“Spotlight” by Michael Foster

Haunted by a town and past she never knew, a famous actress must play her best part in staying cool and collected when confronted with the ghosts of her mother’s past. Her big break depends on it.

Woman and man

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


It was not my idea of the way to do this picture. It was an upstairs-office idea, and I tried to block it. For the girl’s sake, though I couldn’t let her know it.

Al’s office is one of the most dream like places in America, and it’s better if you’ve had a good solid breakfast. I had one that morning, at a table beside the unearthly blue swimming pool on the hotel grounds. I sat there looking at the fantastically tall palm trees in California morning light, and thinking about snowy afternoons along Broadway.

When I drove the sun-drenched miles to the studio and went up to Al’s office, we went straight into argument. Al was talking picture values, and so was I. But I was thinking silently of Andrea.

Al’s idea was for me to take Andrea to the little forgotten town in the middle South where her family had lived for a hundred years. It would be a typical Hollywood expedition, with the cast and a technical crew and equipment. To make location shots — some of the outdoor scenes of the picture. Using people of the town as extras, for background. Ordinarily, I’d have shrugged, Sure, why not? because this picture is a very American sort of story, and is set, mostly, in just such a locale. But I had an inkling of what we might run into in that drowsy little hill town.

So I argued that we could do the whole thing on the sound stages here, including as much of a town as the scenes needed, for probably less money and a lot less trouble. Also, that I could direct it better that way.

“But look, Jake,” Al said. “Hometown girl comes home to make her first big starring picture. Can’t you see it?” Al thought it was a smash idea. “The publicity department is all set to roll,” he said.

“But she wasn’t born there. She was born in Billings, Montana,” I said.

He waved it aside. “That was just an accident of show business. The old family town is our dish. Her folks came from there, didn’t they?”

“Her mother came from there,” I said gently. “Andrea’s never been near the place. Andrea’s just Broadway.”

“Some of her folks still live down there, don’t they?”

“They’re all dead. Maybe a few scattered cousins left. I don’t know.”

“Hometown. We got a publicity department. All the better she’s never been back there. It makes this the time she comes home — home!”

Al’s office — dreamlike. You can get a little dizzy sometimes.

And for once, I thought grimly, with about eight words I could have made everything still dizzier. With a touch of nightmare. I could have told AL why Andrea shouldn’t go to that town. But that would have been to expose a background — of searing scandal, of tragedy — which Andrea herself had never heard about nor even dreamed of. And I figured it would damage the girl just at the start of this first big picture of her own. How much it would damage her, I couldn’t even estimate. The story that I knew was enough to scare any producer in Hollywood. It put me in a bad jam, and I didn’t see any solution. Except the sound stages.

Fighting to protect Andrea any way I could — from the past, and for her future — I practically snarled, “Let’s quit being silly, Al. I don’t want to see a good picture I direct all corned up with a lot of publicity-department half-dishonesties!”

“What’s the matter with you all of a sudden? Jake, I’m telling you the way it’s going to be. That’s the word.”

“But, Al, the fact remains, she’s never even seen the place.”

“She comes home as a star, to the little town her mother ran away from to go on the stage. Think of that! Just think of that, Jake!”

“But, Al ——”

“We’re going to make this picture an American classic,” Al said coldly. “It’s going to be authentic in every detail.”

When a producer says that, you look reverent and shut up.

I got up and stood looking out a window, sick with worry for Andrea. But since I was afraid to be honest, I had to take this as the lesser gamble of two evils. I had to rationalize a bad situation by hoping against hope that I might be wrong about what we would find in that town. In the studio street outside Sound Stage 8 a bunch of people were standing, girls in hoop skirts and young men in powder-blue swallowtail coats and white beaver hats, sweating in the sun. Willie was finishing a big musical. When Al got through talking to me about my expedition, I went downstairs, and Andrea was waiting for me in my office.

My office is a practical place. Andrea looked very decorative in a shadowy blue linen dress with a wide white formal collar. The tailored hang of the skirt gravely suggested that she had lovely long legs of youth and swiftness, and also a great deal of money now. She stood in the middle of the room with her fists jammed into the deep slash pockets, looking with delicate brows of laughter at my stormy face. We had been waifs of show business together, back yonder in the poor days when we were kids, and we had not forgotten. She was ready to go, so we went on out and got into my car and headed toward the beach for lunch. On the way, I told her that we had to make that lousy junketing location trip.

