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The Bright, Cruel Sand
Movieland - Chapter 7
Such a nice boy.
The Bright, Cruel Sand
Raymond Shepard stood on the sweltering pavement, as out of place as the wooly black sweater he wore, that had come through the whirling—
Let us pause this sentence in the sunny light of Pineapple Street. Let us take a moment to breathe in the beach air — salty, tangy — take in, even at this distance, the faint whiffs of suntan lotion and something frying down on the boardwalk. Let us walk around Raymond Shepard and observe him in full.
Were you to meet Raymond Shepard for the first time, he would seem to be more a grown boy than a grown man. Lanky, clean-cut, with the sort of intense stare certain adolescents get who spend too much time with their own thoughts, walking desultory paths along the windy side of a mountain.
If you had a prosaic turn of mind, he would seem the boy next door, blandly pleasant, blandly handsome, the sort who never gets the girl.
If you were more the poet, you might think you were picking up a tragic subtext. It was the way Raymond looked at you when he spoke, you’d explain, the way he studied you when he listened, an intensity, an earnestness.
In all this, you would be wrong.
For if you were really seeing beyond your own reflection in his eyes, you would see the shadow there, rising up and turning his gaze flat, a remote inwardness as unreachable as a castle on a sea rock, where the surf crashes high, falling back on itself and never quite touches the hem of the darkened fortress.
Through all the early drafts and sketches of his character, through all the memos the screenwriters passed to each other, they always referred to him with the same word … an ugly word … a coarse word … a word you would never use:
Whatever had once been balanced in Raymond — whatever had been predictable, stable, continuous — had been broken in the gloomy house on the hill where his boyhood played out, that is, where it was invented, a stern, straight-up, wood-shingled Victorian, riddled with family psychodrama: the scornful mother, the cherished sister, and Raymond … always the blur moving out of the snapshot, always the invisible boy.
The house on the hill overlooked, on one side, the motel cabins in their broad semi-circle and, on the other, the neon sign on the upward climbing road. Raymond as a boy would go up to the attic and gaze through the round window in the turret. It was a stained glass window with a large rose in the center, its rose petals unfurled and outlined in lead casing. One of the petals was transparent. It was through this clear pane that Raymond would gaze out at the flickering neon sign with its letters in the shape of whorl-patterned logs. He felt an affinity to the sign, the flickering, the random blackouts. It looked the way he felt. Coming in, going out.
The screenwriters had worked diligently on Raymond’s backstory in the character bible, episodes that would never be seen on screen but would inform the character’s actions. And after a boyhood spent in the corrosive atmosphere of the house on the hill, flickering in and out of himself, all that was left of the Invisible Boy was an animal grip on survival and an animal cunning that premised that survival on his powers of observation. Like others of his kind, he had taught himself the chameleon’s art of mimicking normal behavior, taking on the color of the person he was talking to.
And you, meeting Raymond now in poetry or in prose, had just become one of his victims.
Raymond Shepard stood on the sweltering pavement, as out of place as the wooly black sweater he wore, that had come through the whirling storm with him. He was stultified by the heat, stunned by the colors. He had never seen colors act up like this before. Loud, pushy, overvivid. They seemed on the attack.
In truth, the colors were muted. The canvas awning on the open-air restaurant directly across from the theater was a faded forest green. The stucco storefronts, following one after the other down the hill, were sun-bleached creams, each with a layer of sepia-colored celluloid over the windows to shield the merchandise from the color-leaching effects of the bright noon light. Even the sunburnt flesh tones, which seemed so raw and pink to Raymond as they moved about Pineapple Street, were quite wan and innervated under this light.
But Raymond had come from a place that was always in the deep shadow of Echo Mountain, by a placid black lake so still it seemed the marbled moon had fallen in and become embedded upon its ebony surface, a place of piney woods where everything was black and white, but mostly gray.
When he last looked out of the clear rose-petal pane, the night was shivering white, battered by a blizzard. He was arguing with his sister, as fiercely as the winds were pitching the trees, going back and forth with her, his eyes fluttering, her voice rising: hissy, prissy, resistant. Suddenly all sound stopped. His eyes opened wide.
