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Svidrigaylov's Dream

"Let's make lemonade," the subject line of the email from my son's seventh grade English teacher read, and I almost deleted it. Something to do, no doubt, with refreshments for the Alice in Wonderland adaptation Carl was in. Then I saw the name Mad Hatter highlighted in the message. The kid playing the part had come down with mono, and they'd decided to have a parent take over the role: "Let's make the most out of an opportunity for family involvement—let's make lemonade out of our lemon. Any interested parent should reply ASAP."

Why wouldn't I assume the invitation was meant specifically for me? No other parent had directed twenty films. Son of Kong, my re-envisioning of the original sequel to King Kong, was still a holiday rental favorite, a near cult classic, and the all-time number three grossing "requel." Plus, my boy was Alice's White Rabbit, and I'd already directed him: J.D. Salinger had hand-picked us both to bring his short story "Teddy" to the screen.

"I'm yours to squeeze," I typed, sticking to the lemonade idea, signed "Raymond Walchuk," and hit SEND.

Carl had told me about the Alice show a month earlier when I picked him up for the weekend from my ex's.

"I'm the White Rabbit, PK," he said after he slid into the car and tossed his backpack behind him. PK for Papa Kong. "We're doing a kind of Hip Hop version. Alice in Shizzel-land. I auditioned, and I'm in. Pizza Hut?"

"Where else?" I didn't show my surprise about the role—Carl had stayed away from acting for a year, taking a break at age eleven to have "a normal middle school experience." Truthfully, the roles had dried up. He'd shed some cuteness as he approached adolescence. And there'd been complications involving my career. But it was good to see him getting his feet wet again.

"Hip Hop?" I said. "Why not? So—what about Alice? What's she look like? A little hotty? Have you fallen in love yet? Does she drive men crazy?"

"PK— Dad," I could almost smell the heat of his blush. "This isn't Lolita." My kid's sophisticated—he's got a French indy film on his resume. "When you talk like that—I mean, don't you get it? What if somebody heard you? Wasn't that the point of the lawsuit?"

"That was settled. If they didn't know the gist of the movie, they shouldn't have signed on in the first place!" By "they" I meant everyone involved, from the studio executives who pulled the plug on Svidrigaylov's Dream to the Hadley family—Annabelle and her parents.

"There was a restraining order—"

"—which was a total over-reaction to the negative publicity. The novel is a classic, dammit."

"But you weren't doing Crime and Punishment, PK."

"Just part of it. A character study. That doesn't mean I'm the character, does it? Am I still on trial? You want the speech on artistic freedom again? Jesus, you're doing a Hip Hop Alice! In Shizzel-land!"

"You called a ten year old 'my little hooker,'" Carl said, "in a national interview."

"Oh, for god's sake. I was complimenting her acting. That's what she was—that's what Svidrigaylov dreams her into. He dreams about finding an innocent, starving waif, and he feeds her and puts her to bed, and while he's congratulating himself for his charitable impulse, the child turns into a whore." And had there ever been eyes like Annabelle's? "The film explores his psychological state. So let's just stow it. No censorship among true mensches, right?" Carl and I gave each other a lot of leeway—I accepted familiarity as a privilege owed a non-custodial parent. But he was pushing harder than usual. Pre-teen rebellion? Or were his parenting instincts better than mine? "Was an examination. Of a pervert, Dad. They didn't let you finish it, remember?" Carl said. "You crossed a line. You said, 'He's thinking fucky-fucky' to a little girl. Loud enough for everyone on set to hear!"

But that's what was in Svid's mind. How else was I to explain the scene to a kid? She has to show what he thinks he sees. "What about Jody Foster in Taxi Driver? Nobody's bitching at Scorsese."

Carl sighed. "Maybe some things should stay in dreams," he said. It was the usual script: Papa Kong Oversteps a Boundary. I shook myself inside like a wet dog. A dad needed to focus on what was best for his child. But how could I get off myself if I was the issue?

