Notes from Max Feller’s Notebooks

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(Pictured is the author at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa, back when he was younger and thinner.)

Like many of you, I still have friends in Iowa. And like many of you, I miss them very much. I’m only human. Like many of you.

My Iowa friend Eli likes to go to estate sales. He likes to buy old furniture. Most of all, he likes things that are old and made out of wood and have drawers. He often buys the things that are old and made out of wood and have drawers without first opening the drawers to see what is in them. He’s only human. Like many of you.

Recently he bought a bureau. In the bureau he found some notebooks. Eli doesn’t like notebooks.

Or, actually, Eli likes notebooks okay. But Eli likes things that are old and made out of wood and have drawers. And Eli knows that most of all, I like notebooks. And Eli likes me. So Eli sent me some notebooks.

*

THINGS I LEARNED AT THE BOB FELLER MUSEUM AND THINGS I LEARNED FROM THE NOTEBOOKS

Bob Feller (rightie, 1918 – 2010, elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962) had a sister named Marry. Marry married a man named Bernard from Van Meter, Iowa, and they had a son named Max. Max tried to be a writer. (He was only human.) He moved to Los Angeles, California for a time to pursue writing as a career. Like many of you—and like me—he found almost no success. But, like many of you—and like me—he tried. For a long time, he tried.

He lived in Los Angeles until 1981, when he returned to Van Meter, Iowa. He died in 1995 (heart disease, liver disease). He left his notebooks in a bureau. Eli found his notebooks in a bureau. Eli sent me his notebooks. I read them.

*

From the notebooks:

John Wayne in a shirt and tie. We’re waiting for a car. It’s evening. He will not tell me where we are going.

His trainer, Stueben, is here. He has a young woman here, too. They are all “all dressed up.”

A car pulls around. There is room for the four of us. Stueben has a flask.

I am handed the flask. It is fruit juice.

The young woman has black hair. It is a wig. She adjusts it. I drink.

“That stuff takes half an hour to hit you,” says Stueben. “We’ll be there by then.”

In half an hour, we’re there. It is late, and my brain is beginning to doubt itself. There is a star on the building. We enter.

Wayne has not said a word to me since I arrived and he said we were going somewhere and that I will want to write about it. “You’ll write about this in your magazine and I’ll deny it all,” he said. And then, silence for the rest of the night.

We’re handed robes at the door. Hoods on the robes. I’m told to put up the hood. I do so.

A room filled with people. I am asked to put away my notebook by a bald man with many rings. He looks into my eyes and begins to spin and go upside-down somehow. “Aleppe!” he says. Everyone shouts “Aleppe!” back.

It’s a day later and my mind is coming back from wherever it has been. Wayne’s people will not return my calls. I find Stueben on the sidewalk outside his office building—at the Sunshine Skyrise—and when I talk to him, he grabs my arm. He pulls my wrist up and shows it to me. A long cut. “This will keep you quiet,” he says.

I search my memory to see if I can find the building where we went, but it’s gone. I can’t find my way back.

WAYNE ARTICLE REJECTED

*

From the notebooks:

There is a diner here with the best pie on the planet. That’s on the sign outside the door. I go in and have apple.

There are 6 varieties of apple in the pie, they say.

You have to have cheddar on the apple pie. If you don’t order with the cheddar, they won’t give it to you. They ask you to leave. You are told never to come back. It seems too serious for pie.

The owner of the place tells me he won’t talk about “The War.” I say I didn’t ask about “The War.” He nods.

I don’t know which war he means, but I can’t ask him. And there are so many wars to choose from. It could be any one of them. It could be one that only he knows about.

PIE ARTICLE REJECTED

*

From the notebooks:

Down at the beach, there is a man who tells your fortune by pulling a hair from your head and burning it in a teacup and then “reading it.”

“You aren’t going anywhere,” he says to me.

“No matter how hard I work?” I ask. “I’m doomed to failure?”

“No,” he says. “You misunderstand. You aren’t going anywhere physically is what I mean.”

He says that the universe has single fixed point in it and I am that single fixed point. The planet rotates, the planet orbits the sun, the sun and the solar system move in the galaxy, the galaxy moves in the universe—all of it moves but me. When I walk from my door to the street, the universe turns and moves to compensate. When I fly to Iowa to see my mother, the universe turns a to compensate. I never move.

“How is that my fortune?” I ask.

“Well, it seems pretty fortunate, anyway,” the guy responds.

FORTUNE TELLER ARTICLE NOT SUBMITTED

*

Feller’s notebooks go from notes on Hollywood or Los Angeles profile pieces to notes on a novel about a writer trying to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter to notes on a novel about a writer trying to scrape by on odd jobs and generosity in Hollywood to notes on a novel about a drunk doing his best to maintain his buzz in Hollywood. And then to something else.

In the last few pages of the last notebook—the notebooks are dated, and the final one is from 1980—notes and lines become a couple of small paragraphs. Feller has become a philosopher of some sort. He favors the readers of his notebooks—who were, one expects, not supposed to be anyone except himself—with a few ideas about how to improve the world. I have a favorite.

*

THE ZOO

Being famous is a problem for those who stop being famous. Or stop being as famous. People who are known for youth and vitality and get old and no longer have youth and vitality confuse the public who only venerated them for their youth and vitality. “I like this person for the way he has ‘youth’ and ‘vitality’ and now he has none but I think I want to like him because I used to. I don’t know how to reconcile these things.” Lacking youth and vitality, the famous find that the attention of the public strays. It wanders to someone else with youth and vitality. Famous people, though, get used to the attention that is paid to them. “Getting used” to something alters your brain. Alcohol changes your brain temporarily. Long-term use of alcohol alters your brain permanently. Drugs do the same thing. Temporary at first, and then permanent with habitual use. An altered brain craves the thing that alters it. This is addiction. Attention alters the brain. The famous are addicted to attention. And, unfortunately, any kind of attention. The famous, when we are not paying attention, withdraw. Their brains need the attention because they have been altered to need it. It’s our fault. It’s their fault. It’s nobody’s fault. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Famous people who do not have attention sometimes act out to get attention. They are addicted and desperate. We shouldn’t be angry. It’s a disease. But any sort of attention will do. We need to give them the gaze they need. They are only human. We need to help the humans.

We build a zoo. Famous people who outlive their fame can live in the zoo. They can continue to live in public and continue getting the attention that their altered brains need. And we can keep them from acting out in destructive ways. It’s a kindness to imprison those with dwindling fame in a zoo.

We need to build a zoo.