Movieland - Chapter 30
His reflection elongated along the curve of the silver lenses, and in them, the soldier saw himself doubled.
“Are these still twelve dollars?” he asked. The amiable Asian merchant raised a finger, meaning “Just a moment, please.” He was waiting on a woman
“And you take MasterCard?” confirmed the woman.
The soldier examined the woman in the sundress as she withdrew a mysterious piece of plastic from her purse. The merchant slid it through a small mechanism on the tabletop where the sunglasses were displayed on a white sheet, then gave the woman a receipt.
As the woman went on her way, the soldier was dismayed. “Don’t you take money?” he fretted.
The Asian merchant scrunched his eyes with amusement, not quite understanding. “Money good! Money best,” he said, nodding enthusiastically. “Only fifteen dollar.”
“Before you said twelve.”
This seemed to delight the Asian man and he laughed all over himself. “For soldier, twelve dollar, twelve dollar! God bless America.”
When the transaction was done, the merchant, still beaming, held up a mirror. “American soldier boy!” he said, flipping up a thumb.
Yes, thought the customer as he studied himself in the upheld mirror, he looked very much the clean American soldier, with his buzz cut so close to his scalp and his ears sunburnt pink. These aviator glasses had captured his imagination the first time he saw them. The way they mirrored people back to them. The way they masked his eyes. Behind the silver lenses, he could be anything: a motorcycle cop, a jet pilot, even a clean, pink-eared —
The tall young man turned his head slightly to admire the severe buzz cut they had given him. He looked nothing like himself, and this, he discovered, gave him comfort.
That movie thing, thought Raymond, was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
What Raymond remembered most was the hurry. The rush rush.
The girl with the clipboard had hurried him along to the makeup trailer.
“You’re cool with this, right? We’re going to shave off all your hair — well, practically.”
“I am cool,” replied Raymond in the mirroring way he used when he was confused and wanted to hide it. He wheezed breathlessly. He was not yet acclimated to the syrupy thick air, and the race to the trailer in the parking lot made his throat tighten.
There was someone in the chair before him, a real soldier, but he too needed a haircut “to sharpen the G.I. Joe look,” the lady with the clippers insisted to the girl with the clipboard, who was worried about getting down to the beach and keeping to the schedule.
“What’s up, dude,” the soldier in the chair said when he saw how intensely Raymond was watching him. Raymond, who took this literally, glanced at the ceiling of the trailer to find out, then shrugged his shoulders, not realizing that shrugging was the way most people answered this dumb, strictly rhetorical question.
The soldier gave him a flirty wink. He had a broad face on a broader neck, which showed red as the hair was buzzed off. The thing was Raymond was sure he knew what a haircut was, technically; he just couldn’t remember ever needing one. He wondered if it hurt, but the instinct for self-preservation built into his backstory cautioned silence lest he appear different from the normal, robustly healthy soldier who was just now vacating the chair.
“See ya in the pictures” the steer-like young man said with a friendly wave.
In about 10 minutes, Raymond’s hair lay in a brunette pile on the floor, and he was being hurried to the gym by his harried escort, continually checking her watch.
“And don’t lose it,” the big guy behind the table in the gym warned him as he handed Raymond a piece of paper with numbers on it. Raymond nodded and picked up the tan uniform, folded on a hanger in a see-through bag.
Consulting the paper, Raymond found the locker in the empty locker room but had no idea what to do with the other numbers. “Never had a gym locker before?” asked an incredulous high school boy, who happened by. His hair was matted down from the showers, and he held up a towel around his waist as he worked the dial lock back and forth. The slender metal door yielded with a shrill creak.
Raymond waited for the boy to go before he undressed. School was going on elsewhere in the building, and the locker room was silent but for the hiss of the showers. Raymond neatly folded his sweater and checkered flannel shirt (how sharp that red was!) before placing them on the top shelf. He slipped on the military shirt, methodically buttoning every button to the top. Looking both ways to make sure no one was about, he guiltily changed trousers, careful to keep his wallet with him, in his pocket, as he had been instructed. Transformation complete, the new soldier emerged, all in tan, meeting up with the girl with the clipboard, who was sitting in the bleachers, checking her phone messages.
Raymond was hurried down to the beach, joining with about two dozen other movie soldiers. The assistant director — the guy with the trim beard who had rejected him during the audition — was explaining the scene. This would be the film’s climatic tour de force, the Massacre at Blood Beach.