"Are kids still talking about this Svid business at school?" Carl didn't answer. Of course they were. The story was two years old, but the implosion of Svidrigaylov's Dream had dominated the entertainment news for months. Free publicity for Annabelle Hadley, the kiddy star. The poor, damaged girl's "recovery" included a settlement from the studio and a multi-million dollar deal with Disney for a series of fairy tale films. And "Scaredy Cat," her clothing line: the logo was a come-hither-y pair of green cat's eyes. Just a month ago I cut a picture out of a teen magazine that showed the kid, now twelve, all rouged, lipsticked and mascaraed up in a slinky dress for a photo shoot—she wouldn't have looked half as whorish in my film. That picture had disappeared from my fridge, I don't know where to. As for me, no calls received, none returned. But my burden shouldn't be Carl's.

"Sorry for that mess," I said, my apology a blank check. "But you're acting again, that's great. Really—tell me about Alice."

"Just a second." I hadn't realized he was texting. He pocketed his BlackBerry. "That was Mom. She said, 'congrats u r a star.' She's in Atlanta negotiating. Klaus stayed home with me. Either she's buying out some communications syndicate, or they're buying Mindgames."

"She's selling her baby?"

"My multi-million dollar sibling."

I asked again about his costar.

"She's cool. She's in most of my classes. She's adopted—from one of those poor countries in Africa."

"A black Hip Hop Alice? That makes sense," I said.

"Why?" Carl expected the worst whenever I opened my mouth.

"Hip Hop is an urban art form, right? It's connected to black culture. How many African American girls in your school?"

"She's got a good voice. And she's not African-American. She's African. And she's American. But that's not the same as African-American."

"Uncle," I said. "You win. What's her name?" We pulled into the Pizza Hut parking lot.

"Andrea. Andrea Convenience." I yanked the parking brake. Carl waited for a wisecrack. But I knew that name. A Convenience had once tried to murder me.

Jerry Convenience—a name out of Guys and Dolls. I told Carl about him and the murder plot while we ate. "A few of us called him 'Seven' after the 7-11 marts. He was a big guy who knew a lot about movies, which is why we were friends. He said his last name came from an 'immigrant forbearer' who picked it from a dictionary because it looked like his old name."

"Why did he want to kill you?"

"Honor, I guess. I snubbed him and this other guy. Or talked trash behind their backs, I forget. Stole a girlfriend, maybe." I tapped my chin. "Sauce." Carl wiped, but left a smudge. "The two of them took me for a ride. So— do I look like a surfer?"

"You hate the water."

"Right. But they didn't know that. Neither of these guys had talked to me in over a year, and we'd gone off to different colleges. Then Jerry called me out of the blue to go surfing. They looked more like morticians than surfers. Definitely indoor boys."

"Why'd you go?"

I shrugged. "I didn't have anything else to do. I was curious. I thought maybe they forgot they hated me."

Carl shook his head. "People don't forget things."

"Yeah," I said. "I rode in the backseat of Jerry's station wagon, leaning on the purple surfboard that stuck out the hatch. Like a purple tongue. Nobody said a word for miles. It got uncomfortable. So I started mocking them."

Carl's eyebrows rose. His expressions were less startling than they'd been during his child star years.

"Like friends do—like you and I do," I said. "Maybe a little more brutal. Give and take. Probably not the best strategy with guys who wanted to kill me. But I didn't know. And I was good at it, mocking. 'Seven?' I said, 'you're way less than that. Not even six. Or three or two. You're not even zero. Ever diminishing nothingness. King Minus, and your touch creates a void. What you are,' I said, 'is Unfinite. Unfinity from this day hence.' And then I dubbed the sourpuss next to him Unfunity, just to make a matched pair."

"You said that to your murderers?"

"Unfinity and Unfunity. Crazy. Let's call it brave. Retrospectively."

"But you didn't know then what was up?"

"Nope. It didn't dawn on me until a few years ago. When you get older, you think about your life, run back and forth over it. The past is full of surprises. It's a barrel of snakes. So one day my memory framed this "surfing" deal as if it were a movie: there's the interior of the station wagon. There's the surfboard—they're going to lure me into the water. And next to the surfboard there's a thick rope—and a burlap bag and a metal pipe. And I think there was an ax."

