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Movieland - Chapter 33
Knock ‘em dead, kid.
Three — or was it four?— weeks had passed … maybe.
Showers at the mission, occasional breakfasts (the little he could get down), wandering the beach: the days blurred into one another. One of the lifeguards had taken to saluting him in the early morning. “How they hanging, Sarge?” Raymond by now knew to salute back and not worry about what was hanging from where.
It was growing dark rapidly. Ominous clouds had piled up over the Pacific all afternoon, and now they darkened the street, casting the Venice arcade in a dim dishwater light. Raymond looked back at the poster. He had seen the same smirking face stapled or pasted on everything upright. This one was taped to an arcade column.
“Have You Seen Dante Alessandro?” it asked. Across the words, someone had scribbled “Yeah, in the 9th Circle of Hell.” Below was a photo of a smug, handsome face, the same one looking out from every poster on every pole. Dark glasses were held at the forehead, and the chin was pointed down so his eyes peered up at you and seemed to be smirking too. “Last seen in the Venice area, around Pineapple Street. Friends very worried. Please call P. Charles,” A phone number followed.
Something stirred at Raymond’s side.
No one’s looking for you, Filth.
“Go back in the attic, Ruby.”
No one even cares to look for you. Except some zombies.
He scrunched his eyes tight, and, with effort, the hissing voice dissolved into a muttering buzz that fell apart into the sounds around him. It still amazed him, this power over Ruby that had come upon him in the last week or so. Raymond opened his eyes again, and the poster stared back at him in its mocking way. Why did that face bother him so?
All at once he remembered.
He had seen it in the black place. The black place in the black dream. Raymond was pushing his way through the heavy clotted air when he barged into a grainy wall of some sort. He realized it was a rock face, and as he could go no further, began to climb it blindly in the blackness, hand over hand, feeling for grips in the rocks as he used to do when he was a teenage guide for the summer people. He was grasping his way up through the heavy velvet atmosphere when he glimpsed an overhanging cliff. On it stood a figure in a hood with a lantern. But it couldn’t be a lantern because the ball of light hovered and danced and went forth on its own.
The figure in black and the glowing ball began to descend a path along the side of the mountain, showering tiny pebbles down that caught in Raymond’s hair as he clung to the hand grips. Just then the hooded figure stumbled and lunged.
It was a strange sort of fall. The figure didn’t rush headlong through the black air but tumbled languidly as if gliding through thick liquid. The hood fell back, and Raymond saw his face as he spiraled by. He was a young man not much older them himself. His eyes stared vacantly out through a milky cast, yet Raymond was sure the falling man smiled faintly at him as he passed.
That was the face, the face on the poster!
The poster on the arcade column fluttered as if agitated, and, for a moment there was a stale whiff of rain on the breeze. Then a sharp crack and the sky opened, coming down in heavy sheets. Raymond stepped under the shelter of the arcade, as others came running to join him. Some young people were laughing and hooting as they shook the rain off their clothes.
Just then, strolling along the Venice promenade, without a care in the world, his wild hair slicked back by the beating rain, his hibiscus shirt open and soaked against his red chest was Shane, who, upon seeing the soldier standing docilely under the portico, hurried toward him with excitement.
A woman in a bathing suit reared back with disdain as the dripping Shane raced by into the arcade. “It’s only rain, Queen Elizabeth,” Shane snipped. “What do you think happens when you go into the ocean, and, by the way, who gave you permission to use my ocean?”
He turned to Raymond with an eager smile but was distracted by his reflection doubled in the mirrored aviator sunglasses. Attentively Shane raked back his hair, which the dampness had turned from sandy to deep brown. Satisfied by his reflection, he couldn’t contain himself a second longer.
“We’re gonna be rich, Stretch!” he burst forth. “I’ve been looking all over for you. The girl on the bus, the one with the clipboard and the boy haircut, she knew you and me were besties. Here.” He took out a soaked business card. “Read it.”
On the card was a name, the address of Universal Studios, and two phone numbers. Raymond looked at the soggy name again.
“Who’s Kismet Sultana?” he asked.
“The little butchy chick on the bus. That’s who we gotta call, and see, she wants us to call this number here, the one that says ‘mobile.’ Day or night! Day or night, she said! They’re gonna bring you out to the studio for pick-up shots. Wow,” he whispered, full of awe. “Big time! I don’t know what pick-up shots are either.” He frowned for a moment. “I used to, though … “ He shrugged it off, all sunny again. “Anyway, that’s what they want. If they give you lines to speak, man, jackpot! Winner, winner, chicken dinner! That’s major fuck-you money.”
“And you’re going to do the shots too?” confirmed Raymond.
“Me? Naw. I’m too big for their crap movie. But hey, you gonna give your uncle a taste? Who got you into this racket? Plus, I’ve been sitting on this beachfront property, holding the entire California coastline for you. C’mon, we gotta find a phone.”
“But it’s raining.”
