For his own part, Leland could not have been dissuaded, because the chance to rescue Charlie Chaplin would never come again. On the porch where the launch boats hung, he slipped into his flotation vest and jumped into the rowboat behind Johnson, who always wore a cameo of the Blessed Virgin on the outside of his protective clothing. With Johnson in first position, Leland took second position in the oarlocks, and signaled to the crane house to drop them to the sea.
For long minutes, two pairs of youthful arms rowed in splendid unison, threading the boat between spires and jags until it faced the open sea. Leland spotted the skiff ahead; it was drifting toward la pared de la muerte. Many points along the coast were known as the Wall of Death; this one had reasons for the name so convincing that the antediluvian Tolowa fishermen had described it thusly, and centuries later the Russian otter- hunters had agreedstayna greebel, of coursefor, no matter the tide, a wicked current drew anything in its grip magnetically shoreward, with unexpected speed. When you were still in the swells a quarter mile away from the obvious rocks, in the sickening drop of a trough, the half- submerged wall would be thrown erect before you, and there was a vortex into which all boats would be sucked down, then spat up against it, dashing what remained into bits.
Sergeant Emily Wheeler watched with pride and fear as her boys rescue boat rose and fell with the ocean, oars moving it foot by foot toward Chaplins skiff. She was anticipating the outcomethe shoreline, sunrise, seagulls chasing the spindrift, Chaplin on a driftwood log with a blanket
draped over his shoulders, sipping coffee laced with brandy, and shaking from the fear and pleasure of having been rescued.
At the same time, arms fatigued and cold, Leland was staring through his partner, Johnson, considering the shape that the gratitude of Mr. Charlie Chaplin might take. He imagined lecturing Chaplin; he had read Motion Picture Weekly, and he knew the difference between pretending to be on a dinghy in the movies, and testing your luck on such spirited seas as those near St. George Reef. But you know, Mr. Chaplin, he would say, this does make quite a scenario, dont you think? And how else could Charlie respond but to stand from his log, place one arm up on Wheelers solid shoulder, pump his hand, and say, I hadnt considered it, Leland Wheeler, but youre right, and Leland Wheeler is a splendid kind of name. Come to the studiowe need strong arms and strong jawlines, and Leland constructed and reconstructed these statements with different kinds of English accents, from Ascot- races lordly to cockney chauffeur, since he wasnt quite sure what Chaplin sounded like, eventually settling on the accent hed heard a slapstick comedian use at the Redding Music Hall, British with a Jewish or Gypsy tint, he didnt really know the specifics; but such speculation swirled in its own vortices, and he concluded first that this rescue might be his own salvation, then: might there be a filmed re- enactment, but this time with bathing beauties?
It is the nature of wishes and their potential fulfillment to travel faster than anything shackled to earth, especially a rowboat straining against a current that all but groaned in its desire to blow into la pared de la muerte. So Leland Wheelers mind could travel from sea to shore to the road leading seven hundred miles south to the bare ankles of the engaging backlot sirens who fluttered and yawned at the Mutual Studios of Los Angeles, in the approximate time it took Chaplins boat to be sucked into the whirlpool and begin an awful, irresistible spin.
Leland was calling out to Johnson, who called back; Leland could hear just the harder consonants of a prayer. Chaplin noticed themhe visibly perked up, stood, and leaned forward until the boat tipped, and he was forced, hands on hat, to lean back. He smiled, recognizing not the danger but the rescue, and he again tipped his hat, face breaking into the smile of one about to be saved. But his boat was already turning, turning slowly, turning almost gently, in obedience to Coriolis, and the men in the rowboat were shouting themselves hoarse, and Chaplin, in order to keep them in sight, began to march in place, counterclockwise. He was in effect stationary, even as the boat was beginning to spin under his feet. Leland shouted, No!
Excerpted from Sunnyside by Glen David Gold Copyright © 2009 by Glen David Gold. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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