his story--like most of the stories in the history of the world--begins far away from Des Moines, Iowa.
It starts with two men--one thin, one fat--dressed in tuxedos, walking down a black-and-white street arm-in-arm. The fat man keeps stumbling. At one point he falls and manages to land on his top hat. The fat man will always land on his hat, and the thin man will always help him up, whack him over the head, and replace it.
"I don't want to do this, Professor," the fat man pleads in a high, childish voice.
"You'll be fine," says the thin man, who wears a mortarboard. He drags the fat man up a set of stairs into a white church and through the flung-back doors and down the aisle to a sudden wedding march. Though both men are rotten marchers, they make it to the altar, where a minister opens a Bible in a chiding way: there's no good reason to be late to your own wedding, even if your bride is a pony. Which she is, a chubby, swaybacked roan pony whose hindquarters keep shifting. She's not thrilled about the match either. In this world, everyone wears a hat: the pony's is straw, trimmed with a net veil thrown over her back. The fat man sneaks sugar cubes to his intended. The pony has a history of bolting.
"We are gathered," intones the justice of the peace, which is when the fat man howls, "Oh my fucking God!"
The cameras--there are cameras here, and a boom mike, and a director who hates the pony, and a script girl and a prop guy and dollies and grips--stop rolling.
"What is it?" the director asks. "That fucking pony!" the fat
man says. "That fucking pony bit me!"
"Okay, that's it," the director says, but he laughs. "We need a new pony."
"Jesus Christ." The fat man is trying to shake the ache out of his hand, but he's milking it. "Get me a better-looking one this time, will you? I want a Shetland. I'm sorry, sweetheart," he says to the pony, "but a pony like you, and a guy like me--take my word for it. I'm saving you a lot of heartache down the road."
The director shrugs, but it's 1946, and the fat man is famous. He can hire and fire any pony he wants. He's already walking off the set, pulling off his white gloves, tossing his high silk hat at the wardrobe girl, who carries a torch for him. Everyone on the set carries a torch for him; either he doesn't care or doesn't notice. "Come on," he tells the thin man. "I'm hungry."
The thin man follows. (When the cameras are off, the thin man always follows.) "Don't insult the pony. The pony is high-strung. You try being a pony in this town."
"That fucking pony," the fat man says gravely.
"Oh, Rocky. We both know the pony only wants to make you happy," says the thin man, the other man, the straight man: me.
Here's what I think: when you're born, you're assigned a brain like you're assigned a desk, a nice desk, with plenty of pigeonholes and drawers and secret compartments. At the start, it's empty, and then you spend your life filling it up. You're the only one who understands the filing system, you amass some clutter, sure, but somehow it works: you're asked for the capital of Oregon, and you say Salem; you want to remember your first-grade-teacher's name, and there it is, Miss Fox. Then suddenly you're old, and though everything's still in your brain, it's crammed so tight that when you try to remember the name of the guy who does the upkeep on your lawn, your first childhood crush comes fluttering out, or the persistent smell of tomato soup in a certain Des Moines neighborhood.
Or you try to recall your wedding day, and you remember a fat man. Or the birth of your first kid, and you remember a fat man. You loved your wife, who died decades ago; you love your kids, who you see once a week. But facts are facts: every time you try to remember anything, the fat man comes strolling into your brain, his hands in his pockets, whiskey on his breath.
At which point you decide to write your memoirs, hoping to clear space for the future, however long that is.
Maybe you've seen our movies. A chubby guy in a striped shirt whose head is a magnet for coconuts, shotputs, thrown horseshoes, upside-down urns, buckets of water. A thin man in a mortarboard and tweeds who is afraid of everything but his partner. Carter and Sharp, briefly the number-one box-office draw in the country, now an answer to back-of-the magazine quizzes. I don't think we even show up on late-night television these days. In the 1940s, you couldn't avoid us. We made thirty-six movies in ten years, every one a love story, no matter what anyone says. We were two guys who so obviously belonged together you never had to wonder whether we'd end up arm-in-arm by the final frame: of course we would, we always did. Even with Astaire and Rogers, you had to wonder. Not with us.