“Oh for Chrissake, man! What’s up with that! Don’t go all Amy Vanderbilt on me. Look, it’s letting up already … almost!”
In no way was it letting up. The sky was filthy with steaming rain.
Seeing that Raymond would not budge, Shane suddenly piped up brightly. “Fun fact: Amy Vanderbilt jumped out a window. No, for reals, she did. Tastefully. With style, with panache, with those ’sterling silver manners’ she was always gassing on about in her etiquette books, which, by the way, are worthless. They never did a thing for me when I was still banging my head against doors, trying to make a mark in this town. Personally, I don’t think the dame jumped.” He winked savvily, and as he did crows feet crackled across his cheeks. “I think she was pushed,” adding in a conspiratorial undertone, “Disgruntled readers. Hey, look, the sun!”
This time the sun did show its veiled form through drifting mists. And though the air remained tense and the sky was draped with dirty low-hanging clouds, the downpour for the moment had ended as abruptly as it began.
“Stick with your Uncle Shane,” the wet, sunburnt man said as they headed off to the broken pavements on the poor side of Venice. “You’re gonna be stupid rich, Hollywood rich, swimming pool rich. Luncheon meetings with Stevie and Marty and Harvey over gazpacho — don’t look so dopey!” Shane turned to some invisible audience as if to say, do you believe this guy? “Stevie Spielberg? Harvey Weinstein? Is the elevator not going to the top floors today? Sonny, they’re the shit in this town!”
Raymond gathered from Shane’s enthusiasm that to be the shit was a good thing. They were all nuts here in Los Angle-less.
Shane continued incredulously. “Hollywood is right on your doorstep, and you don’t even read the Hollywood Reporter! Well, I do,” he announced with absurd pomp. “I mean, I did. I used to read it daily … looking for signs. One of my associates — you haven’t met him yet — ties them up in a bundle, neat as you please, and still leaves them for me beside his garbage.”
They were approaching the mission, but Shane indicated they were to cross the street to the other side. Almost directly opposite the mission house was a distressed-looking pub with bricks painted black and a sign sticking out from the upper story, “Dew Drop Inn.”
When they entered the man behind the bar raised an eyebrow. “Oh no!” he bellowed. “Out!”
Shane stood his ground, drenched and defiant. “Keep ya pants on!”
“No mission bums. I told you people —“
“We’re just gonna use the phone. And we’re not ‘you people.’ You got two movie stars here. Class up this dive. This here is a United States soldier. See the uniform. Respect, man! A veteran, who got wounded, who got a little scrambled maybe… a little lost out there in the shit, protecting your ass.”
Shane nodded at Raymond, who had no idea what was going on. “Represent!” the vivid little man told him inscrutably, then stuck out his chest, which Raymond understood meant to stand up straighter.
The bartender wasn’t buying it. “You’re the one with the mouth they call Shane, right? In the flower shirts? I heard about you. You’re sort of the mayor of the misfits over at that place. Okay, use the phone, and then get the hell outta my establishment.”
“Charmed, I’m sure.”
“And absolutely no bathroom! You methadone losers are murder on urinals. I have to Lysol the walls afterward!”
It was an old-fashioned phone with a dial wheel. Shane did the honors.
“Guess who?” he asked lasciviously into the receiver. “Whoa, such language from a young lady! No, don’t hang up! It’s Shane from the Mustard Seed. I got your boy, the soldier boy you’ve been looking for. Sure, he’s right here. I will, but first is there some kind of, you know, finder’s fee?” His face fell. “ Yeah, I know you always take care of me.” He let out a dismal sigh. But such was his nature that Shane could never be down for long. “Okay, girl,” he said, perking up. “Here’s the movie star.”
Shane passed the receiver.
“Hello,” Raymond said unsteadily.
It was all very straightforward. The studio would send a car to pick him and a few others up for tomorrow’s shoot. He was to be waiting in front of the Mustard Seed mission house at 6 a.m. Could he manage that? It sounded to Raymond like a command. Yes, he could manage that. “So that’s 6 a.m., Wednesday morning, tomorrow,” she reiterated, knowing too well that the mission men could be a bit flaky.
Raymond and Shane were soon back outside, waiting out the drizzle in the doorway of the Dew Drop Inn. Shane was studying him skeptically.
“They’re gonna know you’re a thief, Slick. You show up in that soldier costume, that’ll be the end of swimming pools for me and thee. C’mon. “ He grabbed Raymond by the arm and ducked out into the fine rain, hustling him across the street.
They entered the mission courtyard. Shane went directly to the big blue bin. It looked like a dumpster, but it was actually a charity bin, where people dropped off used clothes through a wide slot for the mission’s thrift shop.
“Lift me up,” he told Raymond. “That’s it, big guy.” His voice began to echo as the upper half of his body disappeared inside the blue bin. “Can’t see a thing. This, this and what’s this? Okay. Pull me back.”