The soldiers, in loose formation, were to skulk along the shoreline, already strewn with gutted extras, pointing their prop machine guns this way and that. Killer zombies would rush them in hordes, dressed as motorcycle thugs with drooling eyeballs and demented skull faces. They could be anywhere, jumping out from behind rocks, abandoned cabanas, the pink hotdog stand. Big tanky zombies would rear out of the sea as the high-tide waves crashed around them. Even the bloody victims they were stepping over might suddenly quake and quiver to life and try to gnaw off a leg. The soldiers would never know when the hordes were coming.
The assistant director saw the questioning faces. “Look, the director — that would be Charlie Luxemburg — knows you Pendleton gyrenes are not trained actors and just doing this for shits and giggles, but he wants to capture real surprise, true emotion. That’s why you’ll never know what’s coming. Just react the way we showed you on rehearsal day. No real connects. No snapping of necks. Guys, please! Use your goddamn imagination! I’m assuming you cowboys use your imagination for something more than nailing Megan Fox every night in your bunk beds.”
A low ripple went through the troupe, and one of the soldiers chuckled knowingly at Raymond. It took a moment for Raymond to realize he should chuckle back.
“And for Chrissake,” added the assistant director, “don’t over-fucking-do it. No Nicolas Cage goggly-eyed bullshit. Play true, play close, and you may just score a few lines of dialogue. Maybe make some real coin from this gig.”
Just then a dune buggy drove up, and the young man with the white, electro-shock Einstein hair, the director who had been pointed out to Raymond as a genius, hopped off. In tow were a group of sturdy, broad-shouldered men with heavyweight cameras braced on their shoulders.
And so the rest of the morning was spent with Raymond following the real marine in front of him, doggedly mirroring his walk and grim demeanor. The camera crew ran alongside on the higher sand or in front with their heavy cameras turned back on the chaos as the soldiers knocked back reanimated townies with the butt of their rifles and gunned down crazed waves of nunchuck-swinging, chainsaw-wielding undead.
Unlike other films in the ghoul genre, these zombies were fast. As stated in the script, the lab-tweaked virus that allowed them to live in peace (until recently) with the normals gave them back their speed and power of speech.
At this point in the film, the zombie surfers, a copacetic group of partially decayed sun-lovers, want nothing more than to ride waves, strum guitars, smoke weed, and eat the brains of fresh, unclaimed cadavers. They have appealed to the army to protect them from the trigger-happy townies who are out to eradicate the zombie scum “with extreme prejudice.”
Meanwhile, a gang of motorcycle zombies, who have gone feral, whom the virus has made not merely fast and verbal but ultra-violent, roar into town supposedly to defend the peace-loving, song-singing, frug-and-monkey-dancing surfer undead. Actually, the ferals are too wild to care. They kill both the normals for their brains and the zombie kind, who have no brains or only half-eaten ones, for the sheer grisly sport of it.
Raymond, of course, had no idea whom he was killing or why as he waded through the corn-syrup blood and confected guts, but his years of mimicry served him well, so well that after the team broke for lunch and were scooping up chili at the commissary tent in the high-school parking lot, Einstein man, Charlie Luxemburg himself, came over to Raymond and told him he would be one of the soldiers selected for close-ups and reaction shots, so expressive, so photogenic was he on film, seeming always to find his way into the most dramatic lighting.
“The camera likes you,” Charlie Luxemburg told Raymond. “The eye picks you out in a crowd.”
After lunch, Raymond was teamed up with three other select soldiers. Now they were closely monitored. Do this, do that, do it again. Charlie Luxemburg called out directions as he rode along in the dune buggy. On the side of the buggy was a large pre-advertisement for the film, Surf’s Up, Zombie! followed by the tagline “Ghouls Just Wanna Have Fun!”
In between the repetitive takes, Raymond studied the soldiers. How confident and straight-backed they looked in their uniforms, how they strode about, how they strutted. Little phrases too glowed in his mind, the way they said “On it” instead of “okay” or “Hollyweird” instead of “Hollywood.”
Look up, look down, again. Soldier Number Three (that was Raymond), narrow your eyes and scan the horizon. No, don’t move your neck. Just your eyes. Good. Very mysterioso.
When the day’s work was done, Charlie Luxemburg handed the soldiers each a brass token. “Give this to the paymaster,” he told them. “A little bonus. You’ve earned it, men.” Raymond was about to leave when Charlie Luxemburg pulled him aside.
“You have a real knack for this, Soldier Number Three. You’re one of the mission guys, right? Aim a little higher, my friend. I don’t know what went wrong in your life, maybe nothing, but this is Hollywood. You can make-believe yourself into a new life here. Luck is on your side. Remember that. Someone told me that when I was strung out real bad. As bad as being strung out is for you white guys, for a Chinese-Jewish boy like me… whoa, the wrath of the ancestors is upon you! Look, maybe you have a drug problem too. I’m not judging. I can’t cast the first stone. But look at me now, brother … look at me now, huh! Luck is on your side, Soldier Number Three. I pass this mantra on to you. Every morning, every night, say it. Say it now!”
