A night at the Movies or You Must Remember This

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The lights come up and a thin curtain covers the screen, but the sign behind it telling everyone to please visit the concession stands in the lobby while they're getting ready for the next feature can still be seen, and the ripply picture on it of a huge drippy banana split, which they don't even sell as far as she knows, makes her stomach rumble loud enough to give a zombie hiccups, so she decides to go out and see what she can find with less than six zillion calories in it. Her friend, who's flirting with some broken-nosed character a row back in a high school letter jacket and sweaty cowboy hat, turns and asks her jokingly to bring her back a salty dog -- "Straight up, mind!" -- making the guy snort and heehaw and push his hands in his pockets.

In the lobby, there's a line for everything -- candy, soft drinks, popcorn, cigarettes, ice cream, even the water fountain. The soft drinks line is the shortest so she gets in it, though the smells of minty chewing gum, chocolate, and hot butter are driving her crazy. She feels like she's caught in that Chinese torture movie where they locked this guy in a steel collar with his arms tied behind him and left his food two inches from his mouth until he finally strangled himself to death trying to get at it. Her unhappy turn complains again and she grabs a fistful and squeezes it just to remind herself why she's being so mean to it.

At almost the same moment, some creep behind her, as though to say and that ain't all, kid, grabs a handful of what her girlfriend calls her holey altar -- "You just kneel down and kiss it, honey!" she likes to say -- numb from so much sitting, but not so numb she doesn't go lurching into the smart-alecky young schoolkids in front of her, setting off a lot of sniggering insults, mostly about her bosom, which is among more adult audiences usually her best feature. She turns to scowl at the masher behind her, but there's no one there. Instead, over by a movie poster advertising a sexy religious epic, there's this dazzling guy, all class and muscle, a real dreamboat, as they used to say in her favorite musicals, looking somehow heroic and vulnerable at the same time, and dressed in clothes they don't even sell in a town like this -- and he's staring straight at her! She's almost sure she recognizes him from somewhere, not from this dump of course, it would have to be from some movie -- like possibly he was a private eye with a tragic past or a great explorer or an alcoholic or a happy-go-lucky guy who gave his life for the woman he loved, something like that. Maybe even a half-naked martyr from that religious opus behind him, a show, if so, she wouldn't want to miss, much as she admires his present wardrobe. She sucks in her tummy and takes a breath to lift her breasts a tad, just in case he might be interested (fat chance, she cautions herself, all too often a fool for love, she's famous for it) -- and amazingly enough, he is! He fits a cigarette between his lips, curls his hands around it and lights it, never once taking his eyes off her, glancing appreciatively down at her breasts (her sudden gasp makes them quiver in her bra cups like sing-along bouncing balls, she can tell by the way his brows bob), then back up at her eyes once more. He smiles faintly, blows smoke, then holds up the pack as though offering her one.

When she walks over toward him, her heart's beating so hard she's sure it must be showing through her blouse like she's got something alive in there trying to get out, and she knows just what they've always meant when they say in the movies, "I felt like I was walking on air." Only it's a kind of bumpy air, like any minute something might catch her heels and make her fall on her face and turn the whole thing into some awful slapstick routine, the story of her crummy life. And sure enough, just when she gets close enough to pick up his smell (which is something between pepper steak, hot bathwater, and a Christmas tree -- buttered popcorn can't touch it), her knees go all mushy, and she thinks, wobbling, oh boy, here we go again -- but he reaches out and steadies her with just the lightest touch on her elbow, and then, as though there's some secret signal between them, they turn and (she checks to make sure she's still got her ticket stub, you never know, don't burn your britches, as her girlfriend likes to say) step out onto the street.

Her hands are trembling when she reaches for the cigarette he offers her, and there's a kind of fog swirling around (it makes her think of steamy train stations and damp farewells, though in fact she hasn't even said hello yet) or else she's going blind with mad passion, very likely, and she's just trying to think of something brainy yet romantic to say -- like, "Isn't destiny wonderful, I agree, but it's sometimes, you know, kind of weird, too, am I right?" or, "When you looked at me in there, I felt like I was stumbling on air, me and my big feet," or maybe just, "How did you guess, yum, my favorite flavor," wondering to tell the truth what kinds of cigarettes they sold nowadays, not having tried to smoke one of the things since way back before she became a cheerleader her third year in high school -- when four guys step out of the shadows and grab her and start dragging her toward the curb. "Hey!" she yelps, any language fancier than that escaping her as her feet leave the ground. She twists around toward her erstwhile lover-boy, hoping, if not for a heroic rescue, at least for a little sympathy, but he only smiles mysteriously, takes a drag on his butt, flips it away, and, trailing wisps of fog and cigarette smoke like a kind of end-of-reel tease, disappears back into the movie house.