The attic sickroom had fallen away. He was standing in infinite darkness. Things got jumbled after that, and the next thing he knew he was waking up on the hard floor of a cave, its walls iridescent and dimly lit. One of the walls was turning, churning, becoming a whirling vortex of smoke. Somehow Raymond knew he must jump through its bullseye center, and do it quickly.
He leapt in the air. The spinning caught him up, knocked him out. When he next came to, he was dizzy and spasming at the back of the theater, under whose marquee he now stood.
Raymond pulled off his sweater but still was too hot. If he took off his flannel shirt, he would be in his undershirt. Underwear was immodest. But the heat here was immodest. A sultry, bedeviled feeling came over him:
It was the oddest sensation: not knowing what to do next. Always before it had just come to him. But everything had suddenly lost its feeling of rightness. And though he had arrived with his memories intact, memories that had withstood the whirling passage — for these hard-cast memories had been overwrought, overthought, and overbuilt from persistent observation and imitation — here on this street, things had fallen loose, had become scrambled, random.
What now…? a question Raymond never had to ask before.
Then he saw what now. And so Raymond did what every draft of him had designed him to do: he followed the first person who passed by.
But the model for normal he had chanced upon happened to be a wild-looking youth with bushy hair, carrying an oval board under his arm and wearing a bright orange t-shirt with a Tweety bird cartoon on it. Bewildered, Raymond unbuttoned his shirt — underwear must be the rule here — then had to hesitate, arrested by the checkerboard pattern on the flannel. He had never suspected that the gray squares that alternated with the black were actually a vivid red.
Sweat rolling down his cheek, Raymond tied the brashly colored flannel shirt around his waist, as someone coming toward him on Pineapple Street had done, then tied his sweater over that. He swayed a bit drunkenly as he made his tall, lanky way down the hill, following the confident surfer.
Below, he could see the ocean glitter. It sparkled sharply along the shore, diamonds dipping and rising on the waves.
The glare made him shield his eyes, and, as he looked away for a moment toward the street, the blond woman suddenly appeared before him! She was passing in a car, which slowed to a stop at the top of the hill. The man stepped out, walked briskly into the theater. If Raymond hurried, he could reach her. “Eden,” he called dryly as he stumbled back up the cracked pavement. His throat was quite parched, and his voice broke. “E-den!”
But she was too far away. And before he could reach her, the hateful man crossed back under the marquee, grasping something filthy in his hand. It took Raymond a moment to make it out: it was the limp soggy rag that had been the woman’s white cashmere coat, the shield that had protected her modesty.
“Eden, he called weakly.
But the car was already taking off, leaving Raymond panting beside the sepia window of a souvenir shop.
So this is an ocean, thought Raymond Shepard when he finally crossed the sand in his heavy shoes and stood on the shoreline.
The waters were alive with tumbling motion, glittering with piercing highlights, and he had to shield his eyes. He had never seen rough, rolling waves, not on the still lake in Echo Valley, but it was written in the character bible the scriptwriters worked up that Raymond, a loner, was naturally bookish. Somewhere in his early drafts was stored a boy’s idea of the sea, a place of swashbuckling and shipwreck. But all Raymond could see now were a lot of naked people.
It was all so confounding. One brazen thing, as tan as a nut, was approaching, running along the shore in a thong as brown as she was. Raymond couldn’t stop gaping as she jogged by: everything round and bouncy hanging out!
The dull hum that was always buzzing in his head now picked up. He knew what that meant. Soon his eyes would flutter and — but he must resist it. So he lowered his gaze, determined not to see all the sun-soaked flesh about him, and, looking neither left nor right, followed his bare feet up onto the dry part of the beach. His clunky black shoes, dangling from his crooked fingers, swayed as he hotfooted his way across the fiery terrain.
When he was a safe distance away from people, he untied the flannel shirt and laid it down as a blanket. He made a pillow of his rolled-up sweater, but when he turned to place it where his head would rest, he saw he had not walked far enough.
Laying out her blanket nearby was a girl in a striped bikini. Once the blanket was smoothed and anchored with her high-heeled cork sandals, she sat down and was rifling through a floppy straw bag when she had a prickly sensation she was being watched. She looked up and turned. What she saw was a lanky young man sitting on the sand in long pants, gazing at her with grave steadiness. She felt oddly exposed and adjusted her sunglasses as if they might cover more than her thoughts.
