Friday, May 28, 2010

10: The Street Near and Far

This story is the 10th part of the Griffin filmmaker series. It follows Finley.

During filming of his tenth film The Street Near and Far, Griffin visited his old childhood neighborhood. It had become boarded-up houses and storefronts, growing weeds scaling crumbling stone structures, trash and debris scattered on the cracked sidewalks. His childhood home—long ago replaced by apartment buildings.

He named the film after the main street of his neighborhood, where everything was—restaurants, supermarket, clothing stores. His mother called it the street near and far. He never knew why, never heard anyone else call it that. It was uphill from home, a leg-toughening trek up a steep incline. It was close, maybe half a mile, so it was near, though it felt far on hot summer afternoons or snowy winter days. He’d meant to ask his mother why when she was alive.

The street also had a theater, long closed, though the marquee still existed, its lights long dead. Spray-painted cedar boards where the entrance used to be. Liquor bottles and fast food trash and a decaying rat in the entryway. Cracks to the box office window, papers and broken glass just inside the semi-circle opening where you’d buy your ticket. He hadn’t seen it in years, and knew it had been long ago since it had closed, but still he was shocked by its condition.

He hadn’t planned to go inside but decided to after seeing the place. The front provided no possibilities so he walked around the block to the back. Past abandoned stores, one structure hollowed by fire, pawn shops sealed by metal gates, an Asian eatery that smelled like garbage. The back alley was crumbling asphalt, potholes, backyards of ramshackle houses. He found the backdoor, rusted and wrapped in chains. He looked up and down the street, thought briefly, he has family at home, what’s he doing, then pushed the door until it creaked open.

The film’s premise was that the protagonist discovers an old theater where films he sees are replays of his life. He goes during the day and often he’s the only person there. He tries to enter the projection room to see what’s happening there but he can’t. He finds people working at the theater—box office cashier, snack stand attendant, ticket taker, even the manager—tries convincing them of what he’s seeing but they think he’s crazy. When he finally someone comes and watches, the film is what’s on the marquee, not his past. In the movie, the protagonist never learns what was up but realizes his real life is stuck in the past and he can’t keep living there.

The inside smelled musty. Griffin found debris, dust, darkness. Outside light filtered through cracks, revealing dusty seats and floors, screen scarred by cuts, the ceiling sagging in places. The interior mostly untouched. He couldn’t believe it. He sat down in the front row, the seat creaking and crunching. He looked at the battered blank screen. The memories flowed. When he was a child, feet barely touching the floor, he sat eating candy and popcorn, his parents flanking both sides, flickering images reflecting off their glasses. Older, during summer vacation and days off school, he came with friends, crouching down in darkness between shows to stay for the next show. Then he came with dates. Then, as a student of film, as the films became smaller run, less popular arthouse-type fare. Then he was gone.

Griffin sat there, eyes closed, until he heard the door creaking. Someone else coming in. He jumped, felt his heart race, heard someone calling. Anybody in here? An older man’s voice. He answered back. Just me, I mean, yes. The man was standing just inside, below the Exit sign. He was short, hunched shoulders.

I saw the chain off. It’s never like that.

I sort of…I used to come here when I was a kid. Grew up close to here. Just wanted to see what it looked like.

I ain’t gonna give you grief. The man’s head moved, scanning the theater. Man, this place—loved this place. Clean it up, add a new screen, she’d be up and running.

The old man sat down in the aisle opposite Griffin.

Been walking this alley for years. Never been in here since it closed.

You know the first movie I saw here, said Griffin. Pinocchio. I was five. Loved Jiminy Cricket.

Don’t know if it was my first but I remember Strangers on a Train. That Robert Walker—man, was he something. Packed house. Everyone riveted.

This whole neighborhood, said Griffin. The center of my life growing up. Things just change so much.

Used to be bustling, way back when. Momma’d say, let’s go to the street far and near, see a movie, get lunch.

Wait— Griffin heard the words; his blood became ice crystals. What’d you just say?

You mean, the street far and near?

Yeah. Where’d you hear that? My mother always called it, the street near and far. How’d you—why’s it called that?