“Luck is on my side! ” Raymond recited, imitating the director’s enthusiasm.
“Those are magic words, my brother. Magic words and true.”
Raymond caught up with the soldiers as they made their way to the gym. He had never been around men his own age. In fact, he had never been much around men at all. How the marines joshed and rough-housed with each other, rough but gentle-rough, like puppies at play, nipping at each other’s ears. All afternoon Raymond had made mental notes: this is how to appear normal, this is how to pass as a soldier.
The locker room was crowded. More high-school boys than actors. So much nakedness. Raymond made his way, eyes down. He would need to ask one of these teenagers to do the turns on his lock, but when he glanced around, his cheeks flushed hot and he knew he could never undress with so many eyes upon him.
Now came the sniggering behind his ear.
Because you’re a girl….Because you’re a BIG FLOPSY GIRL!
He tried to shake off the voice.
They all see you. They all see you’re wrong,
His eyes began to flutter.
Raymond bounded down the row of lockers, not seeing straight, skirting around boys, benches, open locker doors.
Gangway!… Gangway! Girrly coming through.
He made it into the gym, tripping over the nearest bleacher, where he sat, waiting for the flutters to fade. Teenage boys were in the middle of basketball practice. He could hear the ball being slapped up and down the reverberating court. Raymond concentrated. Determination was new to him. He concentrated hard. Steadily, a stillness came over him. Steadily, he put Ruby back into the attic.
His vision cleared.
Across the floor, the big guy behind the table was busy reading a folded Hollywood Reporter, taking no notice of Raymond or the boys darting and leaping on the yellow-wood court. Big guy looked at his watch with a sniff and shifted on his metal folding chair. They were supposed to be heading home by now, the students were already taking back the gym, but Charlie Luxemburg had pushed it, kept the special soldiers longer. The big guy glanced over at Raymond, one of the specials, and he smirked at the inconvenience the extra had caused.
Raymond jumped. The vividly sunburnt Shane had suddenly appeared alongside him.
“What the hell you moping around for? The bus is revving up. We’ve gotta leave, son!”
“You’re not even dressed! Did you get paid?”
The jaw dropped on the weathered, berry-red face.“Tell me you got paid…What! ….C’mon.” He pulled Raymond out of the bleachers. “How you gonna buy the Pacific Ocean from your Uncle Shane, huh?” He was hurrying him along. “Seaweed and seashells don’t cut it on the mean streets of Venice, U.S.A.” He now took a good hard look at Raymond. “Sweet Jesus!” he proclaimed. “The bastards really scalped you!”
In the parking lot, dusk was deepening. There was a line at the paymaster’s trailer. “You should have seen it an hour ago,” confided Shane, getting energized. He began to bulldoze the much taller Raymond to the front. “Fire! Fire! Help! Run!”
“Where do you think you’re going, little man,” said a rough-looking grip, who had flung out a meaty arm, grabbing Shane by the scruff of his tropical shirt.
“Our bus is leaving!” cried Shane, with a pitiful throb. “We’re from the mission. Where’s your heart?” It was quite a performance.
The beefy guy cynically sucked in air at the side of his teeth, making a rude noise, and let the pissants pass.
Hectically, Shane inveigled their way to the front of the line. Before them, just now stepping up to the window, was one of the select soldiers. The streamlined young man frowned down at the racket Shane was making, but when he saw Raymond, he recognized him with a nod and stepped aside.
Behind the bars, a gray elderly gent, drained of color, took Raymond’s token and turned it over in his spindly fingers.
“Count Drrak-coo-la I presume,” chortled Shane to the amusement of no one.
Sharp-eyed, Shane did not miss the count. “You dirty dog,” he whispered gleefully as he hurried Raymond away from the window. “He overpaid you. Show Uncle. Ye-ee-eees,” he laughed. “He paid you double! Two hundred dollars Americain!”
Raymond cast a forlorn look back at the high school. “But my clothes.”
“Forget ‘em. You’ll get them next time.” Shane glanced over at Raymond skeptically, shaking his head once again at the severe buzz cut before concluding, “They’ll never let you on the bus in your soldier costume. Here,” he said, “take off your shirt. C’mon, c’mon. What, are you bashful! Give it to me. Pull your T-shirt over your pants. Hmm … still looks like a uniform.” He looked around.