“But, Jake, dear,” she said, “I think it’s kind of wonderful. In an odd sort of way, I’ve got a deep thrill about it. I know you leer, but it means something — well, something basic and very quiet to me. I’ve sometimes thought of going there, just to go, alone.”

I had a bad, cold feeling at the pit of my stomach. “Lot of trouble and confusion,” I muttered. “You told Al too darn much.”

“I told him only what mother always told me when I was little,” she said. “I — wish she were still here, to go with us.”

I didn’t say anything. I had known her mother on Broadway.

Another mile, and Andrea was looking at me wonderingly.

“Andrea,” I said suddenly, “before we go, will you marry me?”

It was a block before Andrea said, “How curious! Why before we go?”

“No why,” I said, “except that I’m asking you to marry me. I —–”

“This doesn’t sound quite right for a proposal, somehow,” Andrea said. “Jake, what is it?”

This was my day of futility. My producer, and now my star.

“I don’t mean to be awkward,” I said. ‘Honey, it’s just that I —–”

She motioned me to silence. I guess because she sensed that all of a sudden I was motivated by something she did not understand.

“Jake, let’s keep on believing each other, at least,” she said. “So the answer is no.”


“It would be no. anyway, you funny thing. You smoothly nonmarrying fellow. I’ve heard too much about you, these last few years. So we won’t talk about it anymore. I’ve always been the kid sister. Remember?”

She put a hand quietly on mine on the steering wheel. After quite a while, she took it away again. In the open convertible, her hair, filled with light, sometimes blew about her face, and once it blew almost straight out behind, like wings to her profile.

But Andrea was dressed with great dignity the day we all rode in a day coach back into the hills toward that town. A gray pin-striped suit of New York distinction; and her hair was brushed to softly burnished smoothness, like cool Old-English gold. Day coach. We could have hired cars and trucks in the state capital. But Andrea wanted to come home the way her mother had left, years ago. It was more than just an actress’s superstition; she was strangely wistful about it, as if it were a sort of gentle pilgrimage. On the back trail of her mother’s life — a girl, now lost in time, named Meg. Andrea said she did not want us to arrive like a motorized African safari or like a rout of gypsies. And I said, “O.K., O.K.., my dear.” I was afraid it wouldn’t make much difference how we arrived.

Anyway, here we were. Actors and actresses and resigned-eyed technical men, watching rusty-streaked limestone bluffs and patches of autumn woods and a lazy little river go by in whipping tatters of coal smoke.

With Andrea sitting beside me on stiff and cindery red plush, I could sense her growing tension. Once I saw her fingers ever so slightly shaky with her compact, as we got deeper into the hills and the town came nearer. I knew she hoped to find there some real echo of her mother. And I — staring with hard eyes at the dismal scenery, I was sure she would.

When we got there we saw people waiting on the platform of the depot. Andrea hung back for a minute, suddenly timid, fumbling with her violet gloves, looking at me with wide and silent eyes. From the platform I turned to help her down, but she didn’t see my upreached hand. She was gazing out at the town and the broken blue hills beyond.

But the people of the town were all staring at Andrea now. Not quite the way they would stare at any other top actress. The younger ones with a strange nudging and whispering curiosity, the old people with eyes as splintery as the depot platform. My worst fears were confirmed.

Our big, hooded equipment was coming out of the baggage car. From forty years ago, a museum-piece hotel hack was backed up to the platform in the deep dust. It was greeny-black, with gilt lettering: Planters Hotel. We all filed decorously up the worn wooden back step and into the hack, like filing into a police-patrol wagon, and sat facing one another in two long rows. On the way to the hotel I thought about using this hack in the picture, but I couldn’t. Al would say it was just something I had dragged in for atmosphere. Al would say it wasn’t authentic.

At the hotel desk, Andrea bent her head to sign in the old register. The clerk stared at her with the same open curiosity, not quite veiled insolence. Andrea glanced up and encountered that raw crudeness, and I have never seen a more bewildered human face than hers. And then the clerk noticed me and I looked at his flat, bilious eyes for an appreciable time. Silently.

In my room 1 unstrapped my bag and got out a bottle of Scotch. With the glass from the bathroom I sat on the edge of the brass bedstead and had a stiff drink, looking at a dusty window.

