potato with the fixings, baked beans, and sweet tea. When he returns I tell him he’s all set.
“You ordered for me?”
He shakes his head then checks his watch.
“The event begins at seven,” I say.
He nods, then says: “Excuse me, I have to call my wife to let her know I’m safe.”
While he’s gone our pork platters arrive. I put a pad of butter on his sweet potato and when that has melted a spoonful of brown sugar. I test his baked beans to make sure they aren’t too hot. Al sees the work I’ve done when he returns to the table and sighs.
“So what’s your story?” he says after a few bites.
“I’m an artist like you.”
“Actor?” he says.
“Not exactly.” I reach into my pocket and produce my latest effort, a brochure encouraging tourists to try Valdosta’s Wild Adventures theme park. In big bold type I put: Ranked one of America’s top fifty-three amusement parks! Under the heading a small boy screams with his hands held up to the sky. The boy is clearly at one with the universe. In that moment, the moment of the photograph, as framed by my artful brochure, he really believes he is at a first-tier vacation destination. “This is my art,” I say. “I lie to people, tell them they’ll have fun at second-tier vacation destinations like this. People want to believe this is real, and I help them delude themselves.”
Al holds up the brochure. “Hmm.”
“Beautiful, no?” I say.
He gives me that sly grin of his. “No,” he says.
We don’t talk anymore while we eat, which is fine with me. I still can’t believe I’m sitting across the table from Alan Arkin. He chews with his mouth closed and looks grouchy the entire time. Oh, the tortured actor! I wonder what is going on in that glorious head. Are all the characters he’s ever played still in there?
I can only hope.
My stomach flutters as the moment gets closer, but when it comes down to it I can’t ask him here, in public, so I decide to wait until we’re in the car again. When we are I turn to Al, look him in the eye, and say: “Mr. Arkin, before we go to the festival I wondered if you might do me a favor?”
“The scene from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” I say, “when you are in the bedroom with Mick Kelly listening to Mozart. Well, I hoped you might do the scene with me.”
“But that was over forty years ago.”
“I have the music.” I turn on the stereo, which is so loud that we both jump. After I turn it down I turn to Al and take his hands in mine. I move them up and down to the music, which fills me completely. I close my eyes. I’m in the movie. I am Mick Kelly sitting across from John Singer. I move my arms, and his, faster and faster until the music crescendos and then we work back, from fast to slow, from start to stop, and when the music ends, I drop my arms, exhausted, satisfied, spent.
Oh, Alan, of the acting world,
You fill me up
With your brilliant portrayals
Of complex individuals!
I am not worthy
To touch your fabulous knuckles
To stroke your wedding band
To share a canvas
And yet, you act as if our union
Is the purest form of art
“What the fuck was that?” Alan says.
At this, all I can do is laugh. When he says the f-word I can’t take him seriously.
I drive Alan to my home, where he is scheduled to speak in twenty minutes. I tell him how anxious I am to listen. “What are you going to talk about?” I ask. “Oh, never mind, surprise me!”
He opts to stare out the window instead of converse.
Hey, it’s a free country, but I’m a little disappointed with his behavior. For fifty-thousand dollars he seems suspicious, ungrateful, annoyed and all I can think is that this is Hollywood running through his veins. My mother, god rest her soul, taught me how to be a good guest and she would say Mr. Arkin is breaking every one of her rules.
Anyway, we arrive at my home and I lead him into the front room where I have cleared out the furniture and set up a podium and a chair. We are the only two people in the room.
“What the fuck is going on here?” he says.
“Alan, Alan.” I chuckle again. “I hired you to give a speech.”
“I know that. To whom am I giving the speech?”
“You?” he says.
He turns to leave.
“I’m not dangerous,” I say.
This doesn’t stop him.
“I paid your fifty-thousand dollar speaking fee and your expenses. I want to hear you speak.”
He whips around. “You want to hear me speak?”
He storms past me to the front of the room and begins: “Friends of Columbus Arts and Film, thank you for having me. Your hospitality is overwhelming.” He’s waving his arms like a conductor now as if to say you’ll never be an artist like me. “You know, when Lou contacted me about this speaking engagement my first thought was: where the hell is Columbus?” He pauses for laughter. “But seriously—of course I know all about Columbus. The opportunity to play John Singer helped launch my Hollywood career.
“But this isn’t about me, is it? It’s about you. So in that vein, I’d like to encourage each one of you to support the arts in your local schools. Volunteer. Give money. If good folks like you don’t support the arts, then who will?
“You know, art is a funny thing. Whether you portray characters in Oscar-winning roles like me or design brochures like my friend, Lou, here—you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Let’s say for example, that I’m nothing short of flattered that you went to the trouble of inviting me to a film festival that doesn’t really exist, that I’m overwhelmed not by the creepiness of this transaction but by your devotion to me. Let’s pretend that this is true, shall we? Let’s act as if what’s happening right now”—he bangs the makeshift pulpit, a wooden milk crate—“is the most normal goddamn thing in the world.”
I’m not sure if I should clap.
He anticipates my confusion and continues: “Or”—he tilts his head back in a full-body guffaw—“let’s say, I’ve texted the police with my left hand while I’ve been speaking to you just now. Let’s say I told them I felt like my life was in imminent danger. For example. Well, you wouldn’t expect an aging actor like me to be able to text left-handed now, would you? Maybe this is all part of my act. Maybe I’m playing along right now only to give the police enough time to get here.” Al chuckles at this.
I stand up. “Did you?”
Outside two police cars arrive, their lights flashing
“Sorry, Lou,” Al says.
“But I paid you fifty thousand dollars,” I say. “What’s the difference if you’re speaking to one or a thousand?”
The police are on the porch now.
I look at Al. In this moment he reminds me more of my dead grandfather than the great American actor. “Hey Arkin,” I say. “Your 2007 Oscar was nothing more than a lifetime achievement award.” Then I sprint down the hall and lock myself in the bathroom.
To say I’m disappointed is the understatement of the year, but while I wait for the police to break down the door my mind replays the scene from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, how magnificently Al and I played it, what rave reviews we would receive. I replace the “Alan Arkin” in the living room of my house with the Alan Arkin from my dream. We run hand in hand through the wheat fields, our heads shiny and our backs brown and healthy. Ringo Starr’s magnificent drum work fills the air and I sing:
Alan, I love you more.