The astronaut on screen is crying. From the moon he has finally managed to call his daughter, only her face on the videophone shows no flare of recognition. He’s been gone so long he has become someone else to her.
In history class, we listened to the Apollo 8 telecast conducted on Christmas Eve, 1968. I sat in the back row and closed my eyes while the stereo aired the grain of the astronauts’ voices. The moon is a different thing to each of us. My own impression is that it’s a vast, lonely, forbidding type existence—great expanse of nothing, that looks rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone.
The room was stunned silent until the bell rang.
After class, Dan and Carver found me.
One usher usually sneaks into the back row of this theatre halfway through the movie and slumps just below the stutter of the projector. He must be older than me, because his arms are clothed with tattoos. I cut class two afternoons a week to duck the crowds, so it’s sometimes just the two of us watching the matinee, like friends.
After the movie, he sweeps the empty theatre. There’s nothing for him to clean. No one was there to spill root beer or wipe their Becel fingers on the free magazines. But he combs the bare aisles because it’s his job, like my father with the negative images of shoulder blades and soft tissue, my mother with the needles and vulnerable veins, like Dr. Brulov in Spellbound: There’s lots of happiness in working hard … maybe the most.
The usher waits for me to go, making sure I take my garbage, an apple I brought in my coat pocket. I hide the core. I wonder what he thinks of me.
Leaving the theatre, no matter the weather, is like stepping out of a hot shower in winter. Your skin isn’t yours—it’s made of china, so fragile and cold you can hardly stand to be trapped inside of it.
Carver’s only fifteen, and he already has a beard. A trimmed Van Dyke goatee, the kind you’d see in an advertisement for expensive razors. His face is so wide and his lips are so harsh the sculpt almost looks natural.
I know because his dumb beard is coming down the hallway toward me.
His sidekick Dan capers beside him, a little too light on his tiny feet. One Christmas break, I ran into him at the theatre. He was seeing a film with his mother—she was in a silver fur coat and his hair was flattened with water into a piano-recital part. I watched as he bought her a jumbo popcorn and dished out the extra sixty cents for the packet of dill pickle seasoning.
He even sprinkled the seasoning. He seemed like he loved her.
Carver spits on the linoleum. Good morning, Junior, he says.
In my head I’m indexing breakfast, in case their hands and momentum force it up again.
Facing Carver, I make a spirit level of my shoulders.
He runs a clammy thumb across the bridge of my nose, pushing the pads of my glasses into the cartilage. The ones I wear are black-rimmed, like Moe Greene’s in The Godfather. It makes no sense, but when I saw Michael Corleone’s assassin coming after him, I thought: It’s okay, he’s safe behind those glasses. He gets shot right in the eye. The right pane shatters.
Let’s make this easy, Dan says, clamping my wrist.
In the school bathroom, there’s one window. It has a chrome bar down the centre. When the sun comes through, it’s split in half. By now, I know what to focus on to pull myself from the pain. The dust gathered along the foam baseboards, the chemical smell of the hand-wash. The laminate tile.
After, Carver pulls me up by the collar. Get out of here.
Even through the chrome bar, the sun lights my exit. In the hallway I brush dignity back onto my coat.
I shivered when the bullet sang through the white of Moe Greene’s eye. How was that fair? To start as some ugly kid on a crowded block and to build yourself into a kingpin with Vegas as your mecca, the boulevards with king palms and lamps burning wild at midnight, and then to die alone, the way you expected it to happen when you came into the world helpless and bare.
Every suburb has a plaza like this. A chain multiplex, a chain bookstore, and a chain restaurant, linked together by a massive parking lot, landscaped rectangles of sunburnt grass, lines of saplings that will not survive the winter.
On my birthday last year, my parents took me to the chain restaurant. All the waiters wear polo shirts with puns on the back, “Nothing butt rump in our roast” or “Those who forget the pasta are condemned to reheat it,” and on your birthday, if someone tips them off, they’ll climb on your table with sparklers and sing.
