I have become increasingly aware of the briefness of life. – George Clayton Johnson
Sitting here in this improvised workroom in my little home in Pacoima, late at night after the family has gone to bed, touching this battered portable, I remember only yesterday when the typewriter was new and I wanted so desperately to be a published writer of short stories like my friend Charles Beaumont. It was like a crazy need.
Writing is a lonely business. It tends to make you reclusive. Because it is difficult to concentrate, to get lost in the work while others are around, more and more you seek a place to be alone. When I used to hang around with the Group, learning to be a writer, little did I know that I would spend so many solitary hours at night dreaming.
God knows, I’d rather be down the hall in the bedroom cuddled up with Lola than here in the workroom trying to build a story so that Lola and I can earn the money necessary to keep the bills paid, to feed us and allow us to be together.Even after all these years we are still best friends who can’t be in the same room without plunging into earnest conversation, with both of us talking as fast as we can. Only a closed door stops the avalanche of eager words that continually pass between us. I’ve taken to working late at night, after she has gone to bed and the world has quieted down, alone in what was once a spare bedroom, trying to fit together just those words on paper that might excite an editor and eventually bring in the money we need. The only way to survive is to write stories that sell.Which is why I was in my workroom at three in the morning, lost in language, when the telephone rang.I grabbed it to keep it from waking Lola, aware of the lateness of the hour and apprehensive because calls this late often portend trouble.
“Hello?” I said. A woman with a telephone company voice said, “This is the Special Operator. I have a person-to-person call for George Clayton Johnson.”I wondered what kind of trouble it was. “This is George.”Click-buzz and I heard her saying from farther away, “I have your party on the line, sir. One moment…”Another click and the woman was gone. Then I heard a voice saying:”Hello, George. I thought I might catch you now. I know you like to work at night.”The voice was warm and familiar.It was the voice of Charles Beaumont.”I hope I’m not interrupting anything important. I thought if you weren’t too busy we could talk for a few minutes.”I felt the hair go up on my spine.Charles Beaumont has been dead more than twenty years.”Who is this?” I said, suspicious. I could feel myself suddenly becoming angry. “It is I,” the familiar voice intoned solemnly. “It is only and merely I, but let’s not waste time. I have a lot of questions to ask-firstly, how’s the Group? Have you seen them lately?” My God. Whoever was doing him had all Chuck’s inflections down pat. Abruptly I felt cold, aware of the night. I heard the faint tinkle of ice in a glass. A thought crossed my mind: Do they serve alcohol in Heaven? “This isn’t funny,” I said. “Not at all.””George,” said Beaumont’s voice with a note of disappointment, “I had expected you to be quicker.”I found myself wanting to prove how quick I could be. Beaumont always had that effect on me.”Okay, Chuck,” I said tightly. “I’ll go along with the gag. So here we are in the Twilight Zone. How are things at your end? Is it the standard Heaven?”Not exactly,” he said. “That’s why I called.”Now, I thought, here’s where we find out what this is all about. “Tell me more.” “The Greater Truth is that one man’s Heaven is another man’s Hell.”Knowing how much English he could put on things, I said, “Give it to me with the bark off.” “It’s exactly the way I imagined it would be. Everything is perfect. There is not a discordant note. There is never any waiting and no one disputes any thing I say. Do you see the implications?” he asked sharply.”I read that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” I said, trying to understand.”Exactly,” said Beaumont’s voice somberly, and then, brightening, added, “but it’s my turn. What about Burt Shonberg? What is his latest stuff like?””He died, Chuck,” I said, reminded of the brilliant artist whose luminous paintings had enlightened us all.”Oh. I didn’t know.”The sound of the words chilled my blood. “Chuck, I said. “Burt was one of the good guys. Haven’t you seen him around?””No,” he said. I sat stunned, thinking, “My Father’s house has many mansions!””And the Group? Are they still living?” “Yes.” I could hear relief in his voice. “And do you still take each other to the beach?” I remembered those night-long sessions of naked encounter and mutual psychiatry with the four of us jammed into Chuck’s new Volkswagen. We would drive along the seacoast or hunch together over steamy coffee cups in an all-night diner to thresh out the problems of the world while pointing out each other’s flaws, stripping away the falseness. For Chuck they were fun, but for me those confrontations were oftennightmares as I defended myself against self-satisfied challengers: John, who figured out how he should feel before becoming emotional, with visions of himself as a no-nonsense executive with a taste for the finer things in life; Bill, who would kid his way out, the willing focus of Chuck’s jokes who never forgot or misplaced anything, determined to make a living from writing, any kind of writing, happy when the heat wasn’t on him; and Chuck Beaumont, keeping things moving with his aggressive manner and