I had known Andrea’s mother when I was a very young rehearsal pianist in a second-rate booking office in an old building just off Broadway. Meg was still a pretty woman, but tired and beginning to fade a little, and not an awfully good actress. I knew vaguely that she had a young daughter in school. My loose and tiny old piano was in a bare room where the people of the road could work up their acts if they had no other place, and I remember the afternoon Meg laughed. I remember the gray January light, and the snow slush on the sidewalks outside. Meg was poor and frightened, and she suddenly stopped in mid-phrase and buried her face in her hands in laughter. The wrong kind of laughter.

I had some black coffee sent up from the joint below, went into Sid Salmen’s office because I knew he was gone, got his private bottle out of his bottom desk drawer and laced a cup good and strong. And with the cup in her hand and a little color coming back into her face, Meg talked to me. Maybe because I was so young, only a nameless kid of Broadway, and knew for myself how strange and how tough people and the breaks could be. Meg told me near enough to everything that day: and a lot of it was about her girlhood in that remote town among the hills, beside a lazy river.

“I can never go back,” she said. “I wouldn’t let my little Andrea know for anything. I would die first. And I think I would kill anyone who tried to tell her. Jake, promise me.”

“Sure,” I said. “Sure. I promise.”

The well-laced coffee had warmed her, and after a while she gave me a quick, startled glance, as if she knew she had said too much, and 1 turned back to the keyboard and we went on with her routine. A rehearsal pianist hears them come and hears them go. But other evenings that winter, Meg asked me to supper in their furnished room; the first time, I think, to pay me back for Sid Salmen’s whisky, but after that because she was a motherly woman and I had no home and no folks of my own. And in that shabby room, over the cluttered kind of supper table that people of the road know, I have seen Andrea give her mother such a clear and shining look of belief as maybe many a better woman never sees on the face of a child.

When Sid Salmen booked her out for four months on the road, playing a comedy and singing act in highway spots through the West, Meg had to leave Andrea to board with a family in Brooklyn. She asked me if I would keep an occasional eye on young Andrea — I was only nineteen myself, but I guess she had no one else to ask — so sometimes on Saturday afternoons I would take the subway over to Brooklyn with a sack of caramels in my pocket.

Andrea, at fourteen, had a way I shall never forget of coming down the high stone steps of the moldy brick-front where she boarded. She would poise at the top, and then come down in a series of swoops, with clatters of her scuffed old school shoes. A creature of springtime and of light. The final long swoop would land her on the sidewalk, and after that we would usually walk to a little neighborhood park and sit on a bench.

Out on the road somewhere, the rakish slant of Meg’s hat was meeting the weather of places like Spokane and North Platte and Broken Bow. She lived years enough to see Andrea on Broadway.

Sitting there in that crummy hotel room with a tepid Scotch and water, I watched the blue of the hills deepen beyond Meg’s town, and the river darken in twilight. Until the grown-up Andrea came along the hall.

The next day we started to work. We were cost-figured at twenty-eight thousand a day, and it was only the second time I’d ever had Andrea in a picture of mine. To start off with, I had picked a short sequence on the main street, a scene between Andrea and Jim Latigan, our leading man. We got a block of the street roped off, leaving a small crowd at each end of the block gawping at our setup of equipment. My assistant directors had hired some of the people of the town as extras, for passers-by; and also a slovenly knot of sidewalk loafers. There were about a dozen of these, a bunch of the town’s no-goods, just what we wanted. Ralph, one of the assistant directors, told them all they had to do was to act natural, but not spit.

We started a silent run-through for timing. But they knew that none of the equipment was working yet, and as Andrea came on along the sidewalk to meet Jim Latigan, an old poolroom lout answered something to a heavy, boar-shouldered yahoo we had hired off a farm truck. Unfortunately, the crowd noises had died away, so his rasping voice carried. They had all probably passed around a raw bottle in the alley back of the poolroom. The old guy had a dirty-looking stubble of gray on his lean jaws.

He pulled the back of his hand across his mouth and said, “Yeah, it was her mother. Some would say she was a fast number around here. And I served my slow twelve years in the pen because of it. She left town by night, but I’d already left in handcuffs. And a leg iron.”

He fumbled with a limp little bag of tobacco and a brown cigarette paper, but the tobacco shakingly spilled and he threw the paper fluttering to the sidewalk and turned bitterly away. But not to go. You could see he needed the eight dollars we were going to pay him.

