What is a heart?
By any definition it’s the mechanism of our body that keeps us alive, pumping blood to all the other organs we require to live. If we were a movie, it would be the producer, pushing, pushing, pushing the blood to move, to circulate, to oxygenate. We don’t see it, working behind the scenes, toiling without respite, and often we don’t even think about it. The heart is a workhorse, and without it we would die.
But cannot the same be said about Love?
After all, are not the heart and the sentiment of love wound so inextricably as to be inseparable? I would declare that it’s not only one heart that keeps us alive but two, for we must have the physical heart beating within our chest, but we must also have the heart of another, the love which motivates our cardiac producer to continue laboring with gusto. Otherwise what would life be, but a series of futile motions, a strip of test screen shots that are cut and quickly discarded?
And what would we be, but a race of tin men shambling down the brick road of life, mourning the emptiness within our chests? I wonder how long Baum’s Tin Man would have lived, had the Wizard not granted him the heart he desired? I wonder how long until the rust that eroded his exterior would have eaten through the mechanisms of his insides as well? Or, I wonder, how long until he took his own axe and cleaved his metal chest in two or severed his head off its bolted neck? You see, the Tin Man had a heart once, when he was a mortal woodsman, and in love. But he became a man of tin, without a heart, and his capacity for love was gone…
I say this as barely three months had passed after I met June Haley. In three months, how a life changes! How it grows large and brightens, then dissolves like a shimmering rainbow that fills the air with brilliance, only to vanish once looked upon for too long. Poetic flair aside, life really is a wicked bitch sometimes.
I hail from Milwaukee, and before my recent arrival on the Pacific Coast I’d never before left that ‘Great Place on a Great Lake.’ But I’m special. Some call it a deformity and some call it a difference, as if it were an amiable conflict of opinion. Whatever you call it, it got the attention of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer scout, who invited me to be part of a movie. A movie!
I hopped on a train for California faster than Fatty Arbuckle chasing a fifteen-year-old with a sandwich. I may never have been in a film before, but I sure watched ’em. Every week at the Emerald Theatre, I dressed to the nines and escaped my miserable Wisconsin life to sweep Greta Garbo off her feet, or blast James Cagney in a quick-draw, or dance alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
I was twenty-six years old and still lived at home with my folks. Where else could I go? People daily whispered I was a freak, a half-man. I couldn’t land a job, especially during the Depression. Businessmen were hurling themselves out of windows, they lost all their money during the stock crash. It didn’t bother me as I never had money to begin with. You never realize what you can’t live without, until you experience it first…
Anyway, before I left home I told my folks. Of course they didn’t want me to go.
“The studios are just going to exploit you,” mother said.
“What am I doing here? Making sure the couch still works?” I replied. “I’d rather be exploited by the likes of Errol Flynn and John Barrymore than stared at by the neighbors.”
“But you’re not Jewish. You’ll never survive the movie business,” father said.
“That’s just ignorant. Buster Keaton isn’t Jewish. Neither is Katharine Hepburn or Jean Harlow. Look at them,” I said. “Los Angeles is the city where dreams come true. I’m going to be a star!”
So I arrived in Los Angeles in early December, 1939, and from there took a bus to its heart in Culver City. Filming had already begun, but there were problems with recasting actors, and the executives said the script’s pace was too slow, and most of it was being scrapped in order to start over again under a new director, Victor Fleming.
I’d not read the book by L. Frank Baum, but I was familiar enough with the story and I knew exactly who I’d be playing. Me and a hundred other midgets were gathered from the distant corners of America to populate the land of the Munchkins.
For that, I was paid $125 a week and given board at the Culver Hotel with most of the other actors and actresses. My father, who’d worked the assembly line all his life, never made $125 a week, and he had to pay rent.
It was winter in California, and residents wearing short-sleeve shirts said it was cold outside. Meanwhile, back home in Milwaukee, there was a blizzard. In California, people smiled and waved at each other, even to strangers. In Milwaukee, people were born grimacing. In California, I was celebrated. In Milwaukee, I was mocked. Here, I dreamed of things I’d never thought possible. There, I stared at floral print on the walls.
Then, on top of everything else, I met Juniper Haley. If my life in Hollywood came any closer to Heaven, I would have sprouted wings and a halo.
June was a seamstress in the Costume and Wardrobe Department, and I saw her scurrying about on the set, threading a needle here and stitching a scarecrow patch there, ordered around by the head designer, Adrian Adolph Greenberg, or his busybody staff.
She was not a little person like myself, but neither was she tall as most other women. One day on set she fitted me for costume, and as she stood over me the bottom of her bosom touched the top of my head.
“If my chest ever needs to rest I can use you as a shelf,” she said.
