Authors: Ron Koertge
INCE I’VE BEEN pretty much treading water all day, the marquee of the Rialto Theatre looks like the prow of a ship coming to save me.
I limp past the cleaners, the paint store, City Scapes Furniture. I step up to the ticket booth. A real one. Out in front where it’s supposed to be, not buried in some mall next to a Foot Locker.
And inside sits Mrs. Stenzgarden. Her dress has flowers on it. She single-handedly keeps the rouge trade alive. She wears huge earrings like starbursts.
“Hello, Benjamin.” Her finger hovers over the red button. “One?”
“Since it’s Monster Week, do I get a discount?”
She glances up from the horoscope magazine she’s been reading. “I don’t think I understand, dear.”
“Just a little joke, Mrs. Stenzgarden. Forget it.”
“How’s your grandmother?”
“She’s fine. I’ll tell her you said hello.”
“Tell her I said hello.”
Ticket in hand, I make my way past the posters for Coming Attractions, lit top and bottom by dusty, flickering bulbs.
It rained this morning, so I’m extra careful, but looking down at the tiles that lead to the big double doors isn’t exactly a hardship. They are a very cool turquoise and black. My grandmother walked on these tiles when she was a kid. In fact, she’s on a committee that wants to preserve things like this theater, that red box office, these tiles before another mini-mall moves in selling acrylic nails, kung fu, and discount vitamins.
Inside, the lobby of the Rialto Theatre smells like butter from the Paleozoic, and so does Reginald: ticket taker, popcorn maker, projectionist, owner, and manager. Reginald of the world’s most awful comb-over, Reginald of the bad teeth and worse breath.
“Hey, Ben. Not a bad crowd, huh?”
“I dub thee Reginald the Optimist. Now rise, go forth into the land, and promote positive thinking for your king.”
Reginald grins, showing me what looks like part of the keyboard of a tiny, decaying piano.
Maybe ten patrons lean against the wall or sink into the red, once-plush couch. I know most of them by sight. They’re people who don’t own a VCR and don’t want to. Or if they do own one can’t get it out of its box. Misfits and Luddites. Castaways and exiles. And all of us alone. Whoever said no man is an island has never been to the Rialto on a Friday night. And I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be here in ten, twenty, or thirty years, dragging my foot down that street I’ve lived on all my life toward another movie I’ve seen before. Thoughts like that can drive a man to drink.
I, on the other hand, buy a Dr Pepper from the Goth who works the concession stand. She has a lot of black eyeliner and a down-at-the-corners mouth that says,
How can you think of snacks when everything’s so bleak?
I’m just paying her when somebody behind me hisses, “Hey, loan me a couple of bucks.”
“Pardon me?” It’s Colleen Minou. Everybody at King High School knows Colleen. At least, everybody who wants weed.
“I said loan me a couple of bucks.” She flashes a hundred-dollar bill, then glances at the kid behind the counter. “Ms. Cheerful here is not going to break this for, like, one Jujube. I’ll pay you back at school.”
I dig in the pocket of my khakis. “Okay, but —”
She snatches the money and points through the smudged glass while I take in the rest of her: ripped tights, an off-kilter skirt the color of a lime snow cone, leather jacket, and over that a ragged denim vest. She tosses my two dollars on the counter. “Keep the change.” Her hair is tufty and ragged. She’s as pale as a girl in a poem about maidens and moonlight. Then she looks at me. “You coming?”
“In a minute.” In your dreams.
First of all, no way am I gimping down the aisle during Monster Week while the lights are still on. People will think I’m part of the show. And second of all, no way am I sitting by Colleen. She is nothing but trouble.
I wait through the previews, then slip between the musty velvet curtains and into the last row. I see Colleen roaming the theater. I shrink into my seat, but she vaults my legs (oh, to vault anything just once!) and settles beside me. She shows me the yellow box of candy. “What’d you get? Let’s share.”
“What? There’s almost nobody in here but you and me. What’d you buy?”
“Gimme a sip.” She grabs my little cup, slurps at least half of it, and hands it back to me.
“Got anything else?”
I reach into the pocket of my windbreaker and show her the apple my grandmother made me bring.
She sneers. “No thanks, Adam.”
“Can you at least talk a little softer?”
“Did you hear,” she hisses, “Willard got into it with the Sixty-ninth Street Vatos?”
“When the movie starts you can’t talk at all, okay?”
“Did you hear they’re supposed to be bringing in dope-sniffing dogs? Did you see any dogs around school today?”
“Take it easy.”
“Yeah, yeah, right. I’m a little amped.” She glances around, fumbles in her purse. “I’ll be right back.” She heads for the side door.
“Now where are you going?”
“Like I’m going to blaze it on Main Street.”
“You can’t smoke marijuana in the alley.”
“Somebody’ll see you.”
“So? I’ll give ’em a hit.”
“I mean, they’ll see you and tell somebody.”
“Are you kidding? Anybody rats me out is going to have to deal with Ed. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Take your stub.”
