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Last Word Trigger Finger
Carleton Christy   2013

The first time I saw the Maltese Falcon was when my mom made us Netflix it on the night we were all supposed to be going out to a movie.  I was in town with my wife and two kids visiting my parents and siblings who lived near where we grew up.  My mom just couldn’t believe that any of us wanted to go see a movie the day after a man in Colorado walked into the midnight opening of the same movie and shot a bunch of people.  “He was using a gun like the ones they have in the military!  Did you hear that in the news today?  Damn guns,” she said.  She meant business when she said “damn.”  A few months earlier it was, “Damn Sandusky.”  About eight years ago, a cousin and I were playing catch with a football at a park at our family reunion.  The ball managed to hit head of my two-year-old son as he sat at what I thought was a safe distance from our football tossing.  My doctor second cousin once removed checked to see if my son’s eyes were dilating and announced that he had a concussion.  I was scared, wishing to erase time so bad, wishing I’d never woken up that day.  In the background, my mom said, sotto voce, “Damn balls.”

Even if we still wanted to go to the movie, my mom announced that she wasn’t going and we—my younger brother, my wife and kids and I—ended up staying home with her and my dad.  She said she’d come up with something we’d all like, “A movie made when they still knew how to make movies.  Something with a plot.”  She chose The Maltese Falcon, which my brother and I saw had a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%.  So at least, while an old movie like this wouldn’t be great, it was the best that not great could be.

I liked how they talk in that movie and when I get around members of my family, I like to try different vernaculars I think are funny.  One year it was text message speak.  “I totes can’t believe we’re going to eat at Sizzler.”  I told my brother-in-law when we met my wife’s family for dinner one night.  “Well, grandma’s paying and it is a step up from Golden Coral buffet,” he said.  “Yeah,” I said, “I guess it is a little redic of me to complain.”  After we saw the Maltese Falcon, it was falcon talk, or noir talk as I called it; the way characters talked in the Guy Noir Private Detective skit on A Prairie Home Companion.  Short sentences and important themes such as love, death, longing, courage, honesty.

Since my brother and my family were both staying at my parents’ house, I had a lot of time to try out noir talk with them but after a few days of that, my brother just flipped me off without looking away from the TV when I asked him in noir talk what he was watching.  "Ooooh.  Well.  Let's talk about the black bird.” I said in my Bogart voice.  “It's only a certain kind of man who communicates with another man without looking at him.  It's a man who can't trust and therefore can't be trusted."  To that, my brother said, “Alright, already.  You sound redic.  Just sit down and watch this with me.”

Noir talk is spoken in short bursts and it includes a lot of what you might call dictums (Are you a quiet man?  One can’t trust a quiet man.  He usually picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong thing).  And talk like this doesn’t exactly invite or open up to further discussion.  It works well in a movie because a scene’s got to end somewhere; why not end it with a line that ends all discussion?  We don’t talk like that much these days; but as I thought about it, during the years around when I got married, life was full of it.  I think this is in part because where I’m from, people who date don’t doddle with the tawdry business of friendship; we date to marry.  We date to find the person we should love forever, but the door to forever can close unexpectedly—and usually before about 27 years old.  So dating is kind of tactical.  Every date is taken as seriously as a play call in the fourth quarter of a close football game.  The language my friends and the mature, married adults used to discuss match making was shaped by dictums (or are they called clichés? platitudes?) like:  “Stop looking and the right one will show up;” or “Focus on being the right one instead of looking for the right one” (or Stephen Still’s cheerfully hopeless variant, “And if you can’t be with the one you love, Honey, Love the one you’re with, love the one you’re with”). 

Something I noticed only after I was married is that no axioms or platitudes exist for future in-law relations; but upon marrying, the plethora of clichés, personal advise, jokes, articles, books, novels, advise columns, films, lore, and history about in-law relations is inexorable.  The focus while you’re dating is directed entirely on compatibility with the one you’re dating even if the in-laws will probably be part of the reason you might get divorced.   Four months into dating one girl, I managed to learn this nugget that I kept to myself: be wary of a future father-in-law who, well, talks in dictums.  This man had a noir talk way of starting a lot of sentences (and simultaneously ending a lot of conversations) with, “You can learn a lot about the character of a man by how he . . . ”  He had strong moral beliefs.  One had to do with a Ted Nugent-onian distrust of the government and that paying taxes was to be looked into; not to just be done prudently.  I thought it’s sure a small world when I found out that he was a pal of—even a confidant to—one of my family’s friends who quietly, ignominiously, moved his family into smaller digs while he went to jail for fourteen months for his six years worth of tax evasion.  I said to my girlfriend’s dad, “Oh, you know him?”  And he said, no, pronounced: “Yes.  And he’s a great man who’s been through a lot.  Don’t believe everything the government says and don’t believe that the government knows what to do with your money.”  There’s no way to follow up to that, especially since he said it without even looking away from Perry Mason.  Still.  I thought.  Jail.