I thought I should be infuriated by that remark, but it was funny. The intent wasn’t malicious, as it would have been back home. Plus her fingers ran across my arms and legs and chest as she measured, and I liked that. I replied, “Everyone needs the experience at least once.”
She laughed. The sound was musical, like something the orchestral department would have composed for a Judy Garland solo. She said, “I always knew there was something missing from my life. Now I can die fulfilled.”
She told me her name. I told her mine.
“So where’d they find you?” she asked.
“Milwaukee, the envy of America.”
“I’ve done some work out there. I remember watching A Star is Born at the Emerald Theatre.”
“That theatre is right down the street from where I lived!”
“Small world,” she said, then placed her open hand against my cheek. “No offense!”
I flushed. “I might be offended if you weren’t so fetching.”
She flushed in return. “I guess you can make fun, too. I deserve it.”
“You’ve got bad eyes then.”
I stuttered, and my flush brightened. I always thought myself adroit with words. I wrote poetry back home, expressions—like my emotions—that I never showed to anyone. I wrote about love and lust in my diary, then hid it all under the mattress where other men might keep saucy photo cards. But now I had to voice something which I normally imagined only while lying in the dark: “Maybe I can take you out for dinner tonight… if you don’t already have other plans…”
“Me with someone like you?” she asked.
I don’t know what was more mortifying—the expression on June’s face or the tone of her voice.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted. “I shouldn’t have said that. I mean, I just meant, well, I don’t know anyone else out here—”
“No, no,” she said. “It’s not that. I just meant you wouldn’t want anything to do with me. You’re too nice, and I’m dumped from a string of bad relationships. My heart is frozen hard… You’d probably hate me.”
“What halfwit would dump someone like you?”
She turned her face from me, and I didn’t know if she was going to sob or sigh or walk away. I placed my hand on her forearm.
She turned back, and she looked hopeful. “I’d love to have dinner with you.”
So we went out. I had an advance on my first week’s wages and took her to a club that served porterhouse steak and souffléed sweet potatoes while the Artie Shaw Band played on stage. It was a hit.
The next night we went out again. Then again after that. She opened up to me, and I fell for her hard.
June Haley had travelled all over following the movie industry’s shooting stars. She’d worked on Captains Courageous in Massachusetts, and City Lights in San Francisco, and even The 39 Steps in Scotland. Though she was a Hollywood hand, she dreamed of making leading lady. But she could never get onto the big screen, no matter how many filmmakers she took under the sheets and let direct between her legs. Her body was too thin, her limbs too stumpy, her face too round.
But her eyes were flecked by the quiet dreams of magnolia blossoms, and the depth of sweet seawaters, and the eager longing for approval, as if she were a hitchhiker waving her arms along the side of the road, watching all the cars pass by without acknowledgement. You could not see that in her eyes, unless you looked deep. I don’t think anyone had, before me.
A week later, Christmas skies rained winter chill outside her apartment though, inside, her bed smoldered hot as a steamer, its covers pushed to the floor in waded lumps. We sighed and lay tangled in each other, our arms and legs loose and caressing. My eyelids were weighted by great comfort, and it seemed the world had at last emerged from the womb of the cosmos.
She whispered to me, “I think you’ve melted my heart.”
“I’ll never let it freeze again.”
“Of all the men I’ve met in California, it took one from Wisconsin to renew my faith in romance… Wisconsin, of all places.”
“No one should ever treat you less than the best.”
“I wish. No one treats you like a lady out here; all you are is a conquest, a statistic. It’s like a bartering system: I’ll give up a piece of me if you can do me an industry favor. Get me a part, introduce me to someone, bring me to an event.”
She told me about her last relationship with the film’s costume designer, Adrian Adolph Greenberg. He promised to get her an audition with Louis B. Mayer, and so she did whatever Greenberg asked. Then she caught Greenberg diddling with a make-up girl. He blamed June for his own indiscretion, then dumped her, screaming he would ruin her career. A few months later they made up, and he promised things would be different. Things were, only that the next time she caught him fooling around, it was with a lighting boy. He blamed her again, and she crawled away, sobbing.
“I’m not like that,” I said.
“Dreams really do come true,” I added, though I don’t know if I spoke to her benefit, or to my own. “But never in the way you expect.”
She kissed my forehead, just where Glenda kisses Dorothy. And, like the Land of Oz, the next ten weeks were enchanted.
The ten weeks of June.
What is courage?
It is said that courage is the strength to confront difficulty. It’s an intangible faculty, and a part of us that has the potential to uplift humanity. If we were a movie, courage would be our cast, the actors who brave formidable roles like ferocious lions that rule as kings of the screens. Sadly, as we all know, not every lion can be a king, and not every lion is courageous, and many actors simply lack the fortitude to persevere in the face of a challenge.
