Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
"Where do you want to sit?" asked George Burns. "Over here, by the light? How about this chair?"
"How about the sofa?" said Walter Matthau. "You take the chair, George. Have the chair."
"I'll take the sofa."
"Sit down, sit down," said Matthau.
"Those are modern pants you're wearing, George."
"It's a new pair of pants."
"I got a new coat today," said Matthau. "I went to Eddie Bauer, I got one of those coats that's good for the North Pole."
"I don't need a coat because for three days I'm not leaving this hotel," Burns said.
"I had a coat I thought was warm," Matthau said. "I got it at Aquascutum in London Ingrid Bergman comes up. Walter! she says. Remember me? I starred with you in 'Cactus Flower!' I look at her. For Christ's sake, Ingrid, I say, of course I remember you. How could I forget a nice Jewish girl like you?"
"I've got a coat for Altoona," Burns said. "I don't have a Chicago coat." He lit a cigar "I'm glad when people remind me of their names. I forget names all the time. I remember once I had a secretary for fifteen years. One day a director walks into Chasen's, his name is Boris Petroff. I want to show off I remember his name. Boris, I said, I want you to meet...then I forgot my secretary's name. Fifteen years."
"Look at this," said Matthau, paging through the movie ads in the morning paper. "Our ad is right next to the ad for 'The Story of O.' They'll go to the wrong movie, they'll be sitting there looking at all that ass on the screen, they'll be saying, Which one is supposed to be Smith and which one is Dale?"
"Those pictures," said Burns, exhaling his cigar. "They're showing too much these days. Let them look at each other and go into the bedroom and then cut to a sandwich."
"Or the next morning, they're having breakfast," said Matthau.
Burns drew on his cigar. "They have to have something," he said. "These days, people can no longer read or write. You have to leave them with a little something."
"What were they calling you?" Matthau said. "You were our technical advisor on 'The Sunshine Boys'?"
"I'm still a performer, I'm a professional, a singer, I don't give advice," Burns said. "Let 'em find out for themselves."
"My father, he's ninety-one years old, he's a technical advisor for Hughes Aircraft," Matthau said. "He told me a story about this tomcat. All the tomcats are jumping over a picket fence, and the last tomcat jumps too low and castrates himself. When he gets to the other side, the other tomcats tell him not to worry: He can be the technical advisor."
Burns inhales. "I'm at that point now," he said.
"When does sex stop for you, George?" asked Matthau.
"For me..." said Burns, rotating his cigar, "5:30 this morning."
"How many girls did you have in there?"
"Three. We did harmony. At my age, it's easier to sing"
"I'll bet you were a genius in your time," Matthau said.
"Gracie married me for laughs," Burns said. "I got more laughs in bed than when I played Vegas."
"I'll bet you were a genius in the sack," Matthau said. "You were probably warm, quiet, faithful..."
"This is me you're talking about?" said Burns.
"Because I leave the door open. I like applause." He drew on his cigar, thoughtful. "What must be terrible," he said, "is a girl who's a sex symbol, everybody's always after her. What can she do? What can she invent? What can be different? At this late date, who's gonna invent a new exit or entrance?"
"I heard there's a book out that says Hugh Hefner has had two thousand women in twenty years," Matthau said.
"Two thousand?" said Burns.
"That works out to one thousand girls every ten years."
"A hundred girls a year. A different girl every three or four nights." He studied his cigar.
"Hefner has to be a very unhappy man," Matthau said.
"That's easy, that many girls," Burns said. "It's easy to do with two thousand different girls. What's hard is two thousand times with your wife."
"Hefner has to be living in the depths of despair."
"He's having more fun than my sister Goldie," Burns said. "I wish he'd talk to Goldie. I'd give him her phone number. She's older than l am."
Matthau got up to use the bathroom in Burns' hotel suite. When he was gone, Burns said, "You enjoy the picture? We got some good reviews. I got a darling letter from Cagney, he saw the reviews, he wrote a letter. I wrote him back. I said I was sorry he was retired. How can a dancer retire? He was a dancer, too, you know. An actor can retire, sure. But how can a dancer hang up his shoes?"
Matthau came back into the living room.
"They got a clothes line in the john," he said, "you can wash out your undershorts and hang them up to dry."
"I brought enough clean," Burns said. 'I'd always be walking into wet undershorts. That's not very stylish, especially with my head piece. How much you think a good toupee costs?"
"About thirty bucks?"
"Closer to three hundred and fifty. When I have five or six people in for dinner, I don't wear it. When I go out, I wear it. When I come home, I put it on the block, the block looks great, I look lousy."
"I've got a stand-in," Matthau said. "I went out and got a haircut. He's bald, he had his toupee trimmed."
"Not a very smart fellow," Burns said. "A lot of people get silicone, face lifts, there's nothing wrong with a toupee," Matthau said. "Merle Oberon, she has silicone in her face, her behind...she looks like she's been dead for nineteen, twenty-two years..."
"Well," said Burns, "is she alive?"
Burns inhaled his cigar. "She was a very pretty girl," he said.
"Did I hear you mention Cagney when I came in a moment ago?" said Matthau.
"He wrote me a nice letter," Burns said.
"He was offered my role," Matthau said "He was the only non-Jew they were interested in."
"Cagney speaks excellent Jewish," Burns said "He came from that section. Gracie and I..."
"But he's retired and he wouldn't even consider it" Matthau said. "I didn't mean to interrupt your story."
"I keep them short" Burns said.
"We'd visit Cagney, the first thing he'd do was take out his dancing shoes, we'd do a few steps in the living room..."
"I think I interrupt you a lot," Matthau said.
"I'll squeeze it in," said Burns.
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