Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Robert Anderson -- 1917-2009

"Years from now, when you talk of this -- and you will -- be kind." - Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson.
Robert Anderson, a playwright whose intimate emotional dramas like “Tea and Sympathy” and “I Never Sang for My Father” attracted big names to the Broadway stage if not always substantial audiences to Broadway theaters, died Monday at home in Manhattan. He was 91.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said Nevin Terence Busch, Mr. Anderson’s stepson.

Mr. Anderson was a contemporary of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and though his reputation never ascended to the artistic heights that theirs did — his plays often walked a tightrope between realism and sentimentality — he was among the theater’s most visible, serious playwrights of the 1950s and ’60s.

Mr. Anderson also wrote screenplays, including those for “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), with Steve McQueen, and “The Nun’s Story” (1959), with Audrey Hepburn. But he thought of himself as a playwright who wrote movies for money.
I was standing on the terrace of a house called Glencliff in Independence, Kansas. It was the first evening of my first William Inge Theatre Festival in April 1991. I was at a dinner for invited guests, and I was there because I was friends of the Inge family. I walked up to the little bar set up on the patio and asked the bartender, a dapper man in a blue blazer and tie, for a drink. He promptly poured it out for me, smiled, and handed it over. A moment later, the real bartender, a college kid in the appropriate white coat, came back carrying a bag of ice, and thanked the other man, who turned to me and said, "Hi, I'm Bob." It was Robert Anderson, and as it slowly dawned on me that I had been served my first drink at the Inge Festival by one of its first honorees, I stammered my apology for assuming that he was the bartender. He laughed, patted me on the shoulder, and said, "I'd probably make a better living doing that."

I had read all of his plays -- Tea and Sympathy; I Never Sang for My Father; You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running; Silent Night, Lonely Night -- and as we chatted I felt like I was talking to kindred spirit. I knew exactly how Tom Lee felt in Tea and Sympathy, being an "off horse" at a boarding school (although I didn't have the outcome he did during my miserable year), and as I spoke to him about his occasionally tempestuous relationship with his father, I saw how he turned that into a story -- I Never Sang for My Father-- that anyone, even someone who is very close to his father, could understand in the most intimate way.

Bob and I became friends at that first Inge Festival, and we kept in touch by mail during the months between each festival. He came back every year -- something very few of the honorees do after their time in the spotlight -- and he participated in all the panel discussions. He took an active interest in my work as well, and when he asked for a copy of one of my plays, I was beyond flattered. A month later I received a five-page letter telling me how much he enjoyed the play, complimented my characters, my dialogue, my use of space, the depth of the relationships between the characters, and then with gentle guidance he told me what he thought didn't work. He urged me to explore the characters with even more depth -- "I know you can" -- and asked me to keep working on it and let him see what developed. I had never had such a detailed critique of my work, not even in grad school, and he inspired me to keep writing.

Bob became a devoted friend. His letters, always either typed on his old manual typewriter or written in his nearly indecipherable handwriting, were full of stories about his life in Connecticut and his tennis games at the court he shared with his neighbor, Arthur Miller. And when he said, "If you're ever in New York, let me know," he meant it. In February 1993 I went to New York for a teacher's conference, and when I wrote him and suggested we meet up for lunch, he called me immediately and set the date. True to form, at the appointed hour, he was waiting for me in the lobby of the New York Hilton, nattily dressed in a suit and tie. He had walked from his apartment up on Sutton Place. After lunch I offered to get him a cab for the trip back, but he smiled and said, "No, I love to walk." And so we did, up to Central Park, talking about all sorts of things.

Bob never won the Pulitzer Prize or a Tony for his work, and in some ways I think it rankled him that other playwrights that he knew -- and sometimes competed with for production space -- did. But his attitude about it seemed to be philosophical, and his quip, "You can't make a living in theatre, but you can make a killing," pretty much summarized his feeling about those who became famous beyond their worth. Above all, he was always a gentleman and a gentle man.

The last time I saw him was at the Inge Festival in 2001. It was apparent that he was beginning to fade into the long night of Alzheimer's; he remembered me, but did not remember reading a book I'd written and that he had written detailed notes on several years before. I said goodbye to him in the lobby of the hotel that Sunday morning in April 2001 with the sense that we were parting for good. I heard from friends who saw him over the years that he was slipping away, and I was sorry that I would not be able to sit with him in the shade of the trees at the 4-H picnic grounds in Independence and just talk one more time.