But he continued to stay on her like a problem, and she flashed a nervous smile, meaning “Okay, I see you. Now please stop.” But Raymond wasn’t good at reading signs, only at mirroring them. He smiled back robotically, a quick up and down, but his eyes were cold.
The crazy thing, thought the put-upon girl, was he’d be kind of cute if he wasn’t creeping her out. She would ignore him. She laid back, testily flinched her shoulders, and waited for the sun to anesthetize her. This lasted about a minute. Impatiently she turned on her side but felt his strong stare penetrating her back. She shot up again. She got to her feet. She could see now he really was handsome in a tall basketball-player way, sitting there on what looked like his shirt. With a showy display of annoyance, she flicked the sand off her thighs and decided it was time for a swim.
Raymond watched the striped bikini descend to the shore, reaching the rolling surf, blending by degrees into the shifting glare, making little runs to avoid splashes, finally swallowed up by a sweeping Pacific wave. The tan shoulders emerged for a moment, hair flat against her neck. Then the sea became one solid glaze, obliterating all the figures that had been bobbing in it. He shaded his eyes, tearing now from the oversaturated colors.
She almost fooled you, didn’t she.
Ruby was close. He felt her breath on his neck.
What have you done this time, boy!
He fought to get control of his fluttering eyes, smashing them shut, which never worked, but it wasn’t that which sent her away, it was the exhaustion.
Exhaustion that he had been fighting ever since he pulled himself up backstage against the ropes. It overwhelmed him now in this ponderous heat, and he fell back on the sand, against his sweater pillow, feeling the grit mixing in with his hair. He’d shut his eyes just for a moment he promised himself, but a moment was all that was needed to pitch him out upon an expanding vista of endless oblivion.
He woke in a sweat.
“You’re getting pretty burnt. Here, put this on your nose, at least.”
A chunky woman with peroxided hair, growing out from white roots, was leaning over him, handing him a bottle of sunscreen. “I was sitting over there,” she pointed to a nearby blanket under a shady umbrella, “and I just couldn’t watch you toss and turn another minute.” She had a motherly command about her, and Raymond did as he was told, rubbing the thick cream on his nose.
“Your face too.” Because she was smiling, he smiled back in his intense way. “There you go,” she declared. He handed back the lotion. “Okay,” she said happily, “I’ve done my good deed for the day. Just one more thing … Have you heard the good news?”
Raymond kept smiling.
She pressed something into his hand. “Jesus loves you, son.”
Raymond looked at the postcard-size tract. The tiny print was jammed together except for certain words that jumped out in big bold red letters: BLOOD OF THE LAMB … END OF DAYS … REPENT!
“We are coming to the time of fire!” she proclaimed with a nervous twitch to her undimmed smile. “This world is lost!” Her eyes seemed to light up at the thought of it. “Your only hope is salvation in the blood of Jesus Christ. I want you to read this. It’s urgent that you do. It’s the most important thing you will ever read in your life. The truth will set you free, young man.” And with that, she trundled away on her pudgy, dimpled legs, back to the aluminum chair under the umbrella.
Raymond pretended to read the tract, feeling the woman’s bright eyes beating down upon him. But his mind was elsewhere. Now that he was sitting up, Raymond noted he wasn’t quite so dizzy, and his body, though sore, no longer ached. The air weighed down on him still, but his lean, hardy constitution would adapt to it, was adapting already. He had grown up among mountains. Hiking, rock climbing, leading sightseers up steep roads that rose and fell through breathless altitudes where the clouds lay on the ground. Many couldn’t handle it. He watched the summer people grow sick on the high trails, heave in the scrub. The air exhausted them, defeated them. He imitated the concern he saw in their companions but actually felt nothing. Raymond Shepard wasn’t weak or sickly like other people. He was built — scripted — to endure.
On the white horizon, the sun was in its afternoon descent. And he wondered how he had landed in this place with so much air, so much sun, so much color! What had Ruby done now?
The sand thump-thumped, and Raymond looked up from the tract he wasn’t reading. A blowzy middle-aged woman was galumphing toward the woman’s blanket. She fell heavily to her knees, pulling off a swim cap,
“Nice swim, daughter?”