Some, you might say, are even cowardly, and I count myself amongst their number.
By mid-January, filming had picked up on The Wizard of Oz, and scheduling rushed forward at a frantic, breakneck speed. We worked like shackled convicts, six days a week, on set from four in the morning until eight at night, always in costume, always in makeup. I got so used to grooming an orange wig and wearing buckled shoes and green newsboy pants, that I nearly forgot what my normal appearance should be.
Victor Fleming said we would be done shooting by March, but I doubted it. Like any great undertaking, there were set-backs that put us behind schedule: the Hays Commission was all over the Studios’ backs about moral censorship, causing constant script changes; Margaret Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch of the West, was burned during a scene in which she made her fiery exit; and the Technicolor process to colorize sepia film was such a cumbersome burden that it required sequences to be refilmed over-and-over.
And I didn’t mind—I wished to stay part of that production forever. For at nights, June and I managed to steal away to one of our apartments for a few hours of fervor, those passions that flare greatest at midnight.
One evening in February, June ran her fingers over my chest, each tip tingling against my hot skin. “If you could meet the Wizard and ask him for something—anything—what would you wish?”
“Nothing,” I said. “There’s nothing I need to make me any more content than I am right now.”
“Oh c’mon, don’t be a stick-in-the-mud. Everyone wants something more.”
I thought about it. I knew it would sound hokey when I said it, but I was feeling lighthearted, a warmth that was half passion and half maudlin, although what I said was also true as the bliss I felt in her bed.
“I’d want to make someone happy. Genuinely happy, like a happiness that’s life-changing. Not even my folks have ever been happy with me, as if they felt my deformity was their penance for some grave sin. I’ve never brought any real happiness to anyone, and I want to know what that feels like.”
“Well, that’d be a wasted wish,” June said. “You make me happier than a warbler on Broadway.”
I smiled big and believed her. “Then the Wizard has granted my wish already.”
I imagined a great rainbow arching over our bed and knew I’d made it to the other side. We were so different, June and I, but I realized that must be what love is: the fulfillment of that which you’re lacking. Whereas I was a realist, June was a dreamer. I imagined lying in that bed with her forever, growing old and speaking of wishes, and then I caught myself and wondered if it was not I who was the dreamer after all. I felt giddy. What else could joy be, if not for this moment?
I sensed her waiting, trying to read my thoughts.
“Okay, your turn,” I said. “What would you ask of the Wizard?”
Her green eyes glistened like wet emeralds, and a frown sank her ruby lips. She rolled away from me and looked up to the ceiling.
“I’d ask him for second chances.”
“A second chance for what?”
“Everything,” she said. “I screw everything up.”
The rainbow seemed to dim. I placed a hand reassuringly over hers.
She continued. “Whenever something good happens to me, I somehow poison it. If someone offers me their hand, I bite it. I’m self-destructive and I don’t know why, as if I don’t believe I deserve anything good in my life, so I turn from it. I’m like Dorothy, given the keys to the magical world of Oz, but all she wants to do is run away, back to her little gray Kansas farm. If I were Dorothy, and taken away to Oz, I’d never want to return home.”
“But we’re already in Oz,” I said. “Look around. What could be more wonderful than what we have now? You’ll never have to leave this and return where you came from... I know I never will.”
She smiled and nestled her head against my shoulder.
But it turned out to be true, what June said, and the rainbow over our bed soon vanished as if a dark twister had come along and sucked it away.
She did screw everything up that was good in her life. Me. The one thing that brought her happiness, and she left it. She ruined our perfect future! We were meant to be together, like a movie romance set in real life. I gave her my love, my heart, and she reciprocated. I’d never felt like that before—the passion! The ecstasy!—and I knew I never would again…
It was only two weeks after the night we shared our wishes that she wrote me a Dear John letter. I’d been floating through the days amidst visions of marriage and children when I found it stuffed inside my wardrobe locker.
Darling, I’m sorry, but we can no longer see each other. I thought I had feelings for you, but my emotions were so topsy-turvy. My heart is with another. Please don’t let this note get you glum—You’re the biggest man I’ve ever met, and I had a swell time while it lasted.
I wept, and the tears washed away my make-up, so that my old face reappeared, my miserable and forlorn Milwaukee face. Time muddled after that and shot by, a reel of film that spins too fast on its projector, until suddenly slowing and sticking at all the wrong moments.
It was the beginning of March and production had somehow caught up to schedule. Filming would end soon, as Fleming predicted. There wasn’t much time left to win June back… Letter be damned, I sought her every chance I could.