I'll keep a place for you at the table in April, Bob.

PS: Can't Live Without You is dedicated to Bob.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Small Town Boys - Chapter 52

Chapter Guide


It took a lot of phone calls to the airlines and the authorities in several states, but by Thursday they were able to piece together what had happened.

Tyler had arrived in Chicago and was met by an airline agent who was assigned to escort him to the departure gate for the flight to Traverse City. There was a long layover and the airport was having one of the busiest days of the year, so once the agent got Tyler checked in, he was left in the care of the agent at the gate who was already busy with taking care of the passengers who were already there. By the time the plane was ready for boarding, Tyler had vanished. The plane was held for a few minutes while the P.A. system paged him again and again, then the flight left.

In the meantime, a skinny blond kid in a green ski parka with a small blue American Tourister carryon bought an open-return ticket for a flight to Seattle on another airline. The ticket, paid for in cash, was sold to a Mike Lankowski who gave his address as Hinsdale, Illinois, and since he was under sixteen, he was not required to show any form of identification. Mike charmed the youthful male ticket agent out of a free upgrade to first class. The next morning the open-return ticket was exchanged for a flight to LAX. By the time police and the airlines had been notified, he had vanished. The ticket agent in Chicago was put on suspension pending a review.

Mike stopped by the house on his way back from Palm Springs Thursday afternoon after Donny called him and told him what had happened. He spent a over an hour on the phone with Tyler’s father, trying to assure him that they would do everything they could to find him and trying to talk him out of flying out there to look for him. “Clark, I have a lot of people who have a lot of connections with the authorities out here, and I’ll make sure that the word gets out. The only thing you can do out here is sit and worry, and you can do that in Maple City and save yourself a thousand bucks.”

“Who do you know with a lot of connections with the authorities?” Danny asked Mike after he hung up.

He smirked and shook his head. “What did you want me to say, that the kid’s disappeared and is probably hustling in West Hollywood?” He looked at his watch. “I gotta get going; Jason’s meeting me in an hour. We might have something on this sci-fi flick.”

After Mike left, Donny said, “I might know someone.”

An hour later Marc joined them on the patio. He was still in his work clothes, except he had taken off his tie. Donny handed him the pictures that Tyler had sent him with the Christmas card. “Cute kid,” Marc said. “He’ll probably do all right in terms of attracting guys who are into chicken.”

“What’s ‘chicken’?” Danny said.

“Underage guys. Twinks. Old enough to screw but under eighteen. Some guys are into it,” Marc said with a scowl. “Problem is, a lot of the older guys are into rough stuff, too, and it goes without saying there’s a lot of drugs going on, too. Fuckin’ scary.”

“So,” said Donny hesitantly, “do you know…?”

Marc grimaced. “Do I know my way around this trade?”

“Well, yeah.”

“I still get older guys looking for one more trick with young Rusty,” said Marc, looking at Danny as if he was expecting a negative reaction. But Danny just nodded. He picked up the pictures. “Can I hang on to these?”

“Sure. What are you gonna do?”

“Check out the usual hangouts.”

“You want us to go with you?” Danny offered.

“Nah. I’m better off doing this by myself, and if I meet him, he won’t know me.” Marc grinned a little. “Besides, neither of you look like hustlers. No offense.”

“None taken, I think,” replied Danny.

“When are you gonna look for him?”

Marc glanced at his watch. “I’ll go by the bars on the way home. If he’s as enterprising as you say he is, he might be there. Or he might be hanging out on Venice Beach for all I know. Don’t get your hopes up; I doubt we’ll find this kid right away. Chances are he’s gonna hook up with some sugar daddy with a lot of money and a passion for screwing kids. Once he gets tired of him he’ll toss his ass out and get the next number off the bus from Ohio or wherever. That’s probably how Jeremy got his start. Don’t expect me to find him tonight, ‘cause even if the people I know have seen him, they know I’m out of the business and they’re not gonna confide in me. It’s a tight community.” He got up, then looked at Donny solemnly. “You got a minute?”

Danny got the hint. “Good to see you, Marc, and thanks for the help. I need to hit the books.” They shook hands and Danny went into the house.

