The Writers Voice
The Lion on Canes
Richard Lee Fulgham
(My latest meeting with Norman Mailer, 13 November, 2004))
I spent some time with Norman Mailer Saturday night, November13, 2004. I mark that date for its significance to myself and to that spookiest of arts called writing - and this I do with a nod towards Norman for the descriptive "spooky". My meeting was preceded by a day of great boredom and nonsense, bespattered here and there with genuine insight, generated by the forty of so disciples of the Norman Mailer Society with which I was with in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
We first saw Mailer at a reading by him and his son John Buffalo. The little Provincetown Theater - old and wood and rustic as a whaling boat galley - was packed. My wife Janet and I sat near the end of the first row so we could escape near the end and beat the traffic flowing from the lot behind.
The reading will not be subjected here to a description by me, though I will say it was moving, with Norman playing the role of the old man in his novel Tough Guys don't Dance. Some impulse demands I mention his old man has resumed drinking though his doctors have warned it will kill him even sooner than the cancer all ready consuming him. He is a bear of a man - but a bear walking on two massive, silver headed canes. He tells his son he tried to stop drinking but the night filled with spirits that made him dance . . . so he began drinking again because tough guys don't dance.
After the reading, Janet and I rushed outside. And in the back lot, in the dark, alone, was Norman Mailer - the old lion himself, leaning on his two silver headed canes under a crescent moon. The sight of the aged lion is forever burned into my mind and, dare I say it, in my heart. Alone in the waning moon was the lion. I joined him and then there were two aging lions under the moon, if I may be forgiven for saying so. I said, "It's Richard Fulgham. May I offer you a ride or accompany you to your car or merely stand here with you so you won't be alone?"
"Fulgham. I thought it was you. The car's going to pick me up here in a second. You're coming to the house aren't you?" I assured him I was and he winked at me with eyes that seemed to possess an inner luminescence that outshone that dim crescent moon.
Ten minutes later, those of us in the society met at Norman's house, a century old three story brick house hidden behind a bastion of trees and guarded by an cast iron gate. Janet and I entered to find the house - that beautiful old house we'd visited before - invaded by a mob of academics, scholars, professors, students and an entourage of odd but decidedly affected ass-kissers. (This was my first impression but of course not true. I was very put out by the crowd between me and my Master of thirty years. In actual fact, many if not most of the society were fine, genuine people. Perhaps only other writers can understand the furious emotion that filled me with such unwarranted contempt.)
As Janet went to find Norman's wife, Norris, I in my initial and natural shyness waited outside the thick circle of people surrounding and isolating the great man - who in his majesty sat in an arm chair, holding a brimming glass of scotch whiskey, basking in the light their admiration. I thought to myself to wait for "my turn", though it might take hours. So I paced around the house looking for kindred souls, none of whom I found. I sought solace in a corner but could not find that solace . . . .
Then a great anger and indignation overcame me and in a fierce burst of boldness I bulled my way through the maddening crowd until I stood before the great man himself, the old lion, the last of the Living American Literary Lions - the man who looked up at me with surprise through indescribably piercing gray eyes -- staring from that massive head not in anger but in amusement and recognition and curiosity. Yes, I had been rude and intrusive and impatient. Yes I had caused a scene! Damn right! I sat down next to him and said, "I was about to start a fight! I'm not ! apologizing, either. I got mad. All these sycophants! How can you stand it? I'm not going to wait behind a bunch of sycophants to see you! Hell no, I ain't gonna do it!"
"You're a writer, Fulgham," he said not without a hint of amusement, "You want them to respect you. You think they ought to roll out the red carpet for you."
"I got mad . . ."
"I'd have done the same thing thirty years ago. You're just like me," he said.
"I learned a lot from you. I remember those fights you started back in the '50s and '60s."
"Those fights were real," he said. I knew what he meant. Two years earlier I'd accused him of staging those fights for the publicity. Now he was saying he'd fought for real. I'd fought for real too.
"How can you stand all these sycophants?" I asked again. I was in love with the word.
"You're a sycophant," he said with a teasing smile, pointing at me.
I was mad again. "I'm not a sycophant!"
"You're a sycophant!" He was playing with me. No way. The old lion would take me seriously. He was going to take me seriously!
"I've published five books! I never had any help from anybody, not even you! I did it myself, alone, living in squalor, working shitty jobs. With nothing! Nobody! I'm not a sycophant!"
Mailer took a long look at me. His eyes were on fire. He was having a great time, teasing me like that. Finally he said, "Okay, you're not a sycophant. You dragged yourself up from the bottom. I had advantages. But now you have that."
"I have what?" I asked.