A black unmarked car with thick windows pulls up and they push her into it, two of these blue-suited meatsacks squeezing in beside her in the back seat, another jumping up front with the driver, who is hunched over the wheel in a cloth cap and a coat with the collar turned up around his ears, like something she has seen a thousand times, yet never seen before. The fourth guy flops a jump seat down in front of her and sits facing her with a machine gun pointed straight at her belly, which even in her present panic she realizes is what has gotten her into all this trouble in the first place. Maybe he can even hear it growling because, as they roar away from the curb, he tells her to shut up even though she hasn't said a word and couldn't if she tried.

It's scary enough that she's jammed into this car with a bunch of muscle-bound maniacs who, if they aren't gangsters, sure act like it, a gun poked at her stomach and the car going about a hundred miles an hour through the thickest downtown traffic she's ever seen around this place, running lights and swerving around oncoming cars and generally scaring the pants off anybody who has time to see them coming (someone who looked a little bit like her mother just went leaping backwards through a plate glass window back there -- this is no joke!), but she's also got the distinct impression that the driver, who should have his eyes on the road ("Yikes!" she yips as the side of a huge bus looms before them and the guy with the gun gives her a jab with it and says: "I thought I told you to shut up!"), has them on her instead, staring darkly at her through his rearview mirror, like either he's got designs on her, evil or whatever, or he's trying to tell her something. "There's somebody followin' us," he snarls suddenly, as though to hide what he really wants to say.

The other guys whip out their weapons and roll the windows down. "Step on it!" the one with the gun on her yells and now they really get going, jumping curbs and racing the wrong way down one-way streets, taking corners on two wheels, tires screeching, crashing right through newsstands and flower carts, beating speeding engines to train crossings, leaping roadworks and gaping bridges, the gorillas beside her meanwhile leaning out the windows and blasting away at whoever it is that's following them. No one's paying any attention to her now, if they weren't going a thousand miles an hour she could just open the door and step out and never be missed -- no one, that is, except the driver, who is still eyeing her through the rearview mirror like he can't get enough of her. Is he crazy?

Then suddenly one of the bruisers beside her slumps to the floor with a big hole where an eye should be, making her clench her teeth and pull her lips back, and the guy in the jump seat, looking like somebody just yanked his plug and let all the blood run out, shoves her toward the empty window and yells in a high nervous voice: "You think it's funny? You just stick your head out there for a while!" She shrinks back at the same moment that the gunman on the other side of her spasms and flops against her like a bag of dirty laundry (and where are they now? they seem to be racing along the edge of some cliff!), and she tries her best to erase the grimace, but the squeaky guy just screams and pokes her with his machine gun again. His finger is jittery on the trigger, his eyes rolling around like he's about to lose his taffy, and the driver, squinting at her in the mirror, gives her a little go-ahead nod as if he might have something in mind, so what else can she do?

They're going so fast her eyes tear when she sticks her head out and she can't see a thing, but she can hear the squealing tires and howling sirens and the bullets ricocheting off the side of the car. As for those two hours in the beauty parlor this afternoon, forget it, it's a good thing it's her own hair or it'd all be gone by now. Whenever she tries to pull back inside, she can feel that fruitcake behind her prodding at her fundamentals with the pointy end of his tommy gun, pushing her further and further out the window like he might be trying to unload ballast, as her girlfriend likes to say when she has to go to the ladies'. Then amazingly, amid the roar of rushing wind and gunfire and speeding wheels, she seems to hear someone whisper, "Jump!" right in her ear. What? She catches just a glimpse through her windblown lashes (those aren't her own, and -- zip! -- they're gone) of the brim of his cloth cap, leaning out the window toward her. "Now!"

The car seems to swerve and the next thing she knows she's all alone out in midair some place (out of the corner of her eye she sees the gangsters' car leave the cliff edge and go somersaulting explosively far below), and then she's falling. She doesn't know how long she keeps falling, maybe she passes out for a second, because it seems like almost the next day when she hits the water -- which is cold as ice and churning like an old washing machine and wakes her up right away if in fact she was asleep before. She flounders in the swirling waves, wishing now she hadn't always been so self-conscious in a swimming suit and had at least gone to the pool enough to learn something about how you stay on top of this stuff and keep from swallowing so much of it. What's worse, when for a moment she does manage to get her head above the surface, she can see she's being swept toward some kind of rapidly approaching horizon, which even she in her landlocked innocence knows can only be the edge of a waterfall: the roar is deafening and she can see spume rising from below like the mist they use in those films about dying and going to the other world. Well, out of the frying pan and down the drain, as her friend would say: she holds her nose and gets ready for the plunge.