My parents tipped them off. I felt the red rise on my cheeks and in the lining of my stomach, but seeing the curve of concern on my mom’s forehead, I swallowed that savage colour. I dipped a curly fry in my father’s chocolate milkshake and wrote “Thank you” on my plate.
The bus driver brakes a few feet past the plaza. He has the wipers on, even though there’s no rain falling.
At the front of the bookstore there are clean rows of magazines, tips on keeping a tidy guest room, the battery life of film equipment, beside tables covered in organic bath salts, ceramic brie bakers, mugs printed with the words “Keep calm and drink earl grey.” There’s a horseshoe of bestsellers visible from the doors, and beyond that it’s a campaign into Blackmoor to find the actual books.
The girl at the cash is so beautiful it’s hard to believe there’s no screen between us. She looks like Dorothy Dandridge, those discrete eyebrows, the jet-black curls, only with a scar tracing a seam from the peak of her forehead to the left side of her full lips, a rune that adds to her mystique.
I ask: Are you hiring?
I’d have to check with my manager. You can leave me your resume if you want.
I volunteer nights at the food bank, I tell her.
She studies my split lip, a token from my morning with Carver. I’ll put in a good word, she says.
There’s a line forming behind me, so I move from the counter. The girl smiles, and the store lights burn from fluorescent to gold. She’s Dorothy Dandridge in Bright Road, I decide, with the lure of the script around her, the graceful cinematography, and none of the heaviness of the life we know she lived.
I pretend to browse the Outer Space section. Through a hole in a row of books, I watch as she entertains customers—a redhead in catastrophic heels, a horse-faced man with a Vincent Price mustache. While she talks to them, an ache the shape of a fist forms in my throat.
I carry a book I’d like to buy, a hardcover with pop-up illustrations of the first moon landing, to the cashier’s desk. When she turns in my direction, my courage bleeds. I drop the book into a bin for reshelving.
The usher is leaning inside the doors as I go to pass through them. He’s wearing studio-sized headphones but I still feel the need to make myself heard.
Been waiting long? I ask.
Not long, he says. He leaves the headphones on.
I’m talking in front of the class, only it’s not me. I’ve slipped the heavy suit of gravity and lifted myself from the room.
If I concentrate hard, I can see Carver reclined in the back row, Dan twinkling three desks over. I can hear the clumsy words lumbering from my mouth. But when I let the scene fall out of focus, flip the classroom into a projection screen, I can watch the flicker of myself from a distance beyond fear.
The first time I realized I could slip into a loop of images was last Easter, when Carver followed me through the school parking lot, past the chain-link fence where him and Dan hover most days, fumbling with the hot glass of a colossal bong, mumbling dude, dude, do it like this.
He was following me all the way to my bus stop. He had a lit Zippo in his hand. The presentation is on classic movie theatres of New York City—the Ziegfeld Theatre, Cinema I and II, the Baronet and Coronet. The boy waxes about those beautiful buildings that held in either hand the logic of architecture and the alchemy of cinema, he overworks the term Art Deco, he lays his eyes at a low angle.
Carver is saying hurry up, only it’s not him saying it, it’s an actor. They’ve cast someone with a broad enough forehead, clipped his beard to a credible length, but it’s just some overfed kid with an overfed voice who has learned the most convincing way to lie.
Two months before the Coronet opened above the Baronet, JFK gave his famous address to Rice University. It was hot that day in Texas and he worked the swarm into fever, hawked the size of the missiles at Cape Canaveral, the Saturn C-1 booster rocket more powerful than ten thousand cars, unravelled the brave toil of space exploration in these trivia so the country could mirror that same brave face—Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind …
The last few nights I’ve fallen asleep to the crackle of the audio, imagining the Coronet as the spacecraft he’s talking about, a chrome vessel hurtling us past supernovas and dark matter and emission nebulas to the pull of some fantastic planet far from our own.
Carver is scoring patterns into his cedar wood desk with the blade of a hunting knife.
We choose to go to the moon.
Inventory first, the cashier says through her beautiful teeth. You’ll work your way up.