"You have five books. You had nothing. Now you have five books." He elbowed me in the ribs and nodded. He was serious. I could hold my head up anywhere. I had five books. I was a writer and I come up from nothing.
But I was overwhelmed with an emotion I didn't understand. I said something stupid. "I've only got one Master and that's you. We have a bond. Well, I have a bond with you. I don't know if you have a bond with me." I was getting sentimental and instantly regretted it. But he touched my knee, pulled his face close to mine and said, "You're just like me. But there's only one Richard Lee Fulgham. There's only one in the world."
He paused for a moment, then added, "I keep thinking your name is James. There was only one James Jones. Maybe that's why I keep wanting to call you James. (James Jones wrote From Here to Eternity.) But you're Richard Lee Fulgham. You were named after Robert E. Lee, weren't you?"
"Yes, and I'm proud of it and honored."
"You're a true Southern Gentleman."
At that point I had an attack of bad conscience and asked him if I should leave and give the others a chance. After all . . . .
"We've got all night," he said, "We'll talk again. We're all going to get shit faced and talk. We'll talk some more."
So I let the "sycophants" have their turn. I was no longer angry. But I wasn't ashamed because they'd have have monopolized his entire evening and blocked me out completely if they could. Nope. I was proud. I had allowed myself to get angry - I hadn't done that in decades. Later I talked to him when he was lubricated with the whiskey. I don't drink but I was drunk with excitement. Again I sat before the aging lion.
"Maybe I should apologize for being so bombastic?" I said first off.
"No. You did the right thing. You did what a writer should do. You did what I would have done."
Earlier he'd told me that the galley of my coming novel, The Hogs of Cold Harbor, was in his room. Now I told him, "You don't have to read the whole book. Just a piece of it would make me happy. And my publisher happier."
"I'm going to read the whole thing. But there are books I have to read before yours. Four or five."
"Oh, I know," I said; "I know there are plenty of people more important to you than I am."
"There's no one more important. It's a matter of priorities."
Suddenly I felt like laying the truth on him, as he had done to his readers so often. I leaned closer to his ear and said loudly,
"Norman, I worry about you. I don't know how well you can hear these days. I don't know how well you can see. I don't even know if you recognized me in the parking lot behind the theater. It was you and I, two lions under the moon. It was a mystic experience to me. But you might not have even known who was talking to you, while I was thinking about us being two literary lions brought together by fate. I'm not being romantic - I really think we're! two of the last literary lions in America. I may not be Norman Mailer. I may not be noticed yet. But I'm still a lion and I can still roar. You and I were lions under a crescent moon. Did you know it was me?"
"Oh, I knew it was you," he said, "And I like that about the lions. You have a right to boast. You have five books. You're a young writer. . . . " (I laughed out loud here. I was 57 in 2004.) " . . . you've got a lot more to do, and by the way, it was fate. And you're right about my health. Everything's getting harder and harder. Norris has had a really tough time of it too." And then we talked about our mutual aches and pains and medical conditions - that subject that connects everyone over fifty. I decided I'd taken up too much of his time after a little while and asked if he wanted me to leave now. He again ribbed me with his elbow and grinned. I still don't know if that meant yes or no.
"Oh, there's one more thing I wanted to ask you," I said after we'd stared into each other's eyes a full thirty seconds.
"I hope you're not going to hold The Hogs of Cold Harbor against me."
"Why would I do that?" he asked.
"It's written from the viewpoint of a Confederate private. It's a Confederate book."
"I wouldn't hold that against you! The confederacy was right. They fought the good fight for the good cause. The Southerners didn't want an empire. You know what Sherman said about Southerners? He said, 'Southerners are dumb, lazy and ignorant. But they make good soldiers.'"
"Oh, not all of us are dumb and ignorant and lazy," I defended my people; "I'm certainly a Southern Gentleman."
"Yeah, but you were a bad Southerner tonight."
I looked at him curiously.
"A good Southerner," he explained, "would have come in tonight, seen the bad situation and not said anything."
"My sincere apologies," I said; "I got mad."
"Don't apologize, Fulgham. I'd have done the same thing. Just remember what I said. You got five books. You're a writer. There's only one Richard Lee Fulgham." I didn't know what to say. So I just grabbed his hand and held on a minute or so before leaving him. The aging lion. I knew it might be the last time I see him. I hope not.
Right before I left, he said, "Thing's will be better next time around." He was talking about reincarnation. I know because I asked him.
I can't tell you how the next thing happened because it's a mystical occurrence that I can share only with Janet. But through Norman I came into possession of a pendant with two rampant lions facing each other. The person who gave me this said that Norman meant for me to have it. Two lions. Rampant lions, wild and free!
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