But, just as the current starts to pick up speed and propel her over the edge, along comes this empty barrel, tumbling and rolling in the waves, and sort of scoops her up, head first -- and there she is, halfway inside, her head banging around on the bottom, her backside up in the air and feet kicking, when she feels the whole apparatus tip, pause, and then drop. It is not a pleasant ride. The half of her left outside feels very airy and vulnerable the whole way down, not unlike the way it felt when she got sent to the principal's office for a paddling in the fourth grade, while the half on the inside gets shaken around like the churning balls in a lucky numbers barrel. Ow! It hurts worse than the time she went rollerskating and got thrown off the tail end of a snakeline. Or the night her friends shoved some cotton candy and a double-dip ice cream cone in her two hands and pushed her down the collapsing ramp of a carnival fun house, with a thousand people standing out front watching and laughing their fat heads off.

It seems to take centuries to get to the bottom, that's how it is when you think each second is going to be your last, but finally the whirling and pounding is over and she finds herself dizzily afloat, her head at the dark smelly end of the barrel, her legs dangling in the water, which does not seem so cold now. She knows the barrel's starting to fill up and sink, she has to do something soon, but her head hurts too much to think, and besides, it feels good just lying there like in a bathtub, all alone, the cool water swirling gently around her as though to kiss away the hurt. She remembers a movie she saw once in which this queen was taking her bubble bath when some gorgeous guy she'd never seen before came running in, being chased by the heavies and desperately needing some place to hide, so she gave him a kind of regal smile and let him duck into her bathwater. You couldn't see anything, the only way you could tell what was going on down there while the yoyos after him were clanking around grumpily stabbing at the curtains was by the majestic expression on the queen's face as she clawed at the edge of the tub. Just thinking about that movie makes her head hurt a little less.

A kind of chilly current passes under her and something tickles her thighs, giving her the shivers, so, somewhat reluctantly, she slides out of the barrel at last and, holding on to its rim, gazes dreamily around her. She seems to have been cast far out to sea: nothing but water in all directions. And then she sees them: fins slicing through the water! Sharks! Hundreds of them! She scrambles back into the barrel, kicking frantically, and by throwing her weight at the bottom tips it upright, even as those huge slimy things come streaking by, whumping and thumping against it, as though trying to tip it over again.

She squats down, peering over the edge at them, her heart in her throat (why is everything in this world so hungry all the time?), safe for the moment, but not for long: the barrel is more than half full of water, it's nearly up to her nibbles, as her girlfriend would say, and more is lapping in over the rim every minute. She tries to scoop it out with her hands, but it's too slow. Her shoe doesn't work much better. She makes a kind of bag out of her blouse, but it's too torn up to hold anything. She feels like she's in one of those slow-motion sequences in which the more you run the more you don't go anywhere. Finally what works best is her bra, always the friend closest to her heart, as the ads say. She develops a kind of fast jack-in-the-box motion, collapsing her hands together underwater, filling both cups at once, then quickly spreading them apart as she snaps the bra upward -- splush! whoosh! splush! whoosh! -- over and over again, like she might be trying to fill up the ocean.

Eventually the bra snaps -- that much action it was never made for -- but she has won the battle. She bails the rest out with her one remaining shoe. She notices the sharks have gone. Probably it just got too weird for them. Not that her problems are over of course. She's adrift in a leaky barrel on an endless ocean, no food, no water, not even a cough drop. Boy, isn't that the way it always is? The one time she's worked off enough calories to really let herself go, and they take away the concessions. She pulls what's left of her blouse back on, loosens the buttons at the waist of her skirt, and slumps once again into a cramped-up squat at the puddly bottom of the barrel, feeling empty and bloated at the same time. She'd chew on the ticket stub she's still clinging to if it weren't all soggy with sea brine.