A thick snigger came from the heavy shouldered man, and he eyed Andrea knowingly up and down. As Andrea passed me she looked as if she had taken a blow across the face. I guess that in the comparative silence most of the others had heard it, too, and the old loser from the poolroom suddenly looked sickly defiant, realizing the same thing.

I called him over to me. “Get off the set,” I said as evenly as I could.

“This is not your set,” he snarled thinly. “This is our sidewalk.”

There was a stir and mumble among the other loafers, some of them eased off to one side, out of the way, but I was left facing a half dozen opaque stares from bitter, failure-stained eyes. And then Jim Latigan was crowding up close behind my shoulder. For once, it was pleasant to remember the times he had made the gossip columns for his famous free-swinging brawls in Hollywood and New York. My two young assistant directors came in fast and smoothly, though startled-white around the lips; and by the time they got there, the cameramen and the soundmen — all the technical crew — had left their setups and were drifting nearer. It was like what you’ve read about — the old circus and carnival days when the immemorial cry of “Hey, rube!” brought the toughs of the show running to do battle with the toughs of the town. But I — my hands were weak with pity. Because I knew.

For a minute it looked ugly, and then the regular and ordinary men of this town who were to act as passers-by were closing in around us, leaving the women at a distance, and I saw one woman timidly pat Andrea’s shoulder.

A citizen with a craggy, humorous, Early-American face — I found out later that he was the local hardware dealer — reached out a substantial hand to tap the old gray poolroom lounger.

“We’ll have no trouble here,” he said genially. “You, Rufe! You get away from here, like the man says!”

Rufe hesitated, and then pushed his way through the silent people and went off alone, a shambling, tragic exit.

“Thanks,” I said, and the hardwareman nodded. One glance at Andrea’s white face and I called, “All right, everybody in their places again! We’re going to be shooting this time!”

I figured we could always retake later on, if we had to. But Andrea played it fiercely, dry-eyed. And Jim Latigan very gentle. It was swell for the picture. We couldn’t have done quite that with any number of rehearsals. 1 took advantage and shifted one scene in the sequence so they played their close-up and dialogue in front of the bunch of no-good loafers — those still sullen, slack faces in the background of a tense, half-whispered scene. And that was good for the picture too.

Andrea came to my room that evening. She slipped in quietly and closed the door behind her and stood there looking at me. I was marking my copy of the script for the next day’s work, and with a slow effort I raised my eyes from the rickety hotel-room table and looked at Andrea. Still quietly, still holding my eyes with hers, she walked, and sat down on the edge of the bed.

And after a while, that low husky voice. Which sometimes with beautiful monotony and sometimes with passion can tear the roots out of a sound track. But now she said so little. And it tore the roots out of me.

“Jake! Jake, dear?”

“Hello, kid.”

“Jake, is it true?”

I shoved the script aside and got up. I fixed her a bathroom glass of Scotch and water, and she reached out one hand and took it, and I was remembering the little paper sacks of caramels. She took one swallow and then she handed the glass back to me, quite courteously, and turned sidewise and put her face down on my pillow. Her shoulders shook only ever so slightly, and she made no sound.

So I told her, because now I had to, as Meg had told me in a bare rehearsal room long ago; and it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, in a life filled with things that haven’t come easy.

I had so little to go on, trying to tell Andrea about her mother. So frail a charity — and I had been so young when I knew her. But I had to make Andrea believe, as I think I truly believe, that Meg was not a loose woman, nor an easy one, but she was a born gambler of her life.

Two men of the town had had a fight over her, and one man had killed. An April night in the woods; after a rain, Meg had said carefully. When, I imagine, the dogwood blooms would be like large, uncertain stars among the boughs, and the shy, piercing smells of the wet and growing earth. But there could have been nothing dim or dreamlike about a stab of dirty orange flame from a gun in the hand of — I remembered the name, and I should have done the hiring of the extras myself today — in the hand of Rufe Willoughby. Young and black-browed then; staring down at the body of an older man lying on last autumn’s fallen leaves. Rufe, slowly opening his hand, letting the revolver fall to the ground. And blood is black by new moonlight, and the one wavering scream of a girl would echo forever in those woods for the people of that town.

