Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hollywood Widow

August 11th, 2008

When I say I met Jack Warden’s widow a week ago, I mean I narrowly escaped her. I didn’t know who Jack Warden was until I looked him up, then instantly recognized him as the grandfather from Problem Child. (I apologize, Jack, but I can’t control the order of my associations. For what it’s worth, you were great in Being There.) Of course, I didn’t know who she was when I first sat down in the row ahead of her, on a southbound train taking off from Penn Station.

I eavesdropped. Not purposely—I was trying to read a Bradbury book—but her voice, spritely and cheerful, was not to be ignored. Biographical clues trickled out. I realized the two boys she talked to across the aisle—behind me—were not acquaintances, but strangers she’d seized. They sounded French, and, as it turns out, were.

She was not. I can’t recall her origin, but I remember she mentioned it, among the sea of things she mentioned. Nicaragua, perhaps. Honduras. Maybe Mexico—regardless, she later lived in France. Her and the French boys shifted languages without warning, mid-thought, mid-sentence: English, Spanish (which I could follow), and French (which I could not) formed a cosmopolitan braid.

She lives in Georgetown. A recurring theme of the discussion was sites to see around DC, mainly museums. Apparently, this was to be the youths’ first time there, and she wanted to make sure they saw everything of note. She dropped that she’d married a famous actor, but the name was yet to come.

The French kids were just kids. They were mildly interested in the chattering woman, and offered the occasional rejoinder or jumping off point, but you could tell they were trying to read or texting someone. The entire car could tell, though Warden’s widow could not.

We learned how she came to the United States. We learned her opinions on art—Picasso came up, I believe. More accurately, we learned a third of all this, the remainder occurring en français or en español, but we pieced it together.

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Train travel hypnotizes me, a haze of white noise stirred by the metronomic click of the wheels. Perhaps I dozed. But every minute or so a tinkle of laughter erupted and I snapped awake.

I suppose I envy her. Keeping a dialogue brewing for thirty minutes takes all my concentration—performing a two hour monologue, as this woman ended up doing, is completely beyond my powers. It’s not that I want to talk that much—much less about myself—but I’d like the option.

She acknowledged that she primarily talked about herself and defended with something like, “It’s the subject I know best.”

We went through French politics and the Prime Minister’s engaging wife. This segues nicely into the American Presidential election, and so the conversation went. The topic churned for awhile—mandatory praise for Obama—but how we happened upon the following, I don’t recall:

“Now slavery was awful, terribly awful, just evil,” she said, “But it was so long ago! We have to move on from it. How long can you blame the past?”

Maybe this was the point her husband got his second mention. This time the French kids asked for the name; I overheard and Googled. She returned—she always did—to the topic of DC sites (to her credit, she omitted the Spy Museum). She wanted the boys to call her, and she’d lead them to everything of note.

Some thread of conversation eventually roped me in: she was fumbling for the name of an artist she met once, and started describing his oeuvre. The French kids were useless.

“Warhol,” I said, turning around, “Andy Warhol.”

“Andy Warhol!” she squealed, “Yes! Thank you!”

“Happy to help,” I said, and because her smile was infectious, I smiled. It was the only time I saw her face—a soft brown, at least fifty, probably older, once gorgeous, with a smile that emitted light. I was afraid that any further discussion and I’d be snared, too, so I quickly went back to my book.

When she took off for the café car (promising to buy the French kids whatever they wanted) I watched her walk down the aisle. The moment the door sealed behind her, I turned around and grinned.

“I have never heard anybody talk so much in my life,” I said to the French kids, who only smile slightly, as if completely understanding some peoples’ need to talk. They didn’t find her as fascinating as I did. Maybe they wanted a bigger name than Jack Warden.

After I pointed out the obvious, everyone in nearby seats let out a sigh of relief and talked at once:

“She’ll never stop!”

“Heavens, I don’t think she ever took a breath.”

“Are you kids all right there?”

“How can anyone talk so much?”

And we laughed at this momentary bond and went back to whatever we were doing. I read.

When she came back, she didn’t waste a moment. But the conversation turned sad, and I didn’t want to hear anymore.

“You will call me tomorrow, right?” she said to the boys, reaching out and touching a forearm, “I hope you will. We’ll have so much fun. Oh please call, please call. Promise me.”

Yes, they said, yes. But it was non-committal—we all heard the tone.

There isn’t much more. She stopped talking and read a magazine. I may have finished my book, I may have fallen asleep. I got out in Wilmington, leaving the rest of them two more hours of travel before DC. My parents are impressed by the company I keep, until I find out that Jack Warden and his wife separated twenty years ago and never reunited. For my Mom, this lessens the experience—and, though I don’t know why, I understand the feeling.

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