Days pass; weeks maybe, she loses count. She gets lonely, exhilarated, depressed, raving mad, horny. Then one day, on the distant horizon, she sees smoke. Right away, of course, she thinks of somebody roasting hotdogs or marshmallows and starts paddling frantically toward it with her bare hands. This is not very effective. She makes a sail out of her skirt and holds it up between her arms, which works better. The smoke, she sees, is coming out of the top of a mountain. It's all a lot farther away than she'd thought. The sharks come back and she has to beat them off with her shoe, temporarily losing the use of her masts, as they might be called, but still, slowly, progress is made.

As she bobs, at last, toward the shore, her arms feeling like they're about twenty feet long and made of waterlogged lead, she sees that a welcoming party -- a bunch of natives with long spears and flowery necklaces -- has come out to meet her. Her skirt has shrunk so much she can't get it up past her knees, but her underpants have little purple and green hearts on them (ever a wishful thinker) and might easily be mistaken for a swimsuit, especially by foreigners who aren't wearing all that much themselves. She's not sure what you say to natives on occasions like this, but finally decides the best thing is just to wave and say hi. This doesn't work as well as she might have hoped. They grab her, tie her hands and feet to long poles, and start lugging her on their shoulders up the mountainside. "Volcano god much hungry," one of them explains, stroking his belly, and it's true she can hear its insides rumbling even worse than her own. "But, hey, I haven't eaten for weeks; shouldn't you at least fatten me up first?" she shouts back hopefully as he walks on ahead, but he doesn't hear her, or pretends not to.

At the lip of the volcano, just as they're about to heave her in -- she can already feel the heat on her backside, smell the sulphur coiling around, it's a desperate situation, but what more can she do? she's never been good at languages -- an argument breaks out. There's some little fellow there, who looks a lot like the driver of the gangsters' car but now with burnt cork smeared on his face, leaping about hysterically and screaming something about "Medicine man! Medicine man!" This sets off a lot of squawking and hallooing and spear rattling, but at last they untie her and send her off down the mountainside with kicks and spear-swats, snatching up her rescuer and tossing him in instead. She can hear his fading yell for what seems like hours as she runs away down the trail they've sent her.

The trail leads to a small hut in a clearing, where a man stands waiting for her. It's the same guy she saw in the theater lobby, except his chest is bare and bronzed now and his shorts are so thin you can almost see through them. "The plan worked!" he exclaims, taking her in his arms. "We're alone at last!" Listen, there were probably easier ways, she might have said if she weren't so out of breath, but by now he is peeling back her blouse shreds and gazing pop-eyed at her best act, so what the heck. Don't step on them, as her friend would say.

He fills his hands with them, rolling them round and round, pinching the nipples between his fingers, having all kinds of fun, then leans down to give them a little lick with his tongue, which might be a lot more exciting if it didn't remind her how ravenous she is. That shoulder under her nose is about the most delicious thing she's seen since the invention of peanut butter. He gapes his mouth and is just about to take one of them in whole, when everything gets shaken by a tremendous explosion and suddenly a bunch of trees that were there aren't there anymore. He looks up anxiously, holding her close, and then another one whistles and hits, knocking them off their feet. "Invasion!" he cries and grabs her hand, dragging her, both of them scrambling on all fours, toward the jungle cover.

His hut gets hit next and it sends plumes of flame soaring miles into sky, debris bombing out everywhere: they've gotten away from it in the nick of time! What was he doing, running a dynamite factory in there? "My precious experiments!" he explains, gasping, as he pulls her, his pained face scratched and soot-streaked, on into the jungle. He leads her along a treacherous path through snarling panthers, shrieking birds, swamps full of crocodiles and mosquitos, until they reach a row of bunkers down near the beach, where a handful of exhausted soldiers are holding out against wave after wave of enemy invaders. He dumps a couple of bodies aside, grabs up their rifles, hands her one, and throws himself down into the bunker just as a dozen bullets ricochet off the lip of it. He pops up, guns down four or five invaders, ducks down again, the bullets pinging and whizzing around his ears, jeepers, he's something amazing. I'm in love! she thinks, unable to deny it any longer. I'm cuckoo, I'm on fire, I'm over the harvest moon! "Get down!" he yells at her. Oh yeah, right. Cripes! She's almost too excited to think straight!

