I had the best night’s sleep of my adult life at a Travel Lodge in Williams, Arizona, which is on East Route 66, exactly half-way from Telluride to Los Angeles. Or so said my good friend Glenn Zoller whose family has a place in Telluride. He told me this while we were watching the Salinger documentary. I’d been to Williams before, Chris Willman is always going on and on about it. It is one of those nearly extinct towns that used to dot Route 66 before they built the interstate.
I left the town of Telluride in the late afternoon, not knowing which route I’d chosen using my iPhone’s navigation. It was rumored to only take 5 hours to get to Williams, which had to mean only 5 hours further to Los Angeles. I almost drove through the night because I miss my teenager that much. But a nice bed for the night was the wiser idea. On my way to Williams I was able to listen to the entirety of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Since it’s in my top five favorite movies of all time I figured it was high time to read the book.
Much of what’s great in the movie is taken directly from the book, all of the good lines especially, “It’ll do ’til the mess gets here.” But one great line was left out: “of all of the things you don’t look like is a bunch of good luck walking around.” Just before he’s killed Lewelyn Moss tells a 15 year-old girl that all we have is the day we just lived through:
I know you dont but let me try it one more time. You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who’s layin there?
It’s one of the many profundities written by McCarthy that didn’t make it into the movie and you can understand why. They would have had to figure in the death of a sweet 15 year-old runaway and really, that would have made it an entirely different movie. There’s also a lot that happens in the novel after the movie ends but I think the Coens were right to cut it where they did. It can be filmed. They cherry-picked the best lines at any rate.
But it got me to thinking about what we have, and that’s the life we’ve just lived through.
The day before this one I woke up early to catch my last film at Telluride. The early morning is one of the money shots in that town. The sun presents itself by waking up the dew on the leaves of trees and on you, and through your hair, warming up your skin.
Once inside the Palm, I met up with Tomris Laffly who kindly saved me a seat up front. We’re perfect movie pals because we both like to be front and center. In what is a common phrase you hear at Telluride, the announcer said “this is the first time this movie is being seen in front of an audience.” If you ever wonder whether Telluride is worth it, just remember how many times you hear that before you see a movie. Maybe it doesn’t matter to be first. Maybe it’s an illusion that you’re better than everyone else because of it. Maybe it makes no difference at all. Then again, anything that’s never been done before is worth doing just for the hell of it, if for no other reason.
Seeing Salinger after hearing nothing about it was a little terrifying. It was a free-fall from a high place. You can google Salinger and find out the stuff everyone already knows but that’s only a tiny piece of the whole story. The film covers not just Salinger’s early life, but the fans who glommed on to him to find salvation. And then there are the women.
When you’re a young woman you will never run short of the attentions of older men who want everything you have. Or as Ani Difranco once wrote, “he took something from me I didn’t even know that I had.” The trade-off can sometimes be learning about life from an older and wiser man (or woman), particularly if he’s engaged in teaching that. The allure of older men to younger women can be equally powerful but how the older person leaves the younger person is what matters. Dan Savage’s campsite theory — you leave the place better than you found it.
A dramatic thing happened after the screening, though, when Joyce Maynard showed up. She hadn’t been asked to be on stage, although Ken Burns, who moderated, said he would have had her up there if they’d known she was coming. Maynard left the theater, with tears still streaking her face. It had obviously been an emotional experience, seeing the film, in which she participated, for the first time.
Salinger had seen Maynard on the cover of a New York Magazine article as a young writer with a giant smile on her young face. He wrote to her, as did many people. Naturally her response to the legend was immediate. They began a relationship that was, as she described, very routine. But at some point, as she explained, the young innocent girl has to evolve. That evolution was something Salinger couldn’t tolerate.
Maynard said in the lobby afterwards that she has thought of Salinger every single day for twenty years and that the film’s only mistake was in not referring to the “women” as “girls.” Clearly, Salinger took something from her she didn’t even know she had.
It got me thinking about the great men I admire who prefer the company of very young women, or, girls. Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Charlie Chaplin, and on and on it goes. It’s more than a sexual thing. It’s a complete rejection of what women become when they get older and wiser. Or perhaps it’s the only time they feel comfortable enough to just be themselves. They can be the ones who know everything, or anything at all.
We only have the lives we just lived through. Though Maynard’s life was damaged significantly — personally and professionally, she says — at the end of the day, how can one not marvel at having lived with, slept with and spent time with J.D. Salinger?
Maynard’s own contributions to the literary world have also been significant, it should be noted. Whether this Salinger thing will eclipse that, now that it’s out in the open, is an unanswerd question. Maynard was the only one of his “girls” who confronted him. He told her she would never amount to anything. If he were alive today he would have seen that Maynard has amounted to anything but nothing. To me, she looks like a whole lot of good luck walking around.
On the way out, Tomris and I were discussing Maynard’s complaint and wondering why she had agreed to participate at all. She needed her story to be told, even if she felt the film had let Salinger off the hook too easily. A minute later Maynard passed us. Tomris and I blanched. We wondered if she heard us. We hoped she hadn’t. Not because she wouldn’t be prepared to discuss that question but just because the film had been difficult enough.
I said goodbye to Tomris and also to a new friend named Ian who came up to say hi. We do our work online, we tweet out to our followers and connect with people all over the world. But somehow meeting them in person is something special we’ll always remember.
I packed up everything, finally, and drove out of town. I drove through the Four Corners, the Arizona mesas and at last to I-40 which took me to Williams. A clear blue sky greeted me in the morning.
If all I have is what I’ve lived through so far, I know that I must look like a whole lot of good luck walking around. I never feel like the devil is chasing me, or that God is looking out for me. I do feel the throbbing pulse of life and the shimmer of good fortune. Loving what I get to do while I’m away, knowing my phenomenal daughter is waiting for me when I get back home, appreciating that I can see and hear and roam around this earth (all the time and especially in such majestic settings), working with someone like Ryan who’s there to tidy up loose ends and continually encourage me to write more and better — I can’t think of a better string of days gone by than the ones I’ve just lived through.
The road stretches out ahead. Somewhere I can hear the urgent cry of a hungry crow. I come across a gas station out on Route 160. I stop to fill the tank and buy sunglasses. A black dog, skinny and dirty, trots away from the station and back to the field beyond. They must have fed him, I conclude. Maybe I say that to make myself feel better. Maybe it’s true. I watch him settle into the Arizona brush to relish that bone because it’s all he has. At that precise moment it’s all he needs. I’ll never forget that dog and his bone, no matter how much good luck I am walking around.
For now, though, the only thing that matters is what’s coming next.