willingness to go first, somehow knowing that he was bulletproof, that he was the masterof verbal judo who was living a charmed life.Among us, Chuck was the authority on writing.He had written The Hunger and Other Stories, had already publishedhis first hard cover novel, was selling regularly to slick magazines like Playboy and was being sent to the studios on interviews by his Hollywood agent, Malcolm Stewart of the Ingo Preminger Agency on Sunset.He was a proven success.Bill was selling stories and articles to the men’s magazines.John had been taken on by the Harold Matson Agency in New York and there was talk of a book contract.I didn’t have an agent. All I had sold was an original movie script for peanuts and after several years it looked as though it would never be produced. All of my attempts to write short stories had come back again till I was blind to their faults. Baffled by the problem, I had taken to procrastinating while I figured out the secret, studying Chuck and the others for clues on how the magic act was done. Was it the neatly typed pages, typed and re-typed to perfection? Was it the charm, the personality, the telephone manner? Was it connections? Was it luck? Chuck insisted it was work, and that was echoed by the others. He talked a lot about forcing himself to sit in the chair. He would put a piece of paper in the typer and make himself stay there even if the words wouldn’t come. He said it was the way he got that trance state where he forgot himself and became the work. He had adopted a schedule and stuck to it, which wasn’t my way. That’s what I’d quit my job to avoid.So all too often I’d find myself backed into an uncomfortable corner by all three of them at once; forced to admit that, measured by my progress, I could be wrong.I was there to learn, wasn’t I?Somehow it was different when it was Chuck who was outflanked. He would smile warmly at us and thank us for straightening him out while praising us for our insights into his self-delusions.Yes, I remembered those enlightening torture sessions we called “being taken to the beach.””No,” I said. “We haven’t been to the beach in years.””Why not?” Chuck’s voice sounded dismayed. “lt appeared to me that you liked and admired each other.””Sure,” I said, “but you were the center. You must have known that the Group would pull apart without you. Oh, not at once. Bill and I wrote a fairly successful book together but it turned out that the big attraction between us was you. We spent our time together, waiting.”You’d lock yourself away, working on something while we’d wait for you to come out and play. We’d see each other from time to time, but the day would come when you’d finish the script or the story and you’d be back again. Then the Group would come alive. That was when you, tired of solitude, would want excitement. The minute you’d come out of the office of yours with the manuscript under your arm you’d call one of us on the phone and he’d come running, maybe picking up somebody on the way. You knew how to orchestrate these things so we’d all end up at your place to talk and listen to the hi-fi or pile into a car and go for a drive… “It was your group, Chuck. Without you to center on, we simply discovered that we all lived in different worlds. When John Donne wrote, ‘No man is an island,’ he was mistaken. We may share the Earth but each man is a universe of his own creation. His dreams. His lusts. His needs. Every man is a god who has forgotten his divinity.””Exactly,” said the voice of Charles Beaumont. “That’s why it’s so important that you call the others. Get them back together again. It’s only while you’re on Earth that you get your three wishes-if you have the will to reach for them. It’s magic interacting with the throng. There are dangers, of course. It’s easy to forget yourself and get lost in all the exciting activity, to be caught up in the world . . . but you must not avoid it, either.”Call them, Gorge. Get the Group together. Don’t let them drift out of your life.”Hug them to you.”Cling to them.”Pray for them.”Cherish them.”Didn’t you know that if each of us lives in his own world, he also lives in his own Heaven?””It gets very lonely when the others aren’t around…George, hurry. There is only so much time. Infinity is only a heartbeat long. Eternity is now. For God’s sake, wake up. . . !”
There was suddenly a click-buzz on the phone and I heard the colorless voice of the Special Operator. “I’m sorry to disconnect you, sir, but your three minutes are up. “Far off, away, I thought I heard an anguished cry. Then the familiar dial tone.I fumbled the phone back into the cradle and sat there for a moment, thinking. I could see what he meant about there not being enough time. I wanted to tell him that though he was right about not letting the friendship die, I couldn’t suddenly stop working and call John and Bill. If I could simply stop what I’m doing the first thing I’d do is go down the hall to the bedroom where my wife, Lola, lies sleeping. Don’t you understand, Chuck, it isn’t only the money to pay the bills? There is a Greater Truth. Don’t you know that when you were alone in your office writing those stories, you were touching more people more deeply with the quality of your mind and thoughts than you ever could in a car driving along a beach with three guys. And don’t you see why I couldn’t leave the workroom until I finished this story?
Used by permission from George Clayton Johnson – Copyright G.C. Johnson . All rights reserved