She knuckles down beside him and he shows her how to use the rifle. He's such a cutiepie, she wishes he'd take another quick lap at what her friend calls her honey-dewzies, dangling ripely in front of him -- or at anything else for that matter, she's open to suggestions -- but, no, he's too busy jumping up and shooting at these other bozos, it's like some kind of obsession with him. Well, she'll try anything once, in spite of all the trouble that dubious principle has got her into in the past, she must be a slow learner. She picks out a gangly guy just splashing in at the shoreline, shooting dopily in all directions, gets him in her sights, and jerks the trigger. Wow, it nearly takes her arm right off at the shoulder! But it's fun watching him go down: he kind of spread-eagles and goes up in the air about six inches, falling flat on his back in the wave rolling in. She braces herself and takes another shot: it doesn't hurt as much as before, and this time the enemy soldier does a kind of pirouette, spinning on one foot and bouncing a little before flopping to the beach. She pops one in the face, propelling him into a backwards somersault, hits another in the knees and then in his cowlick when his hat comes off as he crumples toward her, gets this one in the belly button (misery loves company, she thinks, suffering an evil burbling and gargling behind her own) and that one in the ear, spins them around and doubles them over with shots in their ribs and finishes them off with bullets up their booboos, lines them up in her sights and blasts them two, three at a time, aims down their own barrels so their guns blow up in their faces. This is great! She never knew guys had so much fun!

But it's too good to last, as she might have known. She feels a tugging on the seat of her drawers and looks down: it's the sport she came with, lying wounded at her feet, a bloody bandage around his head, hands still clenching his smoking rifle, the knuckles raw, his eyes red with pain and fever. He seems to be trying to whisper something. She leans close. She can hear the enemy whooping and squealing as they scramble impetuously up the hill toward them like little kids on an Easter egg hunt. "There aren't many of us left!" he gasps. "You've got to go for help!" She starts to protest -- where's the kick in that? -- but he cuts her off with a sad endearing smile: "We're depending on you, sweetheart!" he wheezes, giving her a weak slap on her fanny like one pal to another, so what can she do?

She hurries back through the jungle, knocking off crocs and tigers as she goes, having pretty much got the hang of this shooting thing, but somehow, maybe because she can't get her lover off her mind (she thinks of him now as her lover, such intimacies as they've shared being no big deal for some people maybe, naming no names, but all histories, like they say, are relative), she takes a wrong turn and ends up in the desert. She tries to circle back round to the jungle, which she can still see on the horizon, but after plowing up and down a couple of dunes in her bare feet, she can't see it anymore, just acres and acres of endless sand. She tries to trace her footprints backwards, but after five or six steps, they disappear.

She thinks maybe it's about time to sit down and have a good cry, but while she's still only thinking about it, some guys in turbans, pajamas, and silky boots with curled toes come galloping along and snatch her up. "Hey, fellas, you wouldn't happen to have a cracker or something?" she asks hopefully, but they only heave her over the back end of the horse, her little heart's aloft, and go thundering off to some sheik's palace in an oasis.

So, okay, she's had a few surprises since the night she stepped into that movie lobby back in her old hometown all those years ago, but the biggest one is yet to come. This sheik is the very same guy who was standing under the poster and who she just left battling impossible odds back in that bunker, only now here he is with what is obviously a very phony moustache pasted on his lip, and she's made to understand that she's his new favorite and is to be his bride. Tonight. Of course, there are a lot of brides, the palace is full of veiled ladies sneaking about, there's a couple of dozen of them here in his bedroom alone, but she considers herself a gregarious person and doesn't mind company. She winks at the sheik to let him know she's in on whatever he's got in mind, but he only scowls darkly and bellows something about "stinking pig" and "prepare her for bridal sacrament." Okay, let him play it his way.

She's handed over to some eunuchs and serving girls who lead her down to a kind of shallow swimming pool full of bareass ladies and peel her rags off her. She pats her belly and points into her open mouth with her bunched fingers, but they don't get it. Oh well, it's a wedding, isn't it, probably there's going to be a banquet, she tells herself, ever the cheery optimist. She's just got her toe in the water, testing how hot it is, when up comes that driver of the gangsters' car again. The last couple of times she's seen him, he was crashing down a cliff in an exploding car and getting thrown into the maw of a smoking volcano, yet here he is again, disguised this time as a naked eunuch, and insisting to everybody that before her bath she has to be taken down to what he calls the "virginorium" for a health check.