She’d been promoted from working with the Munchkins to become the personal assistant for Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow. Apparently, part of her job duties were to hide whenever I was around. One afternoon while the cast went to lunch, I hid in Bolger’s dressing room and waited.
She entered, alone.
“Who is he?” I asked from the shadows.
She startled, then replied, “Please, darling, it doesn’t matter. Our lives move forward.”
“But why, June? You owe me an explanation.”
“Don’t torture yourself. There are plenty of other women better suited for you.”
No, I thought, there aren’t. Instead I asked, “It’s not Greenberg, is it?”
If June could have slumped at that remark any more, she would have been a puddle.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t you see what you’re doing, what he’s doing? He’s toxic, he doesn’t care about making you happy, not like me.”
“Adrian’s really a sweet guy, he just slips up sometimes, like we all do. But he makes up for it.”
“Did he promise to get you a role again?”
She couldn’t look at me.
I kicked at a sitting table, and a glass with a single daffodil crashed to the floor. “Damn it, June! I’ve seen Greenberg with three other women this past week alone, not to mention the men. Does he offer everyone the same carrot?”
I stomped on the flower.
Bolger flung open the door. Greenberg stood right behind him.
“What’re you doing in my room?” Bolger said, then followed with a cry. “My daffodil!”
He was still in costume and sank to patchwork knees, shaking his head in dismay. Pieces of straw that clung to his hair bounced back-and-forth like crazy pigtails. I didn’t wonder why he was cast for the brainless role.
“You little monkey,” Greenberg said, emphasizing the reference to stature just for me. “Time for you to scurry away.” He made a series of chittering sounds, which I can only assume were meant to sound like a slow-witted primate.
Bolger stood, then took hold of my shoulders and nearly lifted me off the ground as he shoved me out the room. “You killed my flower!”
“June!” I shouted.
“Stay away from her, munchkin,” Greenberg said, his voice cheery as a ringleader. The dressing room door slammed shut.
I was twenty-six, and I was a man, regardless of my height. But I retreated to the washing room and cried like a child. It was me who brought her happiness, me! That was my wish of the Wizard, and June said it was so. It wasn’t fair! The Wizard couldn’t take wishes back… that wasn’t part of the story. So was it my fault? Had I done something wrong or shown myself unworthy?
Or was this just a challenge, a test, like Dorothy tasked to defeat the Wicked Witch before the promise of her wish could be granted? Perhaps hardships must first be endured before a gift can be fully realized? It was as if the great voice of Oz boomed in my ear, commanding me to conquer Greenberg.
I wanted to look at my reflection and scold myself for having been such a sissy, but the mirror was too high. I left the washing room, storming back up the hallway.
Ahead, Bolger was walking away, still clutching the crumpled flower. Greenberg and June stood in front of his dressing room, arguing.
“I don’t want you around that deformity,” he told her.
“I didn’t ask for him to stalk me,” she replied.
“It didn’t sound like you were telling him to leave, either.”
“And who are you, the prince of fidelity?”
Greenberg scowled and raised a warning finger. Before he could speak, I stepped in front of him, hands clenched to fists.
“I told you to stay away,” he said to me.
I fired a straight punch at the first target in my range: his crotch.
Greenberg made a sound like a deflating balloon and doubled over, his face turning crimson. Now we were eye-to-eye.
“She’s mine,” I said. I swung a jab that knocked his nose sideways.
Then I punched him in the eye, the jaw, the temple. I’m not that strong, nor do I claim any skills in boxing, but Greenberg shattered like a man made of china. He dropped to the ground, pouring tears and shouting for help.
June pulled me off. “Let him be!”
I heard voices down the hall, running footsteps.
“Come away with me, June. Leave this place. I’ll make you happy. Leave Greenberg and the deceit, and we can be together forever.”
“No, I’m not leaving anything except you. We’re through. Get over it, it was just a fling.”
“But you belong to me!”
“I’m not a poodle, I’m not your pet. I don’t belong to anyone. I’m sorry I ever wasted my time on someone like you.”
“You’re ruining everything!” I shouted.
June’s face seemed to morph with meanness, like a piece of celluloid that catches fire, then crinkles and shrivels black. “What exactly am I ruining? After me, your life will still be the same as it was before. I didn’t make anything worse. You’ll return home to Wisconsin and still be jobless, still live with your parents, still be a midget.”
Two security guards dressed like runway showmen arrived and picked me up, one at each of my arms.
Bolger stood behind them. “That’s him! That’s the dwarf who killed my flower!”
Greenberg sobbed on the floor, and June knelt to him, comforting.
