02 February, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
He returns to his place of employment, on the boardwalk, between the tilt-a-whirl and the bumper cars, in front of the ticket window where today Earl-the-grumpy-ticket-man has been replaced by a blurry woman in glasses who looks like she stepped directly out of a dream inspired by a Montgomery Ward catalog. Wilbo sits on the bench for a good hour, his concertina and sketchpad by his side, watching the crowds pass. He knows it’s an hour because he tracks it on the fluorescent clock that hangs over the ticket window. His nerves are calm but his will won’t kick in. He sits there. Nobody seems to notice that he is not working. If Earl was there he might notice but he wouldn’t care. Earl has his own worries. And besides, Earl isn’t there today. There’s no boss. He can do anything he wants.
Eventually he gives up, gets up, and walks away, in a daze. It occurs to him to stop at the Burger Shack and hand his things to Mac, the concertina, the pad, the pencils. “Hold these things for me, OK Mac? I need to take a little walk.” Outside, he locates the sun in the sky and walks toward it. Its warmth, like a magnet, draws him forward. His thoughts are blank, like when you think of an old friend but you can’t remember his name, except it’s not just an old friend, it’s everything. He can’t remember the name of anything. He searches for an activity that seems familiar, something he’s done before.
Downtown there’s a movie theater. The Magic Lantern. It’s not like he’s completely unfamiliar with this place. When he sees its dilapidated marquee with the swallows nesting under the broken L, a few reluctant memories take shape. Those hippies from Felton. They got the loan from Floyd. The opening night with everybody smoking pot in the balcony. Sundays. Wilbo often spends his Sunday afternoons here, almost every Sunday afternoon, the double feature, Sunday matinee. It’s the day of rest, Sunday afternoon. It’s right there in the Bible. The Sabbath. Of course today is not Sunday.
It’s a double feature as usual. Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman is oddly coupled with an old Disney film, Old Yeller. Old Yeller has already started when Wilbo sits in the nearly empty theater with a tub of obligatory buttered popcorn.
The images on the screen steady his thoughts and focus his attention. He rarely actually watches these movies. The films they show at the Magic Lantern are not the kind that demand his full attention. Rather he sits in the darkened theater and allows the themes and the images to kindle his pondering. Completely free from external demands his mind can go where it will. Movies take the chaos of human experience and wrap it up in neat little packages, easier to ponder. Today is no different.
Two brothers, the younger one prone to impulse and bursts of emotion, the older one stable, stalwart, responsible. Father is abandoning his wife and children for a cattle drive. Of course they’re like me and Arno, Travis and Arliss. That much is obvious. The father goes away and the dog comes. Who is the father? Who is the dog? There’s a great darkness, hydrophobia, fear of water, it’s like nuclear fallout. You shouldn’t be afraid of water. Maybe dad was afraid of water. Maybe that’s why he ran away. Maybe Arno is afraid of water. That’s why he drinks. But me, I’m not afraid of water. Bring it on, man, bring on the water. I’m not afraid of water. That’s the difference between me and them.
But this movie is too dark for children. Children shouldn’t see it. This is too dark for children. It’s like the photo of the atomic bomb that used to hang in the dining room, over the table, the one he took at Tonepah. So much power there, he told us. You have to respect that much power.
Of course we were looking for another route. That’s why we changed our names. But I didn’t have your optimism. At least not at first. I was older, you know. I read the prophets. Nostradamus. The Hopis. Especially the Hopis. It was their land where we detonated the first bomb. There was no reason to aspire. There was no future. Dad knew it. That’s why he left.
The formulae at the center of the movie allow him to zone out completely, the way the dog worms its way into the heart of the family, the cute little things it does, drinking the milk from the little boys cereal bowl, knocking over the butter churn; the way it eventually rescues Arliss from the wild boars and contracts the rabies. Wilbo zones out and remembers a time.
What a grand time, that time, that very short time, when it looked like there was a future after all. What was needed was a complete departure, a shifting of the poles, the fall of the tower, and it looked for a moment like we were actually going to do that, we were actually going to make that departure. There was that first human be-in in the park, the way it came together as if guided by a higher force, no advertisements, no money changing hands. I was there. I was there on that day. There was that brilliant, silly psychedelic swoon. It felt like every piece of clothing I ever wore in my life fell off my body, all at once. The Diggers were there, and the Free Store, and the Mime Troupe. What a grand and silly and hopeful time.
Surprised by the sharpness of his memories, Wilbo is only vaguely aware of how his thought parallel the arc of the story that is passing before his eyes. The dog gets rabies. Travis has to shoot the dog. The father comes home, riding out of the background, frame right, on a brilliant, sunlit day. The first words from Travis’ lips when his father gets close enough to hear: “Pa, I had a dog.”
Damn movies! Wilbo swallows the lump in his throat and allows the tear to run down his cheek. What does this mean then, that the father returns? Who is the father, and who is the dog? He doesn’t like it when the manipulative power of the movie works on him, and interrupts his pondering, and forces him to feel emotions that are not his own. Or are they?
He stops thinking. He stops paying attention to anything. Perhaps he falls asleep. The next thing he notices is that the movie has changed. Little Big Man. He can ponder through this one, or sleep if necessary. It has no power over him. He’s seen it so many times. The only thing about it is the changing of the names, the taking on of new names. Little Big Man. Wilbo and Arno. New names. For the first time since it happened he thinks about the skunk, about the details, about what the skunk said.
Maybe it’s necessary to take another new name. Maybe it’s like what they say about the cells, the way the cells change, every seven years you get a whole new set of cells. Every cell in your body changes. Like the seven waves. How long ago was that, when we changed our names? Wilbo and Arno. More than seven years. Maybe fourteen. Maybe it’s time to take on a new name. Maybe that’s what the skunk meant. What would I call myself? Little Big Man. Oh, that’s silly. Travis. No, of course not. It has to be something appropriate. Appropriate to what’s happening to me. Maybe something from a fiddle tune. I could be Mooncoin, or the Bluehill Boy. I know, I’ll call myself Last Night’s Fun. Or I could take on an Indian name, like Levon did, when he became Blue Lake Moon. I could be Red Sea Sun. I could be Pink River Planet.
Wilbo starts to laugh. It’s one of those silly laughing fits that you can’t control, the ones that come so close to crying. He can’t stop himself. He keeps thinking of other silly names.
Saint John the Condor!
Finally he has to get up and leave. He can’t control himself. He is making too much noise, disturbing the whole theater. It doesn’t matter that there’s nobody else there but him. It doesn’t matter that he won’t see the end of the movie. He’s seen it so many times before.
Out in the afternoon sun, he feels a renewed interest in his life, in his work. Nothing remains of the strange mood of the morning. The sidewalks, the trees, the clouds in the sky, everything seems to be drawing him forward. At the burger shack he collects his things.
“Thanks, Mac,” he says. “I needed that.”
He returns to his usual place on the boardwalk. He works for a few hours. He mimes many people and sells five portraits. He’s in good form. He makes people smile and laugh and dance. He makes money.
Finally, as the fog blanket on the green eastern hills begins to pinken, he starts to feel hungry. A good day, he tells himself. Time to find something to eat.
Author's remarks: this is the most recent chapter I have written and it hasn't had near as many rewrites as the others, including the rest to follow. I'm not sure if it works. Your (gentle but) candid comments are appreciated...