“So much tar on the beach today.”
The woman was dripping wet, and the droplets shone as she fluffed out her garish yellow hair, making Raymond think of the other woman, the impossible, beautiful one. The contrast was stark. The woman began picking at the tar on the soles of her feet, and a rage flared up in Raymond, a wild hatred for the ungainly middle-aged daughter in her wide black bathing suit. She was the mocking distortion of what he had lost, of what that man—
Still moaning over your blonde cow?
Ruby was just behind him, her little-girl hand cupped at his ear. His eyes were fluttering.
“Where are we,” Raymond growled, but his sister just snickered.
It was always like that. Ruby came with the blackouts. His eyes would flutter as they argued back and forth, struggling to conquer each other, and then … he’d wake up and not know how he got there … find himself standing on the pier by the lake with something gurgling as it sank beneath the pilings … find himself mopping the bathroom floor in Cabin 6 with something terrible slumped behind the shower curtain.
He shrugged off the cloying medicinal scent that always choked the air when Ruby was at his ear. The haughty girl in the striped bikini, back from the ocean, lay on her side, asleep, facing him. Her damp body, the yielding way it rose and fell with each breath, was completely available to him now. The flat tummy, the taut belly button, the smooth striped bump with its muted cleft.
His body tingled to life. His face flushed hot.
He twisted away, but now the sand, as if in a hallucination, was full of naked women. Young, laughing, luxuriously working cream up and down their tan legs, lazing about under floppy straw hats. Two calling to each other as they tossed about a green plastic disc. Such tiny things they wore!
You know they disappear when you turn your back.
“You make them disappear, Ruby!”
Stupid! I said, you know they laugh at you when you turn your back.
Desperate to escape the hissing voice, Raymond stood up only to realize he was standing out. Mortified, he quickly covered his shame with his sweater, bunching it up in front of his pants.
“I’ll be praying for you, son,” the woman under the umbrella called after him as he headed up the beach. He concentrated hard on the sand, sluggishly trudging through it. A shapely older woman happened to look up over a paperback as he passed, the whites of her eyes following him behind oversized amber sunglasses.
Everyone sees what you’re hiding, boy!
The buzzing in his head grew louder.
Sluts to the left of you, Sluts to the right … and you left your meat cleaver in the attic!
A blackout was about to eclipse the sky.
Razor blade, razor blade… where can you be?
“No!” he gasped, fighting to get control, but control was always elsewhere. Things happened to Raymond; they did not happen because of Raymond. It was all plotted out in advance somehow, directed by a hidden power. Always a fight he was compelled to wage but destined to lose.
Chop chop chop.
“Go back to the attic, Ruby!” he cried out with sudden force.
And now something impossible happened.
This time, for the first time, he won the fight! Something in the world had cracked, or so it seemed to Raymond as he came to a standstill on the beach. “The flutters,” as he called them, had just now stopped, as if directly on his command, and the shadowy form taking shape, about to show herself as she sometimes did right before a blackout, dissolved into the bright cruel glare of the sand.
Everywhere now Raymond saw iridescent particles whizzing about, crashing, spinning, falling free. The air was dizzy with them, dancing about, full of something he could not name but somehow recognized. Something he had read about in books. All at once, the word came to him. “Freedom,” he whispered, quite overcome by the immensity of the idea.
He arrived on the pavement promenade full of wonder, taking a seat on the closest empty bench. The particles popped and sparkled into nothingness as he settled himself in the refreshing shade. The bench was in the long shadow of a pink mission-style cottage, one of the beach’s municipal restrooms. A faint air-conditioned breeze issued toward him, escaping from a beachside restaurant across the way whenever the aproned waitress came out the door, carrying a tray. They seemed to welcome him, the people at the open-air tables, the waitress, whose glance lingered on him for a moment. The world that had always ignored Raymond Shepard now, quite unexpectedly, opened.