Before she or anyone else can protest, he is hauling her at full pelt down a mirrored hall, her bare feet slapping boisterously on the marble floor, the rest of her all aquiver and goose-bumpy and no doubt rosy pink under all the grime. Her birthday suit, unfortunately, even as starved as she is, could still use a few tucks here and there, a fact that has probably not escaped all the people who are turning to stare at her galumphing by. He pushes her ahead of him suddenly into a dark corridor, presses his back to the wall, cranes his head around the corner. "It's clear!" he hisses. "There's a plane waiting out behind the camel barns. We've got to move fast!" "Wait a minute," she pants, "I know this guy, it's all right." "No, you don't! It's not who you think it is! This is his evil twin brother! Didn't you notice the telltale scar, the missing birthmark? Through forged papers he has stolen his brother's rightful inheritance! He'll stop at nothing! That's why you're involved!" "What?" It's getting pretty complicated. "Look, I'm not particular, they're both pretty cute." He seizes her wrist. "Let me show you something."

He drags her down more corridors, more stairs, more narrow passages. "Talk about stopping at nothing," she grumbles. They're now deep in the labyrinth of the palace. He puts his fingers to his lips, sidles cautiously toward a locked door. "This is the room of the favorites," he whispers. "First they dance for the sheik, they become his bride, and then they come here." He picks the lock with a piece of wire concealed mysteriously on his person. Inside: a whole roomful of severed heads! She screams. It's a kind of reflex. "I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me," she whispers. They can hear footsteps approaching. He strokes the stone wall like a blind man trying to guess what it is. Suddenly, just as the footsteps come clattering down the stairs into the corridor, a piece of the wall slides open and they slip behind it, pressing the wall quickly together again like completing a puzzle.

The secret passage leads back to the harem pool. "Grab your clothes and let's get out of here!" he rasps. It's hardly worth it, all that's left are her raggedy blouse and bikini pants, and it's a hot climate anyway, but she does as she's told, having always been an easygoing sort. While she's pulling them on, the other eunuchs and serving girls crowd around, trying to herd her back into the pool again, but her friend makes a slicing gesture at his throat and grabs her by the hair. They all understand this and back away. If they're so good at sign language, she wonders, why didn't they get her something to eat when she asked them? It's only slowly dawning on her just how sinister this place really is. He drags her away by the hair, which she thinks is pushing the realism a bit too far, but before she can complain, they run into some of the apes who kidnapped her in the first place.

The head-chopping act doesn't work with these guys. "You! Dance!" one of them grunts, pushing her brusquely toward the sheik's bedroom. She trips and falls. If she can't even walk, do these mugs think she can dance? Her eunuch chum helps her to her feet, whispering furtively in her ear, "All right, this is it, kid!" "But I'm a rotten dancer!" she whimpers. "All I can do is polka!" "All you gotta do is be yourself -- believe me, you can do it! Now, get in there and show 'em your stuff! I'll be waiting at the plane!"

She gets shoved into the sheik's bedroom where there's a big crowd gathered for her show, and the sheik asks her in his clumsy unpleasant accent, which she still suspects must be some kind of put-on, why she hasn't got out of her dirty old rags ("feelty olt wrecks," he calls them), and, thinking fast, she tells him that what she'd planned to do as her first number is the "Dance of the Filthy Pig." He looks skeptical and she tells him that it's very popular right now where she comes from and just to sit back and have a good time. She's never danced alone in public before, but once she's thought up the title, the rest comes easy. Anyone can do a dancing pig, especially if they've had a little cheerleading practice. She throws in a bit of dancing duck and dancing cow, which has the sheik boggling his eyes and twisting the ends of his moustache, and she might have gone on and done the whole barnyard (already -- she can't help herself -- she's thinking career) if they hadn't interrupted her with a loud gong and presented her with a covered platter: a banquet, after all! Her stomach gurgles shamelessly in anticipation.

What she finds when she lifts the lid, however, is the severed head of her eunuch friend, now wearing his old cloth driving cap, something metal between his pale blue lips. A key! She's crying on the inside, or maybe even throwing up, but on the outside she laughs crazily and snatches up the cloth cap with one hand, subtly cops the key with the other: bless his heart, his jaws are clamped around the key and she has to push on his face to get it out, sending the head rolling around on the marble floor, but this only adds authenticity to her second rendition, which she has just announced as "Follow the Bouncing Head." She tugs the cap down tight over her eyebrows and starts dancing wildly around the room, kicking the head ahead of her and chasing after, and, before they can recover from their amazement, boots it out the door and down the hall.

By the time she's found a way out of this pretzely loonybin, she can hear them clattering and shouting right behind her. This is going to be close! She sends her friend back down the corridor on one last mission, hoping to bowl a few of them over, and races out into the moonlight. She has no idea where the camel barns might be, but she just follows her nose and finds them soon enough. She lets the camels loose to confuse her pursuers, but the stupid things just stand there, chewing their cuds. "Next time I'm going to do the 'Dance of the Camelburgers'!" she screams furiously at them, and dashes out back where the old museum-piece of an airplane is parked. Even as she jumps up into the cockpit, she can hear the barns filling up behind her with rabid scimitar-swinging soreheads.