In the Reference section, she fills her veined arms with nautical almanacs, grammar texts with conjugation exercises in Japanese and Arabic, and celestial atlases. Under all that weight, her arms are tight as mounting tension, the man hanging by his bony white knuckles on the edge of the sailboat in Knife in the Water, or Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes meeting at Sad Hill Cemetery in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, all there with guns to claim the same gold.
She opens each book to its first pages. This is called the colophon, she says. Record these details.
Her writing is too big for the squares of the chart, and that comforts me. I find the courage to ask for her name.
Edie, she says. Now you try.
We snake through the metal bookshelves, trimming every volume to technical shorthand. When we reach an encyclopedia of film noir, she asks quietly: you like movies, don’t you?
I want to tell her about how after I saw In a Lonely Place, I vowed to never speak again, because nothing I could say would be as perfect as Humphrey Bogart as the hard-luck screenwriter. I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
Instead, I nod.
The ceiling light catches her scar just below the inner curve of her orbital bone. I search the line for a story—a site of incision, a hint of the instrument—but find nothing. She turns away. You’re a nice kid, she says.
She hands me the chart in a solemn way, like she trusts me. And moves to her seat behind the counter.
I pull the books out one at a time, noting cleanly all that Edie wants. I leave the noir encyclopedia off the shelf, so I can watch her through the small crevice between a hardcover on alienation in Modernist film and an illustrated history of dog actors.
She is rim-lit, her head tilted into the spill of a fluorescent light, but it’s nice having the chance to imagine her face.
Carver and Dan are smoking against the chain-link fence. Carver looks like a man in his fifties, breaking from a day at the automotive plant, his Coors belly swelling over his belt buckle. Dan lifts his cigarette with a graceful arc of the wrist.
Junior! When Carver yells, his breath is gunmetal.
I put my hoodie over my head and walk in the opposite direction. On the far side of the school, there’s a staff entrance I can use. Have often used.
He yells again, the heavy blood in my ears casing the words. I sprint in the direction of the door. Rounding the corner, I look back to see that Dan and Carver haven’t moved at all. They’re leaning against the fence under their canopy of cheap smoke.
Inside the school, I straighten my Moe Greene glasses and pull breath hard through my mouth. I fix on a horizon point past the panic—the fire bell above me, its circle of red iron. The hammer inside.
And then I hear the silver hammer fall, over and over, against the metal.
I see people pour from the classrooms. I hear Principal Royce, with his tragic hiking sandals, his bare toes in the mean season, drone This is not an emergency.
In dubious lines, we file against the exterior brick. Carver and Dan stay on the city side of the chain-link fence, beyond school property, where they cut the boredom of being counted by the fire marshal. They cover their cigarettes. It starts to rain.
The fire marshal’s private-eye face is too tired for the thick downpour, all those deep trenches for the water to slide down, the gloom of his goatee, and suddenly everything feels heavier than it is, like Bernard Herrmann just turned up on the soundtrack.
The marshal writes something on a chart, and for a long time considers what he has written.
My bones are so cold I’m aware of every one of them. I try to catch the marshal’s eye to say, I know this is a drill, buddy, let us go, but his pupils have disappeared somewhere in the soggy trenches. Carver and Dan are walking off into the cold grey, and I hear Thank God For The Rain. I Still Can’t Sleep/They Cannot Touch Her. I Work The Whole City. The Days Do Not End.
“What would it take to make you brave?” This is the opening line to the screenplay I’m writing as I camp in the Travel section, watching Edie and hoping no customers approach me.
She is forever in slow motion, like Margot stepping off the Green Line bus in The Royal Tenenbaums, like she’s carrying too much beauty to move as fast as the rest of us, like she has to be scored by some troubling garland of art rock.
She’s moving toward me, crouched between Lonely Planets, and it’s taking fucking forever.
Hey, she says, when she’s too close for me to pretend I don’t see her.
Her pretty head nods, just barely. I wanted to tell you, she says. You know my friend, the usher? He said he could sneak you into the movies sometimes. You could save your money for a car or whatever.
I tell her I like earning my own way. I probably sound like a tool, but she lifts a skinny fist to give me a bump on the shoulder.
Pride is taking less than you need, she says, and I’m pretty sure I saw that on one of the mugs at the front of the store.