Raymond couldn’t know it, but he looked exactly like the actor who had played him a half-century before, a former teen dreamboat, who had aged out of the soft milky looks that had decorated the bedrooms of young girls. An unnerving stare had lately taken command of the actor’s face when he came to play Raymond— some true-blue fans even thought it quite thrilling, a hint of madness. In form and face, Raymond was of movie-actor quality, and right now there were women at the tables across the way who were quietly noticing him, as they were never meant to notice the Invisible Boy in his airtight House on the Hill, where he was scripted to be the discarded son, the mocked brother, the awkward loner behind the counter, cut off from all but the unlucky women preordained to lose their way on the upward climbing road and check into the Fireside Log Cabins.
In imitation of the diners, Raymond slouched a bit in his seat. Brushing the sand from his feet, he put on his socks and heavy shoes, feeling oddly released in this very different sort of place where outcomes were not fixed.
If only he could stop the colors, though.
He looked about. To either side of the restaurant were shops and vendors. Nearby Raymond saw an open stand selling exactly what he needed, its wares glittering in rows.
"Best prices in Venice," said the Asian man through an enormous smile when Raymond reached the display. Raymond had never seen an Asian man before, and it took a moment before he could look away, down at the arrayed sunglasses. They were of all types, and Raymond, catching his fish-eyed reflection in mirrored lenses, was a bit overwhelmed. He wanted the darkest ones, he said. The merchant pointed to various sunglasses that might do, trying to read the young man's face. But choice was confusing to Raymond. He never had to bother with it before. The right things always presented themselves at the right moment, came, it seemed, by their own will into his hands.
Seeing his dismay, the friendly merchant held up a hand mirror., "Put on, put on.” It sounded like a direction. Compelled, Raymond picked up the pair that looked the most familiar, thick black frames with squared-off lenses, a retro style that happened to be back in fashion. They rested nicely on his nose and were densely shaded. He looked about. They didn’t take away the colors, but they took the sting out of them. With relief, Raymond nodded his agreement.
"Fifteen dollar!" exclaimed the merchant joyously.
For a piece of plastic! Back in Echo Valley, the ones on the rack at Smith’s Hardware went for a buck and a quarter. Still, he needed them now, no matter what the cost. Reluctantly, Raymond took out his wallet.
"What is this?" said the vendor with a laugh when he held the bills up to the light. "Funny money." The man pointed to a watermark Raymond had never paid attention to before. In faint capital letters, it said: PROPERTY OF PARAMOUNT STUDIOS. And under it, in tiny black print: Not Legal Tender.
“You have Visa, American Express?”
Raymond looked back blankly.
The merchant made swiping gestures. “MasterCard?”
Raymond had no idea what a master card could possibly be, but always cautious to appear like other people, he smiled back in a sickly, unconvincing way and put the black-framed glasses back on the linen-covered table.
A whine of desperation shot through the merchant’s voice. "Best price in Venice!"
But the spooked customer was loping away.
Raymond could still hear the voice as he hurried away along the Venice Beach promenade.
"Twelve dollar! For you, twelve dollar!"
The plate glass doors were firmly locked when Raymond stood before the theater, panting in long heaves. He leaned against the ornate, gold-leaf ticket booth, waiting to catch his breath. He was going to conquer the heavy air here, he told himself. It would just take time. Already on his climb up Pineapple street, he hadn’t careened about as he had on the descent.
Coddling yourself again, boy?
Raymond shook off the noise in his head and went back to each door, rattling the glass as he tried to jiggle it open. Longingly he looked into the lobby, now darkened.
Maybe there was a secret entrance.
He walked around the building into an alley where the stage door was. But it had no knob. The door must open from the inside, Raymond thought. By the side of the door were stairs leading down to a dark bottom level, under the stage. But that door had no knob either.
Heavy-hearted, Raymond climbed back up into the light. So here he was. On the street, money no good, sun about to set. In a strange alien country. He looked up at the sky as if help might arrive from the clouds, from that hidden hand that had always directed things so smoothly before. He saw only the frieze of weeping maidens in their broken dance, their ruined faces streaked with white.
For a while, Raymond puzzled again over the black door in the wall, feeling along its seams, seeing if there was a way to pry it open.
Several times during the night Raymond returned. But the doors that were locked stayed locked, and the nymphs that seemed to look down upon him in their poignant broken way offered no help at all.
Preview: Like great trees in the forest, men, when they fall, fall hard.