"An ax?"

"I think I remember an ax." I see more than that: Jerry's white knuckles gripping the wheel, glances traded between my would-be assassins while they absorbed my insults. Then I see a purple surfboard dipping and spinning over a dark wave, a rope strung with seaweed, a sinking burlap bag.

"This isn't in one of your movies, is it? Slasher II?" Carl was my personal archivist. The waitress left our check. She'd been hovering. Maybe she'd caught the word "murder."

"Nah—too melodramatic. Maybe I told you this before."

"No, I'd remember," he said. "So if there were two guys, why is this all about Jerry Convenience?"

"Because that's your little girlfriend's name, isn't it?"

"What finally happened?"

"They killed me. I'm a dead man. Your daddy's a ghost. Boo. I walk the earth looking for revenge. I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of anyone named Convenience." I looked at the check and slapped my wallet on the table.

"How did Jerry spell his name?"

"Like from the dictionary, remember? A matter of Convenience."

"Andrea's name starts with a K and ends with a 'wicz.' It only sounds like Convenience. Really, what happened?"

"Oh— they chickened out, I guess. It got cloudy, maybe it rained, they took me home, and I never saw them again. But that doesn't change the blackness of their hearts, does it?"

Carl frowned. "It's funny how you remember everything you said, but not why they wanted to kill you." The dim lighting and pizza sauce soul patch on his chin made him look older. "'The blackness of their hearts…'" he repeated. "PK, you never know when to shut up, do you?"

When the phone rang during Regis the name and number of Carl's school popped on screen, so I picked up. It was Ms. Stein, his English teacher and the director of Alice in Shizzel-land.

"You're still interested in the play, Mr. Walchuk? The Mad Hatter is quite a demanding role. By the way, Carl is doing beautifully." Did she mean his acting, or did I have something deeper to worry about? Was she concerned that I'd upset some delicate balance if I got the part? She had to know my son and I had worked together before. And hadn't parental involvement been the advertised point?"

"The part's still open, isn't it?"

Ms. Stein hesitated. "Ye-ess. Auditions tomorrow at 3:30. But we're not just looking for talent, Mr. Walchuk. We want to be sure the children are…comfortable with the parent that's chosen."

Usually, actors auditioned for me, so this was a twist. "I understand," I said. "No guarantees."

"Mr Walchuk—you need to know, as someone experienced in dramatic presentations, that we're taking this production very seriously." Was this homage? If she needed wisdom, I had plenty to offer.

"You mean you're preparing seriously. But the play's fun, isn't it? It's a little girl's fantasy. She's Alice, after all."

"It grows out of fantasy, yes, but so do some of the most dangerous human impulses. The play confronts many challenging dynamics. Urban dystopia, for example."

"Hip Hop and 'Shizzel.'"

"And events from twentieth century European history cast a long shadow. 'Off with her head!' the Queen of Hearts insists, 'Off with all their heads!' Isn't that transparent?"

"I thought Alice in Wonderland was mostly just play," I said. "Maybe a little about a child's loss of innocence. You're sure you're not working this a little too hard?"

"Alice in Shizzel-land won three Drama Critic's Circle awards, Mr. Walchuck. We've held bake sales for over a year to pay for the production rights. This is an "all school" project: instruction in all classes is linked to its themes. No, I don't think we're 'working this too hard.'" I had clearly touched a nerve. "I'm assuming you signed off on the family awareness packet Carl brought home. Auditions for the Mad Hatter are at 3:30 in the auditorium. Please be prompt."

I called Carl that night.

"So what do you know? Who's my competition?

"Dad, did you say something stupid? Today at rehearsal Ms. Stein kept looking at me, even when I wasn't on stage. In class, too."

"No, we had a nice chat. We talked about the play. And about what you're doing in your classes. What're you reading in English, again?"

"The Diary of Ann Frank."

"Ms. Stein's pretty serious," I said.

"Her grandmother was a survivor."

"Un-hunh. So— who else wants to be the Mad Hatter?"