“I know!” He slipped out of his tropical shirt. “Put this on. That’s right. Leave it open. No, open! Here, tie the soldier shirt around your waist.”
Shane dug into one of the lower pockets of his cargo shorts and took out what first looked like a faded rag. As he pulled it on, it turned out to be a beaten-up t-shirt that had faded to a sad dusty rose with a cracked white logo across the front that was barely legible: ‘Cocaine,’ it said, in curvy Coca Cola font.
Shane now stood back, looking redder than the washed-out t-shirt, and squinted judiciously. On his tall protégé, the flowering hibiscus shirt looked absurdly conspicuous. “Aces, kid,” pronounced Shane proudly with a nod of his shaggy head.
When he turned around the bus was leaving.
“Hey, wait, wait,” cried Shane, flagging the driver as the bus paused at the exit of the parking lot.
The accordion door squeezed open with a gasp of air. Just in time, Raymond and Shane climbed aboard.
Days later, in his new mirrored aviator sunglasses, looking spruce and sunburnt and very much a soldier, the buzz-cut Raymond headed out to the boulevard.
Something about the tan uniform made him stand taller, stride forth with a swagger. He had noticed it back on the beach as he went about his role-playing under the director’s command. He was becoming stronger. He was taking it all in his stride, the clotted air, the shock colors, the floods of sunlight.
He had studied the soldiers in guarded side glances. He was masked in their identities now, disguised in their tan uniform and shaved head. The day after the movie shoot, not knowing where to go, he had passed by the theater. As it was destined to be, as, in the title of a paperback he once read, “It was Written in the Stars,” there she was, behind glass. The mystical blonde woman from the glowing pool of light, sitting alone in the lobby, longing for him.
And so he had gone to her in his tall, tan uniform, spoke, laughed, swaggered. Then something odd. Something new. A part of himself that remained stubbornly Raymond, that was not masked in the identity of others, broke free, came through, the invisible young boy he had once been, who used to feel things. Shyly, stumbling over words, young, small Raymond gave the mystical blonde woman his heart.
She was overcome, embarrassed, fled to conceal her joy. He saw that he did not need to catch her. The stars would bring them together again when the time was ripe. She would appear as she had before: in the darkness. Glowing, white, magical.
That was over a week ago. Ten days.
The boulevard changed complexion as Raymond left Venice Beach and its merchants behind. The pavement became broken, the streets seamed, front lawns gone to weed, cars on cinderblocks. Raymond was approaching the Mustard Seed Mission House.
He entered through the room full of cots and headed downstairs. Here’s where the showers were and the woman behind the cage who would give him the key to use the one private stall. A sturdy mesh grill separated her from the occasionally unwieldy homeless man, but she smiled when she saw Raymond.
“You’re Shane’s friend, aren’t you now. Behind those sunglasses.”
He nodded and stepped close to the grill to avoid the gaze of the surveillance figure that was mounted on the wall above it and, in fact, on every wall everywhere in the mission house: A long-haired man in molded plastic, with mournful eyes that followed you, his two fingers raised in some inscrutable sign. Inscribed along the figure’s dust-filthy plastic base was an admonition that made Raymond feel hopeless because it was so at odds with the man’s pleading expression: “Do Not Be Discouraged.”
“That shirt needs a pressing, hun. I bet those slacks do too. Tell you what, because you’re so handsome today and because you’re a friend of Shane’s, Mama Janet will iron them while you take your shower. The Ladies…I mean the private shower, isn’t it?” She opened a side window in the cage and pushed through a warm, freshly laundered towel, upon which were a shower key and a plastic disposable razor.
“That’ll be a dollar fifty, kind sir,” adding as she usually did, “if you have it.”
When he had undressed in the private shower cubicle, Raymond peeked out, making sure no one was about. No one was (it was late afternoon on a Sunday), and so without the shame that usually nagged at him when he was naked, he hung his tan shirt and tan pants on the hook for the gray-haired Janet to collect.
Raymond had to scrub himself three times before he felt clean enough, then emerged from the shower glowing pink, the pinpoint spray having brought up the sunburn acquired during the Massacre at Blood Beach. Once he was shaved, looking fresh and buzzed-cut and nothing like himself in the mirror, he stuck his head out of the cubicle and quickly snatched the shirt and pants that had been pressed and left neatly draped on hangars.
Raymond felt newly minted when he tossed the dirty towel into the slot in the cage. Janet beamed. “Why don’t you pass the time in the rec room, hun. In an hour or so, we’ll be handing out tickets for the cots, and—“
“Oh, that’s okay,” Raymond replied, blushing. He was not used to attention from older women. “I already have a place to stay.”
Preview: Tabloid Queen.