You know, I never knew. Far and near. Near and far. Weird.

The two sat silent for awhile. Griffin closed his eyes, listened to the man breathing. The guy didn’t know who Griffin but that wasn’t unusual.

Nothing like the old days, the man said. Nothing like watching movies in these old palaces.

Do you think if we sat here long enough, we’d start seeing movies. Griffin kept his eyes closed, recalled the buttered popcorn smell, the sound of the rolling projector. Maybe the old times would return like we never left.

The old man laughed then coughed. Griffin thought about Helena. Would he tell her about this? Soon, he would leave, return to her. Now, though, his eyes closed, time passing and, not sure if the old man was still there, he saw the colors of old filling this place, images flickering on screen. He was young again, his parents alive next to him. His childhood house still alive, freshly painted and landscaped, warm, humming, waiting. The dead street outside restored to fresh color, alive with footsteps and mesmerized children, decorated with streamers and banners, declaring it the street near and far.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dead of the Night Living

Our writing teacher’s main rule was, no zombie stories. No fighting zombies, he said the first day of class, no parallel reality where everyone here was a zombie there, no stories from the point of view of zombies. Such an outcry about zombies we figured he probably was one. We looked closely for tell-tale signs like nasty head wounds, upturned eyes, and snacking on flesh jerky packed in Ziploc bags. I don’t care about what you do at home, he said, shooting zombies in video games, watching zombie movies, dressing up like zombies for masquerades, but don’t bring it here. This is literature fiction writing, he implored, pale face turning shades of pink meat.

So in defiance I wrote a story called “Dead of the Night Living” that was about, you guessed it, zombies. But I didn’t call them zombies. Instead they were angry accountants. They weren’t undead just overly stoic, devoid of personality. They sported thick black-rimmed glasses instead of bloody fatal head wounds. The protagonists didn’t shoot them but engaged in costly, time-consuming civil litigation. We workshopped it and he said, you’re not fooling me. I threw up my hands like, what’re you talking about, and everyone laughed.

So we spent the rest of that semester chasing mister anti-zombie, with varying subtlety, with zombie stories that didn’t have zombies. He didn’t like it. You’re all playing me, he often snarled, his face turning into a nasty grimace of undeadishness. For a moment in one late semester class, it felt like it got darker outside, the walls closing in and those of us in the room the only humans left standing, but it released as he said, all right, time for a break, swinging the door open, the halls full of oblivious bodies pressing relentlessly to their next classes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Writing for the Writer

I can’t even cook proper meals, he said, it’s macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles every night if I don’t get takeout Chinese or a pizza because it’s too much trouble. I’m writing these words for a fellow writer who isn’t writing them because he can’t write, or do much else, even as I’ve told him to just get over his problem and get on with his life. He has requested that I don’t conclude with judgment on him, and I’ll honor that, though I reiterate that he needs to get over and get on because I can’t keep writing for him.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hubble, Backwards

More backwards fun! See previous entries, here.

The idea is to take a small work and reverse the sentence order. This time it’s Hubble, another from Thinly Sliced Raw Fish, found here.

So, here’s the new “backwards” story:

Now he had the answer. Jill always wondered, was the universe expanding or contracting? The auroras of planets, burning balls spinning in cold. Swirls of galaxies, stars born in dusty light. Soon he realized he was in the Hubble Telescope. He died, felt an upward swoosh, a bullet’s journey.

Here’s the original:

He died, felt an upward swoosh, a bullet’s journey. Soon he realized he was in the Hubble Telescope. Swirls of galaxies, stars born in dusty light. The auroras of planets, burning balls spinning in cold. Jill always wondered, was the universe expanding or contracting? Now he had the answer.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Doc Ock: The Early Years

Otto Gunther Octavius’s father came home from the factory, his eyes glassy and tired, his face locked in snarl ready for some home combat. His face soiled with grease and his clothes a rumpled mess, those soiled with years and years of fingers and palms wiping off the dirt. A hard twelve hours of manual labor, and demands and insults from his superiors, and heckling and screaming with his fellow workers, and he still had to come home, fight with those closest to him. Again, he walks through that door and, amidst the same smells of boiled vegetables and meat and the same mechanical grease smell that he had in his nostrils all day here in his home or maybe it wasn’t really in the house but had been burned into his nostrils so that he could smell it at all times, there’s the boy, standing there with that dumb look on his face even though the kid was smarter than anyone within five counties, without his glasses. He’d need another new pair because he was blind as a mole without them. He’d fall into the river and he’d not be able to get out because he couldn’t see and because he was physically a weakling and would just flail and flop and splash the water like a spastic duck until he sank and drowned.