“No, June!” I shrieked. “Don’t go back to Kansas. I have to give you happiness! Me! You’ll never be happy without me, the Wizard said so…”
The guards dragged me away.
June yelled, her final words echoing down the MGM halls like gongs in my mind. “You’re delusional, little man. I thought you were fun, but you’re crazy, you know that? Crazy as a loon!”
My feet were dead weights, and the guards dragged me like a broken prop across the lot. Bolger followed, babbling nonsensical threats. I thought I would cry, scream, but instead all the waterworks stayed inside of me and turned cold and hard.
I was hauled to MGM’s gates, then heaved to the sidewalk on Culver Blvd. One of the guards kicked me in the ass while I fell on my knees. “And don’t come back, runt,” he said. “Consider yourself blacklisted.”
I curled into a ball and laid there on the concrete. Tourists stepped around me, pointing and snapping pictures. They smiled and waved and pretended life was a fine jamboree. Nobody asked if I was all right, nobody cared. I was just another sight to see: Look! The Egyptian Theatre! Pershing Square! A jilted Munchkin!
There was nowhere to go but return home to Milwaukee, beaten, broken, alone. June was right about that, and I knew what awaited me there.
Only she was also partly wrong. Although circumstances might return to how they were, life could never be the same. I remembered thinking about the rich businessmen throwing themselves out of windows after they lost all their money during the stock crash. You never heard of poor people killing themselves because their pockets were empty… it was only those people who tasted the riches and decided they could never continue living again without it.
And that was me.
Granted, I was emotional, furious. I knew, even then, I should have thought the decision through, knew it was the passion of the moment. But I wanted her to see the pain she caused me, the inconsolable agony…
I wanted to die, and I wanted her to be part of my death. I wanted June to know it was her fault.
I snuck back into the studios and returned to set. Creeping backstage, I found a piece of heavy rope used to hoist lighting reflectors. I took it and moved to the back of the lot amongst the constructed forest glen. A set hand had left a wood ladder propped behind the green-roofed shack that was used as the Tin Woodsman’s house. I took that too.
The assistant director announced the call to take places, and cast and crew assembled at their positions along the front of the set. I leaned the ladder behind a gnarled, dark oak and crouched beneath. Seven years bad luck, mother used to say, but what use was luck now? I looped one end of the rope over the other, again and again and again, until a noose hung completed from my fingers.
Truth be told, it was not the first time I’d contemplated suicide… I’d tied this noose a dozen times before.
They were refilming the scene where Dorothy and the Scarecrow discover the Tin Man. He sang his solo, “If I Only Had a Heart,” and I quietly accompanied the lyrics as I climbed the ladder, up the tree. I moved in shadows, away from the spotlight. But across from me, beyond the actors, I saw the crew’s faces outlined by the soft glow of arc lamps, watching each movement of the characters intently. June was amongst them. Though she also watched, her eyes appeared lost, as if she thought of faraway places.
Judy Garland and the others began skipping away from me, singing merrily how they were off to see the wonderful Wizard of Oz...
The noose fit snug. I looped the other end over a thick branch and swung my legs out, so that I sat on one side.
The actors suddenly turned direction and skipped toward me, then past, where I crouched high above. The yellow brick road looked longer than ever, as if there was no end to it. The Scarecrow tripped, and Toto barked. I jumped.
I fell from the tree and felt the rope immediately squeeze around my neck. By reflex I gasped for breath, but it was all wrong… nothing came in, like a door had been slammed shut. My mouth gaped wide and air dried against the roof of my mouth, so I knew it was there… but instead of flowing down to my lungs it all just swirled back out to the world, rejected.
I had an audience, but nobody saw. They were transfixed on Dorothy and company singing gaily away. My final sight was of their backlit faces, and one in particular. June was framed by a glow arching over her head like a sparkling tiara—no, like a rainbow—and her lost eyes were crumbling emerald cities.
Suddenly I regretted what I had done. For I realized that she loved me still, no matter what her letter said, no matter what she told me, for Oz can never be taken away. Oz is within us all, and she loved me still, and I gave up on her and everything else, choosing the coward’s way out.
June only needed a second chance... That was her wish of the Wizard.
My legs kicked higher than a Rockette. Instead of trying to suck in air, I struggled to scream but, like breathing, that too no longer worked. No sounds were made from me, unless someone was near enough to hear the rustling of my fingers clawing at the rope, or my buckled shoes clacking against each other, until I grew still.
Fleming yelled, “Cut!”
And my body slowly turned, suspended from the branch. They had filmed my death and no one even saw. The last thing to go through my mind was Margaret Hamilton’s voice: I’m dying! Dying! Oh, what a world! What a world!
What is a brain?
