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Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Half-Way Man. By John von Daler

                      It all started with a steady regimen of study, every evening at the Firestone Library in Princeton until 10 p.m. Then a walk down Nassau Street past the movie theater. One evening he saw the ticket lady leave her cage with an overcoat on. She just locked the side door and went home.

                He made a point of going by at the exact same time the next evening. Sure enough, she left on the dot. After all, who wants to see only half of a movie?
                So he started waiting for her to leave. Then he would go in quietly and sit in the back row and see what was left of whatever was playing.
                What an unsatisfying experience, you are thinking. Think of only seeing the last half of "A Christmas Carol" with Frederick March or "Taxi Driver" with Robert de Niro or "The Days of Wine and Roses" with Jack Lemmon.
                But he figured out after a few evenings that these post-Freudian times had changed storytelling. When William the Bard lived you could start a play by suggesting more or less that Iago was a really rotten guy; your story lived well without any hints that he might have been slapped around as a kid.
                By coming in for the last half of movies Demian could often be liberated from the part of the film with the prerequisite psychological background. He could just experience Scrooge getting back on track or the taxi-driver flipping out or Lemmon losing his fight against the demon rum. It was nice not having to carry around all that historical ballast. If you only saw the second half of Citizen Cane, you really did not know anything about RoseBud and you could just watch that awful tyrant get his just deserts without shedding a tear for his misused childhood.
                So he went every evening for two years or more to see the second half of much of the world's great film literature. And then he graduated.               
                When he got to New York and started work at the magazine as a researcher no one noticed the slight difference between Demian and his contemporaries. After all, they all wore the same casual coats with leather patches and loosened ties. They all went to bars at five and lived in loft apartments with six others and spent the weekends sleeping late and going to parties.
                But Demian had his own way. When he met a girl at a party and they hit it off, she might start to tell him about her childhood, how her mother favored her older sister because she had a turned-up nose that probably came from the California side of the family. Then he would scrape his throat for a while, look around distractedly and finally interrupt the young lady with, "Well, but what do you do now?" or "What assignments has Barnes and Nobles given you?" or even "Who do you think is going to win the Series?" When they got to talking about him, you would think that he never had been a kid, or at least that his childhood had been without earthshaking events. Some of the women could even have gotten the impression that he had arrived on earth from Mars the day before.
                Needless to say, Demian had very little success with the ladies. In our time a good talk about our childhoods really is the key to a good relationship. In refusing to carry his end of that social bargain, Demian lost his good standing with one woman after another. "He's cold," they said. "Cold as ice."
                Demian disappeared from sight when the last of many women left him. Oh, he went to work, but even there he lost standing. Who wants a researcher who absolutely refuses to look back more than a decade in any quest for details or corroborations?
                He must have had a little inheritance to live on (some remnants of the past being more easily accepted than others!), because he got fired, but evidently could continue to live a quiet life, now alone, in a large, empty loft on the west side.
                This is where I come into the story. I had known him briefly at Princeton and had occasionally accompanied him on those nightly forays into the movie theater. Often I would even buy a ticket and save a seat for him. But I had to promise not to tell any of the details from the first half of the films. "Oh, get on with it!" he would exclaim in disgust if I referred to troublesome facts in the initial stages of a story. He never knew in fact that Scarlet had loved Ashley and we got into quite a discussion about what a slut she was or was not. I of course knew deep in my heart that she loved truth and beauty more than Rhett.               
                Somehow Demian many years later had been filling out papers about next-of-kin etc. As you can imagine, this was no pleasant task for a man of his beliefs. I think that some quirk of that unused segment of his mind, his memory, led him to recall me. So in answer to a question about his closest connections, he had written my name.
                I received a call one day informing me that Demian had fallen down in the subway and died of a mercifully quick heart failure. One, two, three and he was gone. A suitable ending for a man who detested prolongations.
                But then I was called on to lead the way into his home with an official from the Manhattan Social Services. We met at Demian's loft and I was allowed to roam through the essentially empty place for an hour or so while the little man with a briefcase sat on a straight-backed chair at one end of the room and counted beams.
                As I say, the place was pretty much empty, enough so that I quickly suggested that most everything could be hauled away. But I did notice one thing that Demian had hidden behind a little fold-out panel at the far end of the loft. As I walked into the little enclosure I remembered Dorothy routing out the Wizard of Oz.
                On a little wooden table was a large, handwritten book, open and standing up with the title page exposed.
                I got permission from the Social Services Representative to take the book with me. I told him it was just our Princeton Yearbook, the Bric-a-Brac. He never even looked at it down in the old paper bag I had found. Everything else got picked up by the renovation services.
                All of this happened many years ago, so long ago in fact that I have started to think that maybe I should burn Demian's Holy Book. After all, he would have hated it living on in my memory, infecting the present with the mistakes of the past. "Oh, Get on with it!" he would probably have said.

My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces at the top of the blog. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!


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