“What’s going on?” asked Donny.

Marc bit his lip and looked away. “Look, I’ll do everything I can to help you find this kid, but I sure hope that every time you think of a teenage hustler I’m not the first person who comes to mind.”

“Oh, shit. No, Marc. I didn’t mean it like that. I just thought….”

“Yeah, I know. You thought I might know some people. The fact is, Donny, I’d really rather forget about that part of my life.”

“I’m really sorry,” Donny said, feeling the guilt running through him like a knife.

Marc shrugged. “It’s okay, Donny.” He looked back at him. “Speaking of teenage hustlers…”


“Barry Kessler,” Marc said simply.

“Barry Kessler…your teacher? What about him? Did he get busted again?”

Marc smiled wanly. “No. He’s teaching in a school outside Simi Valley.”

“Jesus,” replied Donny. “They hired him after all the…?”

“He was acquitted, remember? Besides, he’s old friends with the headmaster there. They take care of each other. And he’s not coaching football.”

“How’d you know all this?”

“He called me up over Thanksgiving. We had coffee. We talked. We….” Marc’s voice trailed off.



“I thought you hated him.”

Marc shook his head. “I was pissed at him for dragging me into that lawsuit, and I told him that. But…”

“So is that what you were gonna tell me back after Thanksgiving?”

Marc looked at him quizzically.

“The morning we came back to work,” Donny reminded him. “Having coffee. ‘Look, um….’ You don’t remember.”

Marc smiled a little. “There was so much going on with Starship Enterprise and year-end. But… yeah, I wanted to tell you that Barry and I were seeing each other.”

“Is it serious?”

“You mean are we gonna live together?”


“I don’t know. I’m… He’s got a lot of things to deal with. Beth is bleeding him dry over alimony, he’s barely making thirty-five grand a year and having to live here isn’t cheap. And he’s a little touchy about moving in with a guy.”

“Yeah, I can understand that,” replied Donny drily.

“I just wanted you to know, y’know, so… you and me….”

“Yeah, I get it,” said Donny quickly.

Marc nodded and then said, “Well, if I’m gonna find this kid I guess I’d better be going.”

They walked out to the driveway. “By the way,” Marc said as he got in his car, “what should I do if I spot him?”

Donny stopped in his tracks. “I don’t know; I never thought of that.”

“I’ll play it by ear,” Marc said as he started the engine. “I’ll call you when I get home.”

Donny watched until the car was out of sight down the street. He stood at the end of the driveway staring after it, feeling a sudden sense of loss, regret, and not a little twinge of envy for Barry Kessler.

Marc called as Donny was getting ready for bed. “Nothing,” he said simply. “No sign of him. And I asked at all the usual places.” He chuckled slightly. “I think my bartender buddies must think I’m hot for teenagers now, but screw ‘em.”

“Okay,” replied Donny. “Look,” he began, hesitated, then plunged ahead. “I think it’s great about you and Barry. I mean, as long as you’re happy…”

Marc sighed a little. “Yeah. I shoulda told you earlier, I guess.”

“Nah, that’s okay…you don’t…”

“Well, yeah, I know…but you and me…we were….”

“No problem, Marc. It was … fun.”

“This isn’t gonna get uncomfortable at work, is it?” Marc asked tentatively.

“Huh? Oh hell no,” Donny replied quickly. “We’re good.”

“Okay. Um… I’ll do what I can to help you find Tyler. But L.A.’s a big city. How old did you say he is?”

“Fifteen, sixteen.”

“Damn,” said Marc sadly. “Things must really be rough for him at home.”

Danny was back in the guest room, lying in bed reading out of a black notebook when Donny tapped on the door. Danny shut the book, and Donny told him what Marc had said. He also told him about Barry.

Danny put his hands behind his head and leaned back. “Damn, twin, it’s been an interesting couple of days.”


“Well, you ready for some more news?”

Donny raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been drafted by the Dodgers?”

“Close. I’ve got orders.”

“Where to?”

“Can’t say. And I mean that literally. I don’t know. All I know is that I report to the base tomorrow night with all my stuff and that it will be for an indeterminate length.”

“Any guesses?”

“Even if I had an idea, I couldn’t tell you.”

“Yeah, I got that. So, you want me to keep an eye on the Jeep?”