Rufe got off with second degree, because of an element of self-defense. After the trial, Meg ran away from the town on the night train with a necktie-and-novelty-jewelry drummer. But she divorced him sometime during her first vaudeville years, and Andrea’s father was a song-and dance man from the English music halls, who abandoned Meg and the child in a Pittsburgh rooming house and vanished toward Australia. Maybe somewhere he is still playing, but I don’t think so, because with Andrea’s stardom we’d have heard. Thinking about those people, and looking down at Andrea’s shining head, I stopped trying to explain anything and harshly poured myself a quarter glass of Scotch.

Andrea didn’t take her face from the pillow, but she wiggled the little finger of one hand as if to say “Hello” and “Thank you,” and I touched it lightly with my own fingertip.

“You’ve known it all along?” she said. You’ve always known it?”

“Yes, Andrea.”

“Oh. And that’s — why you asked me to marry you—–” Her voice was muffled because she still didn’t move her face. “So hurriedly. Before Al made you bring me here. You thought maybe you could protect me better if you were my husband. Oh, Jake!” After a long time, she added tonelessly, “But thank you, anyway.”

The Scotch was sticky and unwarming in my throat; it was like trying to swallow the remembrance of smooth mistakes I’ve made in my life, as an easy bachelor in show business. Which, this bitter night, with one girl, had left me the most too-late guy who ever looked silently into the bottom of an empty glass.

And I should have so meager a charity for Meg, whose mistakes were not smooth? Who once, with her last year’s weathered hat sort of gallantly askew, had stared into the bottom of a coffee cup?

With a heavier finger, I only touched Andrea’s hand again, and said, “Look, kid; this picture is for the sound stages. Let’s clear out of this town now. This is all too damned much for you. Me included.”

“We’ll stay,” she said.

“I’ll phone Al,” I said, “and tell him just enough. Not too much. Hardly anything He’ll agree. Because I’ll lay it mostly on myself, and on that basis I can talk plenty tough. I’ll tell him it’s either my way or I’ll blow the job.”

Andrea turned her face on the pillow, and was watching my face with slitted gray eyes. She sat up.

“We stay,” she said.

So we did. They were iron days, under the soft blue of the autumn hills, in the sunlit dust of a hostile town. Every outdoor scene she played was played before he eyes of that town. And those close-lipped people saw a fine and suddenly maturing artist quietly at work. I had to be wearily remote and too curt, to keep our whole company from overplaying to her — our Hollywood people, to a man and to a woman, were backing Andrea. They knew, and they honored what they were seeing.

The old women and old men of the town — those who had been neighbors of Meg’s family — still had hard and disbelieving faces. They remembered Meg, and this was her daughter. Yet, as the days of work went on, I began to notice a difference in the younger ones and the substantial middle-aged. It was nothing ever said, nor any real gesture made; it was a new and quiet way that they were aware of Andrea, especially the way the housewives and young mothers of the town followed Andrea with their eyes, and sometimes the shadow of a smile unconsciously on the lips. Of all the town, it was these women who saw first, and proudly, the woman that Andrea is.

One afternoon Andrea came walking toward me where I was sitting with a cigarette, in the dust and the sun among the cameras and the sound equipment.

“Jake,” she said in a curious voice, and then she told me that a committee of four women had come to her on the set; and they had come to ask us all to the Harvest Home festival of the town and the countryside. In the basement of the Methodist Church, next Friday. All of us were invited, but they had come to Andrea. “They were almost shy,” she said in wonder. “They asked me if maybe I’d sing a little something. Just anything, they said. From one of the shows I’ve been in.”

“Are you going to?” I said, thinking of the unthawing faces of the old.

“Jake, I’m going to sing them our big song from this picture,” she said. “It will be the first time people will ever hear it, and I want it to be that way. Please, Jake. May I?”

“Well,” I said, “but how about orchestra? We’ve got no —–”

“That’s for a sound stage when we get back. For this, I want country music,” she said. “I want the music of these hills.”

“Well,” I said, and watching her face I was already beginning to think on a wild maybe-so gamble, “if you’re going to simplify, Andrea, always simplify utterly. One guitar. But a good one. I’ll have Larry Danos flown from Hollywood and —–”

She shook her head. “Country music,” she said.

I got up and we walked down the block and into the store and talked to our friend the hardware dealer. I told him what Andrea wanted. The hardwareman looked at us both for a long time. That strange silence lengthened.