“Like I know where that is.”
I’m going to move, I really am. Crouch in the front row. Go into the men’s room. Go home even. But I don’t. And pretty soon she’s tapping on the door with the classic red Exit sign above it.
I open it just enough so she can slip in, hoping Reginald won’t see me, hoping I won’t have to explain what I’m doing, hoping he’ll believe me, because what would I do if he banished me from the Rialto?
“That’s better.” She slides down into a nearby seat until her knees are higher than her head. “What are we seeing, anyway?”
I sink beside her.
“Bride of Frankenstein.”
“No shit? I thought it was something about a wolf man.”
“Whatever. Anywhere I don’t have to do Ed is fine with me.”
I am all of a sudden totally conscious of my body. My elbow is touching hers, and it’s like being plugged into a wall socket.
Not that it’s some big horndog charge, either. I don’t mean that. It’s the way she’s talking to me.
me. I know what sex is. Guys in the hall talk about it. Or girls acting tough. But I only hear things, see? I get them secondhand. On the rebound. Life as an eavesdropper.
“Hey.” She nudges me. “Are you nodding out on me?”
“No. I was just thinking that
Bride of Frankenstein
is as good as
The Wolf Man.
You’re not, you know, missing anything.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“So what are you doing here?”
“Oh, I check out the way the set is dressed or how James Whale uses his camera. He was a cool guy. Gay before it was okay to be gay. His suicide note said, ‘The future is just old age, illness, and pain.’”
“Are you gay?”
“No! James Whale is gay.”
“Whatever.” Colleen yawns. As the movie starts, she leans into me and goes to sleep.
I have to admit, for once I don’t watch the camera angles or the warty villagers in the background. I concentrate on not moving, on breathing evenly, on just generally what it’s like to have a girl’s head on my shoulder. Any girl. Even this girl. I look around the Rialto and see two or three other couples snuggled up. But for me it’s the first time. Even if it doesn’t really count.
Colleen doesn’t wake up until the monster gets a look at his bride and howls.
She clutches at my arm. “What’s going on?”
“Elsa Lanchester is just scared. Frankenstein wants to, you know, start the honeymoon immediately.”
“No, she’s his bride. The doctor made her for him.”
“So does he jump her bones?”
“Do you really want me to tell you?”
“It’s not going to be good, is it?”
“Colleen, it’s a monster movie.”
“Fuck that. I’m out of here.”
I always sit through the credits. I am always the last one out of any theater. I even make a point of being last. I stay in my seat until everyone else has shuffled past. Then I turn my back, too, on the comforting dark.
But this time I follow Colleen. Or try to. By the time I get out of my seat, up the aisle, and through the door, she’s camped on the curb.
“Hey.” She motions for me.
I try to stand up straight. I try to hold my arm so it looks like it’s maybe just sprained. I try to stroll over to her.
“Don’t you want to see the end?” she asks.
“I know what happens.”
She pats the curb beside her. “Want to sit down?”
“It’s hard for me to. And then once I’m down it’s hard to get back up.”
“What’s that thing you’ve got?”
“C.P.,” I say.
“Oh, yeah.” She stands and brushes at the back of her tiny skirt. “At least your right hand works.” She grins. “You can still jerk off.”
There it is again: those eyes of hers locked onto mine. Nobody ever looks right at me. Nobody talks about my disability. Nobody ever makes a joke about it. They talk toward me and pretend I’m like everybody else. Better, actually. Brave and strong. A plucky lad.
“You can’t, like, have an operation or anything?”
I shake my head. “But when I was little I did this Bopath technique stuff and some biofeedback and a lot of physical therapy. It could be a lot worse. Did you ever see
My Left Foot
She glances at my shoe.
“No, not my left foot.
My Left Foot.
The movie. The Christy Brown story where everybody thinks the guy is a vegetable, but he’s really smart and he types stuff with his left foot because it’s about the only part of him he’s got any control over.”
“The whole movie is about him typing with his foot? That must have sold a lot of popcorn.”
“Actually, it did okay. Everybody likes to see people triumph over adversity. And he had some serious C.P.”
Colleen just plays with her Marlboro for a while, inhaling deep, then blowing perfect smoke rings in the still air.
“Does it hurt?”
“What? My leg?”
“Yeah. Leg, arm, the whole human unit. Does it hurt?”
“No, not really.”
“So then you’re okay.”
“Are you kidding? While every other guy raced to grade school with his pals, I rode the little bus with kids who drooled on my shoes.”
She points. “Those are fucked, by the way.”
“My grandma buys these shoes, okay? She thinks if I’m well dressed, nobody will notice half of me doesn’t work. I’d wear ten-dollar sneakers forever if all my toes pointed in the same direction.”
“You get out of P.E., don’t you?”
“Yeah, but —”
“I hate P.E. It makes my chest hurt.”
At school, I’m the Invisible Man. So I’m not used to this — talking to people, I mean. But I like it.
I take a deep breath. “Did you, uh, like the movie?”
“It was okay, I guess.”