Danny shrugged. “Maybe I should just sell it. I didn’t need it at the last place, and I can’t see any point in paying insurance and shit on something that’s just taking up space in your garage. Why don’t we just go down to your Chevy dealer and see what they’ll give me for it?”

“I don’t mind keeping it for you. But…” He shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

His brother looked at him with a knowing smile. “Yeah, I know. Cutting the last tie. But we kinda knew this was gonna happen.”

They looked at each other in silence for a moment, then Danny got up and hugged his brother. They held each other silently, neither of them wanting to let go until finally Donny heard Danny gasp back a sob.

“C’mon,” Donny whispered, and without a word they went into the master bedroom and just as they had done when they were five years old and a thunderstorm had roared outside their bedroom window, they held each other until they both finished crying and fell asleep on top of the covers.

Promptly at six the next evening an Air Force sedan pulled up to the curb in front of the house and a young corporal trotted up to the door and rang the bell. Danny smartly returned the salute and handed his bags to the soldier. He turned to Donny.

“Well, twin, this is it,” he said, his bright eyes peering out from under the brim of his hat. “I’ll be in touch with you as soon as I’m allowed, but I wouldn’t count on hearing from me for a while.”

“Right,” Donny said. They shook hands quickly, and Danny followed the corporal down to the car. He didn’t look back as he got in the back seat, and the car drove off down the street. Donny went in the house and closed the door.

He was used to the silence of the house, but as he went into the guest room to close the blinds and turn off the light, he could almost feel it. Danny, in his military fashion, had left the room neat and tidy. The bed was made with clean sheets, the towels folded with military precision, even the dresser top dusted. The only remnant of his visit was a single crumpled piece of paper in the waste basket. It was a Post-It note with firm handwriting on it: HOLLENBECK D.E. 1LT. He went around the rest of the house collecting the trash and took the bag out to the garage.

The empty space where the Jeep used to be parked made a noticeable hole in the garage, even though it meant that Donny could now get into the Mustang without having to back the Tahoe out first. The dealer had offered Danny a low-ball price and it took a little firm wrangling to him to come around, but after an hour they left the dealership with a check. Danny didn’t look back at the Jeep parked off to the side of the lot, and promptly deposited the check into his account. He had taken one last swim, ate a sandwich, packed quickly, dressed in his Class A uniform, and then he and Donny had sat on the patio, waiting for his ride. They said little out loud, but they didn’t need to.

There was nothing on TV, and he was thinking about going out to Blockbuster to rent a movie when the phone rang. It was Mike.

“Hey, how are you?” Donny said.

“Okay. Just wanted you to know that I talked to Clark again. Still no word on Tyler, I guess.”


“Yeah,” said Mike, sounding somber. “I guess the cops put out his picture, but….” He let the words drift away, then changed the subject. “Hey, Jason got me a guest star part on Law & Order.”

“Hey, great,” Donny replied. “When do you start?”

“Leave for New York tomorrow afternoon. Not exactly a starring role in a feature, but it’s work and if they like me, it might turn out to be a permanent gig. They’re talking about doing some spinoffs.”


“Yeah. Hey, you go with what you got, right? Your thing’s still in pre-production, right?”


“Yeah, so…anyway, what’re you guys doing?”

“Nothing. Danny’s been called up for duty. Left about an hour ago. Thinking about renting a movie.”

“Want some company?”

Donny knew what Mike meant, and in spite of himself, he grinned a little and felt his crotch swell a little.


Mike spent the night, falling asleep on his left side, his back to Donny like he always had, his gentle snoring a reminder to Donny of the first night they had spent together in the same bed in the same house but what seemed like a lifetime ago. The alarm woke them and Mike left while it was still dark, giving Donny a quick coffee-flavored kiss before going back to his own place to get ready for his trip east. “Happy New Year,” he said softly. “Got any plans?”

“Nah,” replied Donny. “Maybe hang out with Eric and Greg. Seen one, seen ‘em all. You gonna do the Times Square thing?”

“Maybe. If I do, I’ll wave to you on the TV.”

Donny chuckled. “I’ll be sure to look for it.”

“See ya.” Mike waved, strode out to his car, and was gone. Donny closed the door, and went back to make the bed. It still had the faint scent of Mike’s cologne, and it lingered as he put the pillows in place and drew the comforter up.