Later, while I’m sorting the new shipments of the serials, I watch her eat a bowl of bran flakes behind her soapstone desk. She ties and re-ties the bow on her red sweater. This is the part you don’t see in most movies. Richard Roundtree in a plain white kitchen, eating oatmeal.
Is this a limit of the art form, or part of its power? If I made a movie, would I show characters flossing their teeth, getting gas for their cars before a high-stakes chase? Will they have Shaft at the library? This is what I’m thinking when Edie turns to brush a stray hair from her shoulder and catches me staring at her.
Her eyes flicker over my face like the title of a textbook, and I’ve never been more grateful to be ignored.
After my shift, I use an hour’s wage to buy a grape soda and nachos with microwaved cheese at the movie theatre. The girl gives me extra napkins without my asking and I start to see her in slow motion, too.
I make it to the back row just as the projector kicks into motion. It’s a Swedish horror, all patience and night, and it seems rude to scatter the darkness by tearing open my nacho cheese package. I slowly lift the outer corner and tug, revealing the ooze in increments, until finally the orange window is wide enough for a corn chip to slip through.
The cheese steals my focus so much that I almost miss Edie and the usher sliding into the theatre and claiming two seats on the right side. They hush each other in airy playground voices, form words that hang like breath in winter. All I can think to do is hunch my shoulders and hide.
What I remember from the movie are slivers of blood, slivers of sound, frost on a clean lens. For the balance of the runtime, I’m just studying the silhouettes of Edie and the usher, facing each other in dark relief.
Be me for a little while, the subtitles say.
By the time the movie finishes, it’s black as December in Scandinavia. I trudge the iced tundra of the strip mall parking lot, and it makes me feel brave, being that alone.
Ten metres from the theatre doors, Dan and Carver are leaning against a rain-rusted El Camino. In the shadows, they reveal themselves through their red cigarettes and the whites of their eyes.
Hey, Junior, Dan calls out.
Went to the movies? Carver says, in an old-timey mobster voice. Went by yourself to the movies?
As if standing in the rain beside your four-foot-eight best friend is any less embarrassing.
Carver palms the starch of my uniform collar and hauls too hard, his mouth open. His tongue is a sea cucumber that’s just eviscerated. I watch it writhe, smell the tobacco rising from the hidden parts, while he shoves me to the ground. The crown of my skull cracks against the asphalt.
From above, he flicks the flame on his Zippo. Then finds the curve of my ear canal, the bulb of bone that rises inside the ankle.
I’m working to slip from the world, but the pain is too intimate. In the air above, Dan’s blue moon face falters between exhilaration and pity. I wonder if he remembers seeing me at the movies that Christmas.
Time burns while I try to shake the details. Count my teeth, onetwothreefourfivesix, cap, cap, cavity, teneleventwelvethirteenfourteenfifteen, molar, lunch, surf the gums, surf the gums. I hear the lighter skid across the pavement, the weight of the villain being pulled from me. I see a pair of powerful forearms, tattoos tracked by corded veins.
I hear Edie howling. Then keys jilting, men turning back into boys, a car engine rallying the strength to turn over. The echoes are so distant they seem secondhand, like they’re finding someone else’s ears.
The protagonist lies on a semi-electric hospital bed, joints bandaged in gauze, lower lip sutured with clear thread. Tubes ferry life the length of the reclined body, carrying colour to muted cheeks.
The room’s single window is cracked, a winter draft parting the orange polyester curtains. In the concourse below a car radio plays The Blue Danube.
Now we pan to the bedside table—a prescription for the pain, a box of yellow juice, a children’s pop-up book about the first moon landing.
On the table, too, is the cellophane wrapping of two ham and Swiss sandwiches. Two plastic chairs have been rearranged beside the bed, one at the girl’s feet, one by her clamped hands. This is how we know she had company.
Then there is a young woman’s voice, barely audible over the waltz. What would it take to make you brave?
Laura Legge would like to draw your attention to political activist and beautiful writer Enoh Meyomesse, who is currently wrongfully imprisoned in Yaoundé, Cameroon.