“Get Rufe Willoughby,” he said slowly. “It’s all he’s good for. But he’s the best around here at the guitar, howbeit he’s a loafer and a bum. All the years since, he’s been no good. But I’ll ask him, if you should wish. It — well, it would help him in the eyes of the town.”

But now he was looking straight at Andrea alone.

I began, “No, I won’t have that — and if I know Rufe, he won’t do it.”

But Andrea said quietly, “Yes. He will. Send him. If he’s the best.”

So Rufe from the poolroom knocked on my door that evening, and he was carrying a very old guitar. He had on a blue serge suit, and new tan shoes which squeaked. Andrea turned from the window.

Rufe didn’t say anything, but he swallowed heavily, staring only at me, to avoid Andrea’s clear gaze. I motioned him in and closed the door, and Rufe became the third one of us who had sat unhappily on the edge of that brass bedstead with a Scotch and water in the hand.

“I’m not sure about any of this,” he mumbled, his eyes fixed glassily on his guitar where he had leaned it against the wall. “I’m no great shakes at the sight reading of music, Miss Andrea, but given time for the study of it — and if in some way I can be of—–”

“Never mind, Rufe. Listen,” Andrea said, and softly began singing.

With the third phrase of her low, beautifully casual voice, Rufe reached a big mitt for his guitar. Hesitantly, chording, losing it for a beat and then chording again, Rufe began to follow; and by the end the guitar was singing, too, as simply and as naturally, and Rufe’s eyes looking up at Andrea were not the eyes that a poolroom ever saw. But maybe his cell—–

“All right, Rufe; now here’s the music,” Andrea said, and handed him the score that Gregor Jones had written for her, for this picture.

“Nice tone your guitar has,” I said.

“It was my father’s,” Rufe said with a strange, grave dignity. “And a long way back of that, before him, in time.”

He put it down on the bed beside him, and said carefully, “Your mother — when I knew Meg, she had the gift of laughter. Sort of breaking in the throat. With you, it’s song. Even when you’re only speaking. It pleasures me to hear it. I —–”

With the bottle in my hand, I reached for his glass, but he shook his head. He got up with his guitar and walked out of the room with the pages of music under his arm.

The Harvest Home was something that people like us have never had, but when our bunch from Hollywood came in, I think a little timidly, the town as timidly made us welcome. The basement of the church had been decorated with the fruits and the grains of the earth and with the autumn leaves of the hills. It was a time of tall talk and mountain fiddles and long trestle tables waiting for the food of country kitchens. Backyard ham and buttermilk biscuits and brown mountain honey; and another good summer past.

I’d had a hunch all along, so, with the serious help of the minister, who was gently old in human generations and 1 think secretly amused at my stratagems, I had some sound equipment hidden, even from Andrea, in a back storage room of the church basement, with the back corridor blocked off by a screen of cornstalks and grapes and beech leaves.

And when, in a deepening silence, the night of the Harvest Home, Andrea, with her fists in her gray jacket pockets, sang for them, I knew that I had guessed right about the way of this song. The minister knew it, too, and gave me a most unscholarly wink, and then suddenly turned his face away.

Because Andrea, walking a couple of steps nervously to one side, and then back again, watching all the silent faces, would never sing it so well again. As she was singing it now, to a back-hills guitar, in big and tune-wise hands. And I — I had the most expert sound technicians in the world catching this — this one time of this song. In that storage room. Making a sound track. I saw Andrea glance once at the watch-size black microphone, hanging above her by its v of dark small wires. But she thought it was only for the church basement hall, only for — well, for the people she was singing to:

All the good songs have been written,  

 A thousand songs, 

 A thousand streets, 

 A thousand years. 

 Of song——  

And Rufe with his head bowed over his worn guitar. When we were back in Hollywood, we would make the interior scenes on the stages. And Andrea would sing again, to big, expensive background music. For the sake of the visual shots. But for the scene where Andrea sings this song, in the finished picture we would trim off that sound track with its symphonic music and throw it away, and we would dub this one in, the way Andrea was singing it now:

walk in the country dust  

 And see your footprint  

 Like a quarter note ———-  

For our purposes I already knew that this was better than anything we could do on a sound stage with a muted orchestra. I would see to it that Rufe and his unseen guitar got a line of billing on the screen — to him, immortal — and I think that all his days now will be different. This song would be played by orchestras enough in years to come. But Rufe had played it first.