This particular girlfriend’s dad also thought it was his moral duty to sue the company I worked for because the company, by some astronomical chance (of serendipity, I thought, when things were going well in our courtship), had used her image (the rights of which she gave up by signing a waiver on the same day a professional photographer shot pictures of her in a studio setting) on some of its product packaging without him knowing it, and she—he—deserved “royalties” because he and she had no idea how the company got those pictures in the first place and someone had to pay for it.  I must have thought, You can tell a lot about the character of a man—and the empty prospect of being happy with his amazingly forgetful daughter–who frivolously sues the company his daughter’s boyfriend works for in the name of his daughter without even letting her know about it because I stopped over to her house and ended it with her on the way to work the next morning.

I guess a platitude talkin’ dad doesn’t always disrupt things; even the father of the woman I eventually did marry, when I asked for his daughter's hand one summer night as he watered his lawn with his thumb over the end of the hose to create spray pressure, said, "When you get married, you're married for a long, long time."  That was all he had to say.  Never broke eye contact with the glistening grass.  It wasn’t, That's thrilling!  I would love for you to join the family!  How long have you guys been cooking this plan up?  It wasn’t, I had a feeling you might be asking me this soon.  Congratulations!  It was, “You’re married for a long, long time”—with two “longs.”  After that, I walked back in the house and found my fiancée and her mom waiting to see how our little talk went.  They asked excitedly what he’d said.  I didn't want to tell them.  I thought what my prospective father-in-law said showed that he had his own special understanding of Stephen Still’s recommendation, but I couldn't see how either one of these women in particular would like hearing it.  I just said, “He said, ‘Okay’.”

Eventually, I saw that movie my mom talked us out of seeing in the theater.  It brimmed with scenes of terrorism and men walking into crowded rooms and spraying machine gun bullets sans regrets thereby filling the entertainment niches carved out by cable news for 9-Eleven and Columbine.  And even after a man using military-class weapons shot a bunch of elementary school kids later that same year, producers of that movie put spots on National Public Radio (for the sophisticated, urban people) advertising that the film, “for consideration for the best picture award by the academy, is now out on DVD.”  Only days earlier my eyes welled up when I heard reporters from the same radio station interviewing survivors of that elementary school shooting.  (Those kids who died were the same age as my kids.)  And it was only about a week after that that my mom told me that she likes the idea of having more guns in our country if we want it to be any safer.  We adapt.

Sometimes we don’t.  I didn’t mention it before, but that girlfriend and I got back together about seventeen days after the litigation-inspired break up.  I’d felt lonely.  The business of our tawdry friendship seemed to outweigh whether we were each other’s ones or not.  We both knew somewhere deep down that we weren’t, but she told me she was working on moving out of her parents’ house and that was a positive sign.  But she did live at home still and even if I hoped to never see her dad again in my life, I did.  He actually came home unexpectedly to find us talking in his kitchen.  It was pretty noir.

(Mr. So and So enters the foyer holding drugstore bag.  Puts car keys in pocket and stops abruptly when he sees Mr. Spade and Ms. Archer standing in the kitchen motionless.)

SPADE: Well.  Hello, again, Mr. So and So.

MR. SO AND SO: Yeah.  Hello.

SPADE: Well, then.  I’ll just be going along my way.

(Mr. So and So nonchalantly walks a few steps farther into the house and down the two stairs to the adjoining family room and pretends to look for the TV remote as Mr. Spade leaves quietly out the front door.)

Our second (and final!) break up was more drawn out than the first.  I started saying we shouldn’t date anymore and ignoring phone calls.  And in those same days she really did move out—for me.  But after just a few weeks of re-trying our compatibility, we both realized that although we were the only ones in the world who could cure each other’s loneliness, we couldn’t save us from ourselves.

The other night I went to a movie with my friend in a theater.  The movie had a mix of politics and military actions—fraught, even controversial, post 9-Eleven topics.  The movie ended with a long fade to black and the instant the first credit line appeared on the screen, a man down in the front of the theater hastily grabbed his jacket and said, “That was the stupidest damn movie I’ve ever seen.”  (“Damn.”  I knew he meant business.)  It was silent in the theater when he said it.  Everyone else, about thirty-five of us, easily heard him.  It was an uncomfortable moment; I felt the way a bird might feel when a kid pokes his fingers at it through its cage.  The bird steps jerkily to the side of the cage as far from the kid as possible.  In the time it took the mad theater guy to dart out by himself, I estimated in the dim glow of the little white words scrolling up the black screen that, if necessary, I would indeed be able to lie down on the floor completely hidden behind the seats in front of me.  A few seconds after the man was gone from the theater, a woman behind us broke the ice, “If he thought it was that bad, why didn’t he just leave a long time ago?”  My friend looked back at her chuckling and said, “No kiddin.  Jeez, I thought it was pretty good.”  I said, “Well, at least he didn’t shoot us all.”


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