"From what I hear, just Andrea's dad."

My ears flamed. However he spelled it, he was a Convenience. Bad blood, maybe. Bad karma, definitely.

"Hey, PK!" Carl bounded down the hallway, rabbit ears flapping. A slender African American girl skipped behind him and slid to his side when he braked. Her hair was woven with braids and beads. The cusp of adolescence: were these kids or young adults? She gazed up at me with a closed-mouth grin that dimpled her cheeks. "This is Andrea," my son said. "She's Alice."

"Well, Shizzel my dizzel," I said, and offered my fist for a bump, which Andrea returned. Her smiling lips parted, displaying elaborately wired braces.

"This is Papa Kong," Carl said. Andrea closed her eyes and dipped a straight-backed bow, and Carl bowed after, and they see-sawed, up and down, until they dissolved into giggles. Alice wore a pink T-shirt with a Scaredy Cat logo on the shoulder— Annabelle Hadley's label. "Let's go," my son said, and I followed his pom-pom tail to the auditorium.

The set was arresting—a stylized cityscape, the storefronts, windows, lampposts painted to shed a lurid light and cast ominous shadows over night surfaces—a sophisticated effect, simultaneously open and claustrophobic. Shizzel-land as an idealized ghetto. Kids were scattered about, a few in folding chairs with notebooks and laptops, others texting, several on stage, painting, adding details to the scenery. A yellow triangle just begun on a storefront window suggested a Star of David. To the side of the auditorium several rows of chairs had been cleared away. A group of five kids practiced stomping and clapping in unison. They wore red baseball caps at an angle, baggy pants that hung from their hips, and gold chains. There were hearts on their caps and on their armbands. Some kind of Ghetto Gestapo? Carl and Andrea dashed backstage to find their teacher.

The instant I lost sight of them, a side door opened, and a compact young woman entered the auditorium, followed by an older man in a sports jacket and tie. When she saw me standing alone in the center aisle, the woman glanced, as if to account for all the sheep in her flock, then hurried toward me with an extended hand, her curly hair bouncing off her shoulders with each step. She pushed her glasses up her nose twice before she reached me.

"Mr. Walchuk? Sarah Stein. And this is Mr. Konfeniwicz," she added when the slightly built man caught up. As we exchanged handshakes, he corrected her pronunciation. "Harry Convenience," he said. He was fair-haired and half the girth of Jerry. And he had blue eyes that slid like shivs into mine.

"Raymond," I nodded.

"Daaa-Deee!" And here was Andrea, throwing her arms around Papa Harry's waist, her smile an explosion of tinsel.

"Puh-recious!" he cried, but his voice was tired, as if he'd come from some dreary job. He hugged his daughter with one arm and kissed her forehead. Carl reappeared and stood at my side. A giant cardboard watch now swung at his knees.

"The kids are doing such an excellent job," Ms. Stein said. "And what do you think of our set?" She glanced at me, maybe for approval, but the strain of our last phone conversation hung between us. Quarreling voices rose behind us.

"Ms. Stein—we need to work on this!" The Ghetto-Gestapo stompers glared our way with folded arms.

"In a minute, kids, be patient," she called. "We'll start the Mad Hatter auditions shortly, gentleman. I need to work with the dancers first, the parts with Rabbit and Alice, so we'll send you off to a practice room." She looked at her watch. "And while you wait, you can practice the recitations you prepared." Her eyes darted around the auditorium while she instructed us. She was all business. "I'm afraid they're using the piano in the chorus room—the Cheshire Quartet's having problems—so you won't have accompaniment for your song." Ms. Stein and Mr. Convenience looked at me as if I'd asked a question. I hadn't, but big ones were on the tip of my tongue. Recitation? Song? Why hadn't I known? But it wouldn't do to admit that I was unprepared.

A ghetto dancer not involved in the number, shimmering with smiles and moving like she loved her costume, escorted us to a small instrumental practice room behind the auditorium. Inside were three folding chairs, a desk, and a few music stands. "Good luck," she said with a wink, then twirled out with a dance step, shutting the door behind her. I took a seat opposite Harry Convenience, who was studying me as if I were a lab specimen.