By all accounts, it is the control center of our body, the cerebral organ that oversees our other mental and physical capacities. Its size is small, but its command is great. If we were a movie, the brain would be our director, issuing actions, ordering us when to move, when to stop, when to cry, when to laugh.
And, occasionally, it storms off set, leaving you to wonder: What am I supposed to do next?
You see, though it is our brain—our director—it is not always right. Sometimes, we don’t realize the brain has its own flaws, as does everything else. Or, sometimes, we do realize the flaws, recognize that the command it’s giving is not right for the scene, yet we follow its directions anyway. How else do you explain screaming in anger at the ones you love most? You know it’s wrong, it’s irrational, yet you do it nonetheless, as if someone else controlled your emotions.
The brain tells us what is real and what is not. But again, I declare that the brain is not always right! So how do we know when it’s mistaken? How do we realize something is not true, if we think it to be? The brain says that when we die, our body decomposes. Our mortal remains should lie motionless, unfeeling, the spirit released, the brain dead.
But I am moving still, thinking still, loving still.
My brain did not believe in magic, but perhaps the Wizard does not need to be believed in, in order to bestow wishes. Perhaps he is not the huckster that Baum made him out to be. Or, perhaps, the real magic was created on set, forged by the thousands of people who believed in a fantasy. After all, what conjures wonder more than a movie to be made in color? And the witches and talking animals and hopes and dreams! It was romance and adventure, and a charm to escape the dull grays of life to start over somewhere new, somewhere enchanting.
My brain was still alive, as was I then, as am I now. I’d been returned to life, and brought back different. I was made powerful.
I know what a ghost is. I know what a zombie is. I know what a ghoul is, a vampire, a warlock, specter, spook, and kelpie. I am none of those. I thought at first I was simply the result of a wish, like Lazarus rising from his tomb... but I had it all wrong. I am not the wish of a wizard...
I am the Wizard.
When I woke for the last time, it was in Hillside Mortuary on Centinela Avenue. I was shocked to rise in unfamiliar surroundings, as if waking from one dream, only to find myself in another. Once that passed, I discovered I’d been slated for burial in the Jewish cemetery. Of course I’m not Jewish, but it didn’t matter to Louis B. Mayer and the rest of them at MGM, did it? They thought I was a nobody. A little nobody. The studio heads were Jewish, and I suppose they had contracts with Hillside. MGM didn’t want bad press so I was an affair that was hushed and rushed nine miles away from the lots and out to the cold metal slab in Hillside’s vault.
My folks ended up being right on both accounts. The studios only wanted to exploit me, and I didn’t survive the movie business, although not being Jewish had nothing to do with it. I doubt MGM even sent notice of my death to them; better for no one to know. Of course, Mother and Father will still think I’m out here drinking champagne from glass slippers, livin’ the ritzy life of a glam celebrity like Clark Gable or Tyrone Power. I’d only written home once since I left, and I wondered when anyone would begin to miss me.
And part of me felt saddened by all that befell me, and part of me felt angry.
I was the Wizard of Oz, but I could not undo my past. So Milwaukee no longer mattered. Nor did my folks matter, or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or religion, or movies, or cemeteries. None of that was for me.
Death was not for me.
Only June. Only Love. What else was it that brought me back, but for the last thing I felt? The one thing I feel still? The desire to grant June her second chance.
And yet I still seethed that Greenberg had stolen June from me like a highwayman who carries more riches in his pocket than his victim. It still stuck in my caw that the studios couldn’t bother to return my body home to Milwaukee, where my family’s burial ground covers one side of Rose Meadows Cemetery. It still agonized me to look upon my life and consider it had been meaningless... even my death—a statement that went unheeded—was meaningless.
I was the Wizard of Oz, and I could change this world into anything I wanted! I wondered briefly what compelled half the witches to become good and the other half evil, and that perhaps each of us has a defining moment to make such a choice. And then the thought vanished in a fiery poof of black smoke. Nothing mattered, but that June belonged to me.
And my insides were still cold and hard, and I remembered them freezing when MGM security threw me onto the sidewalk.
I returned up that same sidewalk, leaving Hillside Mortuary in flames far behind. I was tired of everyone looking down on me...
I was a giant and all the people of Los Angeles the munchkins. They saw me and fled, or fell to their knees in reverence, as they should. I kicked at sleek automobiles that drove across my path, and they flipped over like dried poppies blowing in the wind. The earth shook at my steps, and a great storm followed in my wake, trumpeting thunder and waving lightning’s banners.
I took the city and folded it, and stepped across to June’s apartment. Crouching down, I spied into her room. She and Greenberg lay in bed, tangled in each other, their arms and legs loose and caressing, as ours once were. I flushed, and steam rose from my skin. Greenberg got up, and put on a robe, and came outside to smoke beneath the bright full moon.
