He declined the Nobel Prize in 1951. Pulpy adaptations of his Pulitzer-winning plays littered the Hollywood landscape during the golden age of the silver screen. James Hatcher managed to carve himself a towering place in southern drama during his fifty-three years on the planet, and the devotion that he enjoyed during his lifetime translated into a reliable tourist industry for his home town.
And that’s why people kept on trying to drink from his birdbath.
“This is the birdbath that many people think was the inspiration for Howard’s speech in All Is Mended,” said Madison. She was wearing the James Hatcher tee that they’d forced her to buy, as if people needed any reminder that the person with the nametag at Hatcher House was an official tour guide.
One of the tourists, a man of indeterminate age in a vaguely hipster getups, raised his hand.
“Yes, a question?” said Madison.
“Can we drink from the birdbath?” he said.
Madison sighed. “You’ll note the fence, and the sign saying PLEASE DO NOT DRINK FROM THE BIRDBATH,” she said.
“‘…but the melodious waters pour forth as into a birdbath, liquid made song, song made liquid, to be seen by all of us but tasted only by the best,'” the man said, quoting Howard in Act V of All Is Mended.
Madison had never heard that one before, oddly enough. She’d never heard the line from Hatcher’s most famous play, never seen him quote it at his Pulitzer acceptance speech, and never saw those words on Robert Mitchum’s lips in the 1961 movie.
“That speech is generally regarded as a metaphor,” Madison said with a forced smile. Minimum wage and bragging rights in the creative writing program were not worth the number of times she’d had to say that.
“Birnam Wood was a metaphor,” the generic hipster said. “People still go there to cut branches.”
“Do they also storm the castle and kill Macbeth?” said Madison.
“If they want to. Can I drink from it?”
“People who drink from that bath have gotten sick with everything from salmonella to the cold of the last guy who dunked his face in,” Madison said. “Hatcher House can’t be held liable for that, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying to sue us for their own idiocy.”
The generic hipster douche was unmoved. “I promise not to sue.”
Madison brandished her walkie-talkie. “If you do, I’ll call Gus at the gatehouse to escort you out.”
This seemed to mollify the tourist, who hung his head and muttered something sullen about free speech.
Madison moved the small group on to the next part of the tour was the quarter-mile nature trail, which Hatcher had cut himself to use as inspiration. It was probably responsible, along with his horrid diet, for the day in 1965 when his wife had found him face-down and cold trailside.
An older woman who looked to be wearing her gardening clothes approached Madison as they walked. “Why are people so adamant about drinking from that birdbath?” she said. “Can’t anyone tell fantasy from reality anymore?”
“No, not really,” Madison said. A moment later, realizing her answer sounded a bit flippant, she added: “I think a lot of people see this place as being some mystical fountain that gave Jim Hatcher all his gifts and notoriety. They think that he must have sipped from his own birdbath before he wrote the play that made him millions and got him a Nobel Prize to turn up his nose at.”
“So they think being here and sipping on that, if you’ll pardon my French, shitty birdwater, will help make them successful?”
“Probably they do, somewhere deep,” Madison said with a laugh. “It’s a lot easier to tell yourself that Jim Hatcher got his gifts from a magic house with a magic birdbath than by writing everyday, living in poverty, and treating his wife like, if you’ll pardon my French, utter shit.”
“I guess I can see that,” said the lady. “Everyone wants to be rich and famous but nobody wants to put in the work.”
Upon reaching the midpoint of the trail, Madison turned around and did a headcount before doing her spiel on the place where James Hatcher’s body was found.
They were one short.
“Goddammit.” Madison took up her radio. “Gus?” she said. “We’ve got another drinker. Call the cops and get a mug shot for the wall of shame, will you?”
“Okay,” said Gus, ever-said and unfazed. “Want me to see that he gets toughed up a bit?”
“No,” said Madison, “We’ll let the ipecac I put in there this morning do it for us.”
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