"Okay, so, the singing—I didn't know about that," I confessed.

"I believe it was in the original email," Harry said. "My wife read it, not me. I'm not really the theatrical type. But we like to keep involved with Andrea's life. You know what I mean."

I nodded without being sure. Was he talking about his daughter being African?

"Mr. Walchuk, I'm a great admirer of one of your films," he said.

"Oh," I said. "Thank you. Which one?"

"That Son of Kong—it had everything—adventure, pathos—and strong family values, a good moral lesson." Harry's face glowed like a stoplight. "In fact," he continued, "that little Son of Kong doll, the white one? That was the first present we gave to Andrea. Right in the airport when we met her in person. She was five. She grabbed that doll and hugged it tight and wouldn't let go of it for days." He gave me a disorienting smile-frown. "So I guess you could say you helped with my little girl's transition to her new life," he said. He shook his head and looked around at the tiled walls of our cubicle. Maybe he was nervous about my being a "show business personality." There was sheet music on one of the music stands. I needed a song. What did I know all the words to? Harry tapped his foot as if his song were playing in his head.

"Andrea made us rent that Teddy movie," he said. "Because your son was in it. I have to say, I didn't see much in that one. A little talky, nothing really happens. Your boy was cute, though, when he was littler." Was he criticizing my work? And my child? Dare I strike back with a Brad and Angelina adoption comment?

"Frankly, I'm only here because you are, Mr. Walchuk." Was that all? For a moment I thought it really was only about celebrity chasing. I patted my pants pocket for a pen and glanced at the desk for paper. Would I address the autograph to Harry or Mr. Convenience? "My wife and I talked it over, and we agreed we wouldn't be comfortable—" he paused so I could digest the word, "if you appeared in the play with our daughter. We spoke to some of the other parents, and they agreed, and, well, I've been nominated, I guess you'd say. To give Ms. Stein a choice. When Andrea told us you were coming, well, we couldn't take the risk there wouldn't be anybody else to pick."

"Risk?" I asked.

"Mr. Walchuk," Harry's low voice singed the air between us, "why are you here? Is it even legal for you to be around our children? Have you registered yourself?"

"Excuse me? Registered?"

"Your status, sir."

I was numb. "I have no status," I said.

"We're not naïve. We watch the news. We know all about that last…filth of yours. About your business with that little girl."

"You're talking about my movie?" I asked. "Svidrigaylov's Dream?"

"Whatever," he swatted at something invisible. "Some Russian name. Disgusting. And now you want to be here with our children? I saw the look you gave the little girl who brought us here."

Looked at whom? But what stung was the insult to my film. "It's not 'some Russian name.' It's my movie, I know its name: Svidrigaylov's Dream. Based on Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. The movie explores the innate perversity of certain minds—even as they struggle intellectually to do the right thing." I sounded like I was reading a promo; I'd likely said those exact words at a lawyers' meeting.

"Exactly. What kind of mind would think to make a movie like that? And have a little girl star in it? And make her up, and direct her to act like a little—a little—"

"A little whore, Mr. Convenience," I delivered my own head on a platter. "It's only a movie." I said. When was this going to be over? Carl didn't have to deal with this every day, did he? I wished I hadn't said only. I hadn't meant to give him that. "It's art," I corrected. "The girl's parents knew what it was all about. They'd read the script."

"But the things you said—we've read them. You can't hide—" Convenience was sneering.

"There's a little bit of Svidrigaylov in all of us, Mr. Convenience, whether we admit it or not."

His head was bobbing. I'd proven his point. "And that's why we don't want you in Alice. When Ms. Stein called, she said—" Convenience broke off—he'd said too much. So I'd been screwed from the start.

"Mr. Convenience," I said, "Brad—" I shook my head. "How could you let your daughter wear Scaredy Cat clothing? You know they're made by child laborers in third world sweat shops." I really had no idea. "Go fuck yourself, Brad." When did you first love your daughter, he'd nearly driven me to ask. When you saw her weeping flies in a commercial?