He did not see me at first.
He gazed up to that pale moon, perhaps contemplating his conquests and wondering if the twinkling stars were not next for him to step upon. But things began to fly across the moon, so that it vanished, and the sky turned black and filled with shrieks and the flapping of immense wings.
“Who’s a little monkey now?” I said, and my voice cracked the streetlamps.
Greenberg turned to me and screamed, and an army of winged monkeys fell upon him. I commanded them to tear him to pieces, and they raked silver claws across his face. His screams died, as did he, and the street outside June’s apartment littered with his scraps.
And my happiness was boundless. It was life-changing, as I wished, and I had so much to share with June.
I looked back into the room, prepared to take her in hand and fly away forever to enchantment. But Greenberg returned from smoking outside. He commented that next week he would try again to get June a role through Mayer, then lay in bed beside her.
I shrieked! The monkeys sat on the street staring at me with ebony eyes, awaiting my next command.
I flew into a rage and ushered a fierce tornado to tear into her apartment. The walls lifted, bursting outward with a roar, and her bed rose through the debris in wild circles. June and Greenberg clung to each other and cried out, until the centrifugal force sent them spinning in opposite directions. Greenberg landed on the ground upside down, his legs stuck comically above him like the stem of an upended flower. I stomped on him as I did Bolger’s daffodil. June landed in my arms, and when she saw me her smile flashed brighter than every theatre marquee in the country.
Then she was gone from my arms, back to her bed, in her apartment, with Greenberg, making love.
I wailed and gnashed my teeth and kicked at the monkeys. I tore the roof off June’s apartment and plucked her from bed.
“No, June, come with me! You’re mine, you’re mine forever!”
But I spoke only to my empty hand.
I took June again and again, but she seeped through my fingers like trying to clutch water.
It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair! What use were my powers if I could not control the world? I raised mighty walls around June’s apartment, but people passed through. I rained fire upon Los Angeles, but it immediately extinguished. I amassed armies of tin soldiers, but there was no one to conquer. Life became nothing but a mirage, a cruel and fleeting glimpse of what once eluded me...
What still eludes me now.
In resignation, I built a great emerald tower that climbed high above the MGM studios and confined myself to contemplate amidst dreaming clouds. I remained there, alone, and wondered as to my purpose. What good was I as the Wizard if I didn’t have power to grant wishes—or was I truly delusional as June said? Was I just a small, timid man hiding behind the curtain of reality?
I conjured a small crystal ball and gazed through it, watching June Haley far below. I held the ball to my chest and imagined it as her, the words she repeated to Greenberg instead meant for me.
But perhaps there was more magic in my capabilities than I yet understood. Wasn’t it true that the Wizard did not actually grant the Scarecrow the physical brain he wanted? The Wizard bestowed upon him a doctoral degree instead, a simple piece of paper with fancy words, which impressed upon the Scarecrow the belief he was turned smart, when he truly had been genius all along. To the Lion went a medal, and to the Tin Man, a ticking clock. Those also were not the literal realizations of their wishes, but the impetus to achieve the wishes’ intent, which in all cases was simply acknowledgment of something the recipients already enjoyed.
So I contemplated the nature of desire: What we think we want may not be as it seems, and fulfillment may not be in the way we expect, but it often brings to us realization that what we crave most, we already possess.
And because of that, I knew it was true that my love for June would somehow bring her home. I had only to figure out the faculties I possessed, and how they would assist in getting through to her.
Soon, my pretty…
What is home?
Ask a dozen people this, and you may get a dozen answers, but I would claim it as simply that place where we belong. Dorothy knew it, and she did everything possible to return there. If we were a movie, home would be the world we create, the dream of Hollywood that is imagined and then brought to life, just as a pile of straw transforms into a talking scarecrow. It’s not just the background set, that wood and canvas façade we pretend to be as something else, but it’s the mythos we commit our lives to exist within. For some, that world is a transient phase, and for others it’s a shifting labyrinth. For me, it’s a final destination, the palace at the end of a winding brick road.
A palace with thrones for two.
I had resigned myself that I could not have an effect on the world, outside of Oz. I could not free June from her bleak existence, by my own physical efforts, and carry her home. The throne next to me remains empty.
But I am a resolute wizard, and I did discover a way to her, much like pushing from one bubble against another; the film walls may not break to let you through, but their elasticity does not halt your arm either. The walls merely stretch along with your reach and retract as you draw back.
It’s an obvious egress, but I did not consider it immediately.