Her hands are trembling as she tries to figure out where to put the key in (she can just hear her girlfriend saying, "Honey, put it anywhere it feels good!"), and she realizes, as though it's just dawning on her, that she hasn't got the dimmest notion how to fly one of these clunkers. She doesn't even know how to drive a car, and on bicycles she's the town joke. Even walking is not easy for her. Still, those head-hunting goons are already clambering up on the wing with blood in their eyes, so what choice has she got? When she finally does locate the slot, everything happens violently at once: she's suddenly gunning madly down the field at full throttle, bouncing and careening, shedding startled assassins, probably there's a clutch or something she should have used, but too late now, all that's ancient history, right now she's got only one problem and that's how to get this gazunkas up in the air before she hits something -- like those camel barns, for example, coming straight at her. She seems to have got spun around, and all those guys in the pajamas who were chasing her have stopped in their tracks, gaped a moment in wild-eyed shock, and are now racing each other for the barns once more.

She pulls, punches, twists, kicks, flicks, slaps, and screams at every doobob on the panel in front of her, but nothing works, so she finally just closes her eyes, hugs the steering gidget between her legs (maybe she's thinking about one of the old chewed-up dolls she still sleeps with on lonely nights, which is to say, most all the time, or else maybe that scrawny ginger cat she used to have, may he rest in peace), and shrinks back from the impending blow. Which doesn't come. She opens her eyes to find the old clatter-trap miraculously rattling straight up into the moonlit sky, the palace and then the oasis itself disappearing into the darkness behind her. Startled, she pushes the control stick away and -- woops! -- she's diving straight back to where she came from! All right, she's not completely stupid, a little pushing and pulling on that gizmo, and pretty soon the rollercoaster flattens out to something more like a horse race with hurdles.

Not bad for a jellybean, as her friend would say; in fact she'd be pretty proud of flying this contraption, first time like this, and by the seat of her pants as it were, if, one, that seat weren't so wet (listen, it was pretty scary back there for a while -- who knows if all those terrorized movie heroines do any better, they don't show you everything), and, two, there were some way of parking it and getting out without having to go all the way back down to the ground again. She pokes around for instructions, or even a bag of peanuts to calm her nerves, and comes on a sort of clockface on the panel in front of her with the minute hand pointing to EMPTY. Oh boy, that's all she needed. Even now, the motor's making a funny choking noise like it's got something stuck in its windpipe, and what the little lights way down below seem to be telling her is "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight."

She fumbles in her seat, under it, behind it, finds a pack of cards, a cigar butt, a jar of hair oil, a thumbworn Western, an empty gin bottle (just not her night: even the smell is gone), a plastic ring with a secret code inside, a used bar of soap coated with dustballs, and finally what she's looking for, a parachute. The old crate is wheezing and snorting like a sick mule by now and has already started to take a noser, so she harnesses herself in the chute, flicks the cockpit open, and launches herself out into the starry night, amazed at her own aplomb at such an altitude since even sitting up in the balcony at the movies makes her dizzy.

She's not sure where she's going to land or who's going to be waiting for her or what kind of impression she's going to make, dropping in on them in a cloth cap, moist undies, and a few streamers of bleached-out blouse, but she's hoping the element of surprise will give her the lead time she needs to vanish before they figure out what they've seen. She does wish she had her lost lashes back, though, or at least a tube of lipstick and maybe some deodorant, not to mention the common comb. As though triggered by that thought, the cap flies off and she glances up through her streaming tangle of hair to watch it vanish into the night sky, thinking as she gazes up into the starry dome: wait a minute, something's wrong -- where's the parachute?! Don't these things open by themselves?

Then she remembers something from all those old war movies about a ring. It's like a window shade or a wedding, you have to put your finger in a ring, then pull. She scrabbles around for it but she can't find it. She can't find anything with this dumb thing strapped on her back, she's getting a crick in her neck from trying, so she peels it off and searches it. Nothing. It's like a pillow. Should she just hold it under her and hope for the best? She's dropping so fast! Then she discovers a placket and buttons like' a man's fly. She fumbles with the buttons, regretting tearfully, not for the first time in her life, her lack of practice. What she finds inside is a kind of nozzle with a nipple on the end. What? Is she supposed to blow this thing up? This is crazy! She jerks irritably on the nipple, there's a windy hissing sound, and -- pop! -- she finds herself suddenly afloat under a gigantic gas balloon.

