Joseph Cotten

For years I lived in fear of the monster that I believed emerged from a pond in the movie Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. I could hear the eerie song echoing in my head from some movie preview seen in childhood…visions and memory scent of the Grand Lake theater in Oakland or the Oaks in Berkeley…scenes and shadows seemingly cast on the cavernous walls of Larry Blake’s restaurant where everyone in the family ate salad but me. I see the old decaying house and the long spiralling staircase from the monster’s point of view as it climbs the steps, dripping leaves and mud…some awful shape of nightmare curiosity…

When I finally saw the movie all the way through many years later, I realized it wasn’t a pond, but a creek, and the monstrous shape I’d been imagining all that time was really Joseph Cotten. He and the crooked Olivia de Havilland are trying to drive Bette Davis mad. What I’d been seeing in my mind and dreams was a supposedly drowned Joseph Cotten come back from the dead.

Flashback to a summer night in Tahoe…

My father’s friend Bill with the deep smoky voice, his ballerina wife and their two children, Wade and Wendy, are there. Bill is going bald and his skin has a stained leather look. I think he has liver spots. The wife’s hair is pulled back tight into a bun, her body is slender and petite, her face vaguely Spanish looking. My mother never knows what to say to her unless they’re beating the men at bridge. She dislikes them because Bill and Dad disappear off to Stateline or Reno and gamble all night. Bill plays blackjack and has won as much as $5,000 in a weekend. Wade is a weird kid and Wendy wets her pants and cries. We go to the movies. The drive-in in South Lake Tahoe. (My God, there are still drive-in’s.) A Hammer horror film is showing, The Mummy’s Shroud. I cover my eyes throughout, only glimpsing up at the most terrifying moments which two decades later I realize are actually quite ludicrous. It’s a hot dark August night full of bugs thick like fog in the light, and far outside the glow of the giant screen and the cinderblock snack bar the stars are trembling.

I see now that it’s Bill I’m really afraid of. But back there in the car before the shining screen I don’t know why. I only sense it. A darkness taking shape. I think what I’m afraid of is his deep smoky voice and the curling lip of his laugh which I never know how to take-and the way he always says my mother’s name as if it’s a question. It’s not the colors of the movie that I close my eyes to hear…it’s the way he wants me to look, the way he likes that I’m afraid. The way he eats his Good n’ Plenty with methodical calm.

Wade whispers about penises and ladies’ things. Wendy sobs softly and the stars dissolve over the Sierras. The smell of popcorn and steamed hotdog buns fills the car and for years I’ll be afraid of a bad movie, not knowing why.

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy, Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

3 responses to “Joseph Cotten”

  1. Gloria says:

    What a creepy, random memory, Kris. Wonderfully told.

  2. jonathan evison says:

    . . . i’ve heard several firsthand reports that joseph cotten was an asshole . . .

  3. SAA says:

    Oh fuck, I love Joseph Cotten, The Third Man is like one of my all time favorite movies.

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