I discovered it the night Greenberg dumped June to marry a wealthy widower. June sobbed in grief and stared at her reflection in the mirror for what could have been years. I looked at her, from the other side of the mirror, and whispered: It is time.
I know not if I had her attention, but I whispered of my happiness, here in Oz, and that I waited for her to join. I whispered from the water that ran hot from the faucet, and I whispered through the steam that filled the air. I whispered that she could never be happy without me. I whispered for her to take a razor and pull it across her wrists, and that all the pain, all the loneliness, would melt away when she took her place on the throne next to me. I whispered I could make her wishes come true.
And she did it. June picked up a razor and began to slice through one thin wrist as easy as cutting an apple. But as the blood welled up like blossoming ruby flowers, she shrieked and collapsed, and threw the razor into the corner.
I cursed. She still screwed things up… June couldn’t even bring herself to leave that dirty, gray world for a wonderful new land with me.
But as I said, it led to discovery, and I realized a way to help her, a way as I had helped myself.
I visit in June’s dreams, night after night after night. She may live without me in her physical world but, like bubbles, death and dreams have a permeation to them, and my reach extends to her slumber. We face each other, standing on a yellow brick road. The road runs in every direction, though it leads to only one thing: a gnarled, dark oak with a ladder leading against it.
It’s time, June, time to leave Kansas.
I hold a noose, composed of heavy rope that was once used to hoist lighting reflectors, and I offer it to her.
It’s time, June, time to take the noose.
Sometimes she tries to flee and sometimes she tries to hide, but there is nothing around us in which to abscond. The world is a brick road, and it anchors a blue sky filled with a thousand rainbows.
Take your second chance, and let me bring you the happiness I promised.
She does not speak, she never speaks. But if only she would use the noose!
Do it, June, and return to Oz...
I don’t know if I affect her in dreams, but I want to believe. Like magic, it requires a certain amount of faith, and I must trust that I’m connecting with June. I must trust that my perseverance has its due effect, night after night after night.
And perhaps it does.
For as I look through my crystal ball and watch the days go by, she grows gaunt and harried. Her eyes begin to twitch, as if she’s constantly looking for something from her peripheral vision that isn’t there. When she talks, there’s a sense of desperation in her voice. Men come and go from her life, though their stays are increasingly shorter and crueler.
The seasons pass, like peoples’ fancies, and each one takes a piece of June as it departs. I continue to whisper in her dreams, night after night after night, and I tell her to take the noose.
Dark circles form under her eyes, and hard lines pull at the corners of her mouth. Her hair grows brittle and breaks, and she takes to cutting it short.
She’s given up on her Hollywood dream long ago, though she hasn’t left the city. She grows old, and stars come and go, and she talks to herself, and she talks to them, when she is alone. But she doesn’t speak to an unheeding void, for I am there, and I listen to her, and sometimes she laughs while facing the back of an old alley, and the singsong quality of her voice still reminds me of something the orchestral department would have composed for a Judy Garland solo.
I tell her to take the noose, take the noose, it’s time to take the noose.
And sometimes she cries when she sees pretty girls on the arms of older men, and sometimes she smiles when she sees flashes of a movie shimmering from a storefront television set. And one time she saw a little person, as I once was, walking along the street, and she attacked him so viciously that police sent her for a year to the women’s prison at Tehachapi.
And I follow her always, holding the noose. I watch her always, holding the noose. I whisper to her night after night after night.
Her body grows weak as a scarecrow, her jaundiced skin yellow as a lion, her movements rusty as a tin man. Had I not followed alongside her over the years, and watched the changes myself, I would never believe the person she has become once travelled the world for movies and flitted with the royalty of cinema. No one else does.
She lays in a hospice bed now, afraid to close her eyes, afraid of the thoughts of suicide that take hold when she sleeps. Winter has come again, and perhaps she thinks back to long ago, to the nights we kept each other warm and made promises that could never be broken. Or perhaps she remembers the time she watched The Wizard of Oz in Grauman’s Theatre, so proud to have been part of that production. Then, during the scene where Dorothy and the Scarecrow discover the Tin Man, she saw the shadow of a hanging munchkin fall behind the trees, and she screamed so loud that people stampeded out, thinking there was a fire.
But as June once said, ‘Our lives move forward,’ and her final credits will be rolling soon. She slumbers more frequently, and my visits grow longer. She gazes upon the noose and begins to lift her fingers to it, so close, oh, so close.
I believe that movies should always have a happy ending, and I hope only that the magic still holds, the magic of Hollywood and the magic of love, enough magic to bring us back together. She’s waited so long, but I have too.
And I’m waiting still, to give June her second chance to return to this wonderful Land of Oz. Our home is here, for us together, and everyone knows…
There’s no place like home.