Wow! Here she comes, hanging on desperately by one hand and whooshing down over lit-up Main Street, causing cars to screech and crash, dogs to yap hysterically, pedestrians to stumble all over one another in gap-mouthed amazement. She's still too shaken to revel in all this attention, her heart's hammering away in her chest like the drum of a restless native and her nose is either running or bleeding, all she really wants right now is to go sit down somewhere for a few years, even her appetite seems to have failed her. And it's not over yet! She doesn't know how long she can hang on to the nozzle, and the balloon, sweeping down the street toward the movie theater now, seems if anything to be rising again.

Just when all seems lost, her hand sweaty and slipping its grip, the balloon itself caught in a sudden updraft of hot air from the movie lobby which might take her off who knows where, she spies the awning out over the hardware store next door and lets go, dropping onto the awning as though onto a haystack and sliding down it into a pile of rubbish on the curb -- not the prettiest of all landings maybe, and a canvas burn or two to remember it by, but she's an all-in-one piece, as her girlfriend would say, she still has her ticket stub, and in the theater the intermission buzzer is just this moment sounding its final warning and everyone is rushing back to his seat.

Luckily the usher is looking the other way as she goes streaking past, the doors swinging closed behind her, the auditorium already dark, some children's cartoon starting up on the screen: loud screeching and banging noises, tinkling music, one animal stomping another one, the usual thing, and distracting enough, she's pretty sure, that no one notices how she's dressed, or rather, not. Her friend has crawled into the row behind and is curled up with the cowboy, her hand in his lap, and just as well because she's too poohed out to put up with any wisecracks just now about all-night suckers or pimple specials or what has she been doing in the ladies' so long, was it fun, can we all do it, who'll bring the buns? Her friend sometimes can be a pain, especially when she's trying to ring some guy's bell.

She scrunches down in her seat, feeling a strange chill and wishing she'd brought along a sweater or something, not to mention some spare bluejeans and an extra pair of shoes. Her teeth start to chatter and her flesh goes all shivery, but it can't be that cold in here, probably it's just nerves (she's never sat this close to one of these seats before, so to speak), so she tries to focus on the cartoon to calm herself down. But there's something odd. One of the animals has been twisted into a kind of coiled spring and is boing-boinging around in a way that usually has people hooting and yipping and rolling around in the aisles -- but no one's laughing. No one's making any kind of sound whatsoever. She twists around uneasily and peeks over the back of her seat: the auditorium, lit only by the light from the projector, is full of people, all right, but they're all sitting stiffly in their seats with weird flattened-out faces, their dilated eyes locked onto the screen like they're hypnotized or dead or something. Uh oh. She reaches back and taps her friend to ask her what she thinks is going on, and her friend, jostled, slides lifelessly off the guy's lap onto the floor between the seats. There's a soft bump, clearly audible under the tinny whistle and crash up on the screen, the burlesque rattle up there as of things tumbling down a thousand stairs. The guy's not looking too great either, just sprawled out there with his cowboy hat down over his nose, his slobbery mouth hanging open, his belt buckle undone, his hand cupped rigidly around a skinny behind that isn't there anymore. She's about to let out a yell, when she feels this icy clawlike grip on her shoulder, and she can't even squeak. The claw twists her around in her seat until she's facing the screen again and holds her there, peering up in the creepy silence at all that hollow tomfoolery and wondering how she's going to get out of this one. If how is the word. It's like some kind of spell, and there's probably a way to break it, but right now she can't think of it, she almost can't think at all: it's like that hoodoo behind her has stuck one of those bony fingers deep in her ear and pushed the "OFF" button. So what can she do, she stares up at the screen and pretends to watch the mayhem (one of the animals, having been pressed into an ice-cube tray, is now being emptied out in cubes: there are exaggerated pops and clunks as various bodily parts tumble from the tray), wishing only that she'd at least picked up that soft drink on the way in, or better yet, a tub of popcorn and a half-dozen chilidogs, it might be a long night. Like her friend would say, if she were still alive: "Sometimes, sweetie, you just have to hunker down, spread your cheeks, and let nature take its curse." Anyway, as far as she can tell, the claw only wants her to watch the movie, and, hey, she's been watching movies all her life, so why stop now, right? Besides, isn't there always a happy ending? Has to be. It comes with the price of the ticket. . .
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