“Yeah, they’re all treasures,” pronounced Shane with a sarcastic dryness that was lost on Raymond. He had come up with a kid’s “Grandma went to Knotts Berry Farm and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt.” A pair of camo cargo shorts that must have camouflaged a rhinoceros so XXL were they. And, the piece de resistance, shocking pink panties that had “Tuesday” branded across them.
“I’m not diving in again,” warned Shane, quite chastened by being even for those few seconds in such clammy, sweaty, mothball-stinking quarters. “So we gotta make this work. We don’t need this.” He flung the panties back into the bin with a snarl. “Try on the t-shirt, that’ll be the hard one. C’mon, c’mon, Stop being a girl. Okay, I won’t look.” Shane shielded his eyes. “Take off your goddamn Army shirt!.”
The kid’s t-shirt was extra-extra-large and out of shape, so Raymond was just able to pull it over his head, but it didn’t reach, exposing a length of lean, elongated, lightly haired torso, the muscles rippled and stacked as a result of Raymond’s mountaineering backstory.
“How does it feel, Stretch?”
Raymond was mortified. “I can’t walk around like this! What about the shops at the beach? They sell t-shirts.”
“The open-air ones on the walkway? Rain chased them away. And look at the sky. It’s already night. The store merchants are gone too, gone with the sun.”
“I can’t move my arms.”
“I can see that,” and with a rough pull, Shane ripped the t-shirt arms off their frayed seams. He stepped back to appraise his protégé. “Lean down,” he said, then ripped the collar on either side into a ragged boat neck. Raymond straightened, and Shane, still squinting judiciously, picked up the mirrored aviator glasses where they lay on the top of the bin and gestured to Raymond to put them on.
“Fuckin’ A!” Shane exclaimed. “Hardcore! All those crazy muscles and them bitchin’ cop glasses. Killer Commando!” He read the Knotts Berry Farm logo on the shirt aloud. “With something of a depraved sense of humor. Alright, take it off.”
That took some doing. Shane had to pull the t-shirt over Raymond’s head.
“You’ll be drowning in these,” said Shane, smacking the cargo pants violently against the side of the bin. “Now they’re cootie-free. Now they’re Shane-certified. We’re gonna need a belt … a belt …”
“But I have a belt. It came with the trousers.”
“With the Universal Studios stamp on the insides. Uh-uh, it will give you away. “
Shane went to the trash cans to examine some flattened-out cardboard boxes and came away with a length of twine. “This’ll do. Very down and out, the way they like. So now you’re set for tomorrow. We still have time to put dibs on the mission beds. That way you’ll be right here when you wake up.” He let out an exasperated “Ugh. How I hate them cootie cots.”
“But I have a place.”
“You …? do …?”
“A secret place.”
“Will they let you bring a friend, an uncle-like friend, to this top-secret place?” Raymond didn’t understand. “Can I bunk there tonight is what I’m asking. Get you up on time, make the beaucoup bucks, sonny, for the both of us.”
Raymond shrugged. “It’s not far from here.”
They were climbing Pineapple Street when Shane seized Raymond’s arm.
“That theater!” he asked nervously. “The Palatine Theater!” He had come to an abrupt halt.
Raymond wondered why he looked so alarmed and turned to frown at the palatial structure that dominated all views at the top of the hill. The Vestal of the West was just then coming into light as the moon passed through an open patch. She was looking solemnly out at the Pacific but, so it seemed to Shane, was taking him in as well, supernaturally, with her blind, veiled eyes.
“We can’t go in there!”
Raymond misunderstood him. “It’s okay. The glass doors in the front are locked, but I know a secret way. Through the alley.”
“You don’t know squat about Venice, do you!” hissed Shane. “I’ve been here since forever.” The whites of his eyes were big and wild in the moonlight. “And I know the history of this place! That theater is cursed! People get lost there in the dark and are never seen again! You’re out of whatever is left of your mind, kid, if you think this boy is gonna spend one night in that spook house!”
“Nothing’s happened to me, and I’ve been sleeping there for—”
But even as he said this, Shane was backing down the hill, beckoning him. “Come away, man! Come away!”
Raymond found — no longer to his amazement — that he could resist Shane’s urgings.
The shaggy-haired man in the hibiscus shirt was wild with fear. “That theater is alive! It has a sick heart!”
How could a building have a heart? wondered Raymond. But then Shane said a lot of batty things. Raymond spoke now with determination. “Any minute it’s going to rain … hard.”
Shane kept backing away, raising his voice. “I’ll take my chances under the lifeguard’s chair. You better come with me, kid, if you know what’s good for you!”
But Raymond already knew what was good for him, and with a shrug, he headed up the hill, then turned into the alley that ran alongside the Palatine.
Midway he found the small yard with the two dumpsters, descended the back steps, opened the door he had sealed over with electrical tape so it would never lock behind him, and found once again his safe, dry place under the stage, in the hidden bowels of the Palatine Theater.
Preview: Revelation is at hand.