All I work for, he screamed, is buying you new glasses. He turned to Marie, his wife and the boy’s mother, and said, what’s wrong with this boy, can’t you do something about him, he’s taking food away from our mouths, your mouth. He moved closer to her, his index finger firm and outstretched and pointed like some sort of demented appendage knife. She backed away from him, as she usually did, and flinched with every movement of that hand, as she always did, because that hand was capable of striking, as it had done many times before, with stinging ferocity across the face, blasts that knocked her to her knees.

The boy can’t do anything about the school bullies, said Marie, defending him, as she often did, not afraid no matter the consequences. He’s a smart and gentle kid and they take advantage of that. He’s smarter and more gentle than either of us, probably both of us combined. Then you come in here and do the same thing to him, like it’s not enough he gets it at school from mean kids.

You mean, like this, he said, unleashing the back of his hand to her jaw, forcing a scream from her, sending her twisting away, her face turned from both of them.

The boy was watching, glancing down at his feet every now and then but still unable to not look up, see what was happening. His father turned to him, brought that dagger finger out, came toward him with it.

Don’t you understand, Otto, that you can’t just sit there and take it. Otto looked around his father, this creature that looked as if he had just climbed from a sewer or some netherworldly realm, and saw his mother, back turned, hands bracing herself on the counter, her voice mumbling. She was likely praying, as she often did. Here was someone, his mother whom he loved, who was just sitting there and taking it, he thought, but didn’t say it, because he knew that would send his father over the edge.

His father kept walking toward him and Otto kept moving backward until he stopped at a wall.

If someone hits you, Otto, what do you do? The boy shook his head, afraid his father was going to show him by example. His father punched the wall next to him, coming down on the side of his fist and not hitting it full on with his clenched knuckles. Both arms were now out and though he hadn’t planted both of them so they touched and boxed him in, Otto knew he was trapped anyway.

He often thought, what if these arms and legs were more powerful than what he had now, what if he could just use his hands to grab his father’s arms and just toss him aside, what if he could just kick his feet and collapse his father’s legs out from under him, have him fall to the ground on his knees?

He often looked at his father and thought, never expressing this thought, I’m never going to be like you. I’m not going to be an angry bitter violent person who turns on his family and who is just a prisoner of this world, someone who is mired in its filth, lets himself be smeared black and have his back broken to make a paltry salary. He swore he would be someone else, a person who uses his intellect to make his way in the world, a person who does things beyond helping himself.

As he was pinned by his father’s presence, his mother came from out of her daze and said, leave the boy alone, your tormenting him like you do all the time. I’m not tormenting the boy, Marie, I’m trying to teach him a lesson about life. You teach him about nothing, she said. No, I’ve taught him the important stuff—how you defend yourself and you don’t back down, don’t take guff from spineless bullies.

He stared down Marie, turning his attention away from Otto. His face folded into a snarl, his eyes turning hangdog, melting away to the floor, the man in desperate need of sleep, rest, a new personality. I hate you, Otto thought, looking at the side of his face. I hate you. How to escape, he thought, with arms and legs so small, how to make him pay.

His father turned from both of them and said, what’s for dinner, woman, I’m starving. The monster, steam blown off, sat sedate, waiting for service.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Neighborhood Sloths

We’ve found our neighbors’ kids asleep on their porch, on our porch, on our patio, on our lawn, and even in our beds. They snore like buzzsaws, become immovable masses, impervious to shakes, nudges, and airhorns, and if you’d ever meet their parents, you’d understand how it all fits. You’d wonder just what the heck was wrong with us, why we put with what we do, what glue is it that holds us together, allows us to sleep at night.