"Harry—" he said, "not 'Brad.'"

"Brad," I repeated. "Brangelina. Or Jerry? Jerry Convenience? Maybe Seven—Seven or Svid?" His eyes threw daggers, his lips and nose joined in a snout. We all wanted to protect our children, but a killer's heart beat in this man's chest. Another Convenience who wanted me dead. "Unfinity," I said, "less than nothingness!"

A double rap, and the dancer I'd somehow molested with a glance reentered. I jumped up. "Ready," I said, permitting myself to hold her gaze. Was it a crime to notice her eyes? Was something beautiful lost to the world if I didn't? Convenience was a peripheral blur. "Lead me to the slaughter," I said.

Alone on stage, unsettled by the Shizzel-land backdrop, I reminded myself that I was doing this for my son. Ms. Stein's glasses glinted in the last row. "Recitation first, song next," she called. A few kids sat up front. Carl smiled from the wings with Andrea, who gave me a thumbs up, even though her father was my competition. She wasn't a Convenience by blood.

"Here's a nursery rhyme I used to read to Carl," I began.

"There was a little girl, And she had a little curl, Right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good, She was very, very good, And when she was bad She was horrid!"

Titters wafted like butterflies through the auditorium. "The lesson," I said, "is to be careful about living at extremes." Was I baiting them, or had I fallen into their trap? And my song? I looked at my feet. The laces on my right shoe were untied. Droplets of sweat stippled my forehead.

"Froggy," a voice, Carl's, whispered. "Fwoggy," he repeated, and I remembered a distant afternoon. Carl was four, his mom and I were still together, though not for much longer, and we'd gone to sit with my mother at her nursing home. Mom was pretty much lost to Alzheimer's, but still tolerated a pat on the wrist and the silent hour we offered once a month. The three adults sat as silent as sphinxes at a rec room table in front of a blank television. Carl marched a pair of plastic tigers around and over his grandmother's arm, sing-songing the animals' conversation under his breath. Christine and I watched the wall clock creep toward three o'clock, when we could surrender Mom to her caretakers. Then another family burst through the door, a rollicking band of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and nephews, following the matriarch they wheeled in as if she were the grand marshal of a parade.

We watched them settle down. They tossed us smiles from their side of the room, sliced cake and passed it around on brightly colored paper plates, and chattered at the old woman, who followed their motions with bemusement.

"Sing us a song, Mom," a sandy haired woman said, and she started one, clapping her hands: "Froggy went a courtin', and he did ride, um-hmm, um-hmm…" Before she'd finished the verse, the whole mob had joined in, including the matriarch, who brought her fingertips together a beat behind, but sang on and on, delivering the "um-hmms" as if her life depended on it. At our table Christine and I each touched one of my mother's hands. I rubbed Mom's knuckles in time to the tune, but I couldn't conjure a response.

On the drive home, I told Christine that when the time came for my family to visit me in a nursing home, "Froggy" was the song I wanted to sing. Right there in the middle of the San Bernadino Freeway I raised the chorus, pounding the beat out on the steering wheel until Christine, and finally Carl, sang along. He had trouble with his r's and sang about "Fwoggy." When my wife asked, "Ray, are you crying?" I turned on the windshield wipers and sang louder.

What else but "Froggy Went A Courtin'" would suit my Alice in Shizzel-land audition? While one of the Convenience clan cursed me in his cell, I belted out verse after verse, fighting for my right to be the Mad Hatter, my son's Mad Hatter, a Mad Hatter all the children could live with "comfortably." A Pied Piper? A goat-footed balloon man? Maybe. But my heart was right where it belonged. My own voice filled my ears with the wedding day tribulations of Froggy, Miss Mousie, and Uncle Rat, but I knew that Carl and his classmates had joined in, at least with the "um-hmms," by the time I got to the verses where the snake ate the cake and the cat devoured the bride and her uncle. And in the shadows Ms. Stein couldn't possibly have resisted tapping a toe all the way to the end, when the lily white dove swooped down and swallowed Froggy.