It was nearly midnight when Andrea and I walked alone back toward the hotel. At the far end of the street a young hunter’s moon was setting over the rough dark ridges. The thing that was still in my ears, thinking of that moon hanging over the California coast out yonder across the continent, was the uncanny rustling silence of nearly a whole town rising to its feet in a church basement. I remembered that silence more than the strangely hushed applause when the last note of the song had died away, more than Andrea’s gesture beckoning Rufe to get up and stand beside her.

At an uneven place on the sidewalk, Andrea’s sleeve brushed mine and she said, “I didn’t know it would be like this, Jake.”

“Neither did I. I guess we’ve both found out a lot,” I said.

On the corner ahead, under a dim burning street light, we saw for a moment three people walking on the fallen leaves. The hardwareman and his wife, and Rufe. The woman touched Rufe’s arm and said something, and Rufe looked down at her to answer. I guess it was the first time in years that a decent woman had walked at his side in friendship.

And, for a moment, 1 thought of the work ahead, and I quietly wished that I could be here to see the faces of the town when the first great orchestral chords opened the picture on the screen of the Riverside Theater, across the street from the hotel. About seventy minutes through the picture, and the screen would dissolve slowly into the scene where Andrea, alone in twilight, sings that song. A deeply shadowed scene, and Andrea would have sung it on a sound stage with a full studio orchestra out of sight off the set. After that, my crew and I would have done our switching of our sound tracks — putting in the song as Andrea had sung it this autumn night. I wanted to see the faces of the town when they heard that lonely guitar again.

“What did you mean, Jake? That you’ve found out a lot too?”

“Well, about you. I’ve watched you here in this town. For what you are. Beyond Broadway. Beyond the sound stages.”

“I’ve seen you, too, Jake. Beyond Broadway. But just what are you trying to say now?”

I looked at her quickly. She didn’t turn her face. For that minute, I had only her profile to guess by.

“I know I muffed my lines when I asked you to marry me,” I said. “I’ve chewed out good actors for less. And made them do their lines over again.”

“And I muffed my answers, I think. May I do mine over again? Because this time I know you mean it.”

A while later, walking up the creaky stairs of the hotel, I said, “I’ll have to tell Al. We wouldn’t want him to hear it from somebody else. I’ll tell him we’re going to be married as soon as we get back to the Coast.”

“No,” Andrea said. “I think I’d like for us to be married here. In that church. How about Monday?”

The night clerk was watching us from below, so all I could say for the next few steps was “Well, I’d better tell Al right away.”

In my room, waiting for Al’s home phone across the continent to ring, I watched Andrea, leaning in the open doorway. And she was watching my still startled face, with her mouth forming a slow smile.

“So you don’t really know much about women, after all,” she said protectingly. “But that’s all right, dear. Just give me time.”

When Al sleepily picked up his bedside phone, I told him hurriedly and he said, “Fine. I’ll be there. I’ll catch a plane this morning.”

He took a minute to think something over, then went on: “I told you it was a smash idea, boy. What a picture! Think of it, Jake! Just think of it! That little town among the hills is swept up into big time. Because a girl named Meg had to beat it out of there in tragedy and scandal, and because another girl came back.”

I swallowed once, and found my voice. “What?”

I heard Al give a low, uncertain laugh before he said, “Sure, Jake. I know all about Meg. I knew it all along. The guy I sent to scout the town photographically came home here with the whole story. But I didn’t dare tell you and Andrea… Now be still, Jake! I knew she is an artist, and it wouldn’t make any difference. I knew she would come through. And that you would, too. Jake. I said I wanted this picture authentic. And the rushes I’ve seen, from the cans flown out here, are the beginning of a real American classic, son, and a great — woman.”

“Al,” I said. “I’m going to —–”

“No, all you’re going to do is explain to Andrea that I wasn’t really a heel to send her there. Because there’s another thing,” Al said slowly. “Jake, she was bound to find out anyway, sooner or later. Better for her to find it out with your protection, and mine. I’ll be seeing you. Jake.”

I put the phone down softly and turned to Andrea. Al’s office — dreamlike.

“What is it?” Andrea asked.

“I’ll tell you in the morning,” I said. “After breakfast.”

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *