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Movieland - Chapter 6
We grant the stars the prerogative of a delayed entrance.
Well, that was a disaster.
Tom packed up his briefcase in the empty theater, reflecting on his first, much-ballyhooed class at the Palatine and the film that wouldn’t run. He had been forced to wing it with an abridged version of the lecture that was supposed to be given on Thursday, only after the film was shown, padding out the remaining hour with a patchwork of questions and answers on scattered aspects of the Thorncraft filmography.
After the last student left, Tom invited Miriam up to the balcony landing, where he led her to a side door, then up narrow steps to the projection booth. It was a cozy workaday room, white-walled and plain, unlike the rest of the ornate theater. Here he made his pitch.
Could Miriam be persuaded, he wondered, to trust him with her father’s personal print of Twisted, pointing to the gleaming projectors upon which the precious master copy might be unspooled. They were legendary RKO Webcores, once the acme of movie technology, seemingly untouched from the late ‘60s.
Then he stood back and let Kashi launch into his earnest AV mumbo jumbo, looking like the swami of all things technological in his immaculate white turban, demonstrating with his slender, brown fingers, that it was not the projector that had snagged Twisted, but Twisted that had snagged the projector. (This, however, was merely Kashi picking up on what was needed and saying the necessary, as no actual jam was ever located.)
Miriam looked from one to the other, the gentleman professor, the princely young raj, and allowed herself to be cajoled. She was rather beguiled by Kashi, Tom could see. Infatuated by all things exotic, in her patrician way. “Why,” she exclaimed, “you look like a prince out of the Arabian Nights!” Poor modest Kashi blinked rapidly in astonishment, his eyes so large and white in the smooth coffee-brown face.
Now they were gone, and the theater was silent. Tom was packing up at the lectern. Behind him, the enormous white screen stared blankly out at the empty seats.
What was that?
He turned. A moan had come from the screen.
Was someone backstage? Tom went to explore, hastening across the stage into the wings, rounding a jumble of ropes, coming upon a scene much too quickly that made his heart jump.
It looked at first too theatrical, like it was a still-life vignette, for out of the surrounding darkness, a blonde woman lay passed out in a spotlit pool of light. She was drenched, lying in a puddle of seawater, droplets leaking from her wet, clinging hair, her soggy white cashmere coat now filthy and ruined. What made the moment truly breathtaking was that Tom recognized the ghostly pale woman. The white cashmere coat alone was iconic!
It was impossible, but here before him was the actress Madeleine Gray as she had been 50 years ago! Voluptuous, unconscious, heaving heavily, dressed as she had been in Fog, Thorncraft’s supreme masterpiece. But this was exceedingly peculiar because the real Madeleine Gray was in her 70s! A beautiful woman once who always seemed to be somewhat asleep, dreaming with her eyes open, Madeleine Gray was one of the School of Marilyn stars, an ethereal version: airy, alabaster, with swept-back hair that was more ash-white than blonde. Now an astonishing facsimile of her young spectral beauty lay before him … not simply the actress, but the actress in character.
Someone was playing a fantastic joke on him.
Someone had read his book on Fog, knew how passionate he was about the film — a haunted San Francisco submerged in fog,… the somnambulant heroine, Eden, drifting through a museum. The portrait, the lighthouse, the claustrophobic detective. Lingering images in Tom’s memory … Eden, wandering about in her ghostly white coat, disappearing over a hill, her sheer black scarf caught in an updraft. This beautiful phantom …there… and then… not there.
Someone had read between the lines.
He crouched down to get a better look.
All at once, the soaked woman came to with a jolting gulp of air. She sat up — the effort made her grimace —and stared at him, dazed.
“I’m … free,” she murmured, amazed. “I’m really out!” She looked about, searching the darkness. “Did I drown…? No,” she whispered, “that was before.” She glanced at him now with a start, seeing him for the first time. Reflexively she checked herself, saw her coat had fallen open, saw her blouse had turned sheer. Hurriedly she buttoned up the top of her trim gray suit and pulled the limp, wet coat about her. Its dampness made her shiver.
“Are you okay,” he asked.
Her smooth brow furrowed. "I’m …"The question seemed to puzzle her. Instinctively, as if protecting herself, her hand went up to her throat, fingers spread, resting lightly on her collarbone. Finally, she gave up with an exhausted sigh. “I … don’t know what I am.” Even in this languid state, Tom was picking up a pitch-perfect imitation of Madeleine Gray. The smokey cinematic voice, full of low tones, breathy catches.
He put out his hands, offering to help her up.
“I just need to sit for a moment,” she replied
“How did you get back here?”
Again she seemed to drift, hesitating. “I … must have broken out! Out of that whirling—” And she gasped, seeming to relive the experience. “That whirling storm!”
“Pardon?” said Tom, “I don’t follow. You broke out?”
“From the cave” she replied as if that were the most obvious thing in the world and pointed to it.
“But that’s the back of a movie screen.”
She echoed his last words, perplexed. They seemed new to her.
“You’re in Venice, “he continued. “You’re at the Palatine—“
“Venice?… Italy? No, that can’t be right.’” She rubbed her forehead. Odd, but her ghostly complexion seemed to be getting brighter as if powder was at that moment freshly applied. Light too was banishing the flatness in her eyes, which were coming into their fullness, that famed lavender shade.
What! Tom scoffed at himself: lavender shade was studio spin. Madelene Gray had the sort of pale eyes that picked up the colors around her. The star-makers in the publicity department gave her a favorite color, and so when not dressed in dramatic black velvet gowns by Jean Louis, with plunging backs to expose the stunning whiteness of her bare skin, she was arrayed in soft lavender pastels. But that was Madeleine Gray. This was some amazing imposter!
“The last thing I remember …“ She grimaced and placed a flattened hand on the wood planks to steady herself. “I mean, the last real thing was the water. Coming up over me. Oh, god!” And she shuddered. “I had fallen, I think, into San Francisco Bay—” She stopped abruptly and frowned. Slowly, with dawning comprehension, “Yes … I had forgotten until this moment.” She looked at him, astonished. “That’s where I’m from … San Francisco!”
Fallen into San Francisco Bay? That was a famous turning point in the film Fog. Except whoever coached her had not done their homework. Eden had not fallen into the bay. She had jumped.
If this was a prank, and what else could it be, it was, well, a rather wonderful and elaborate one. To be the target of so meticulous … a charade?… an art piece? … an acting assignment? They had even gone to the length of drenching the poor girl in seawater to make it eerier, but where had they found so exact—
His reverie was broken by a moan. She was struggling to stand, gripping her side. “Please,” she said in that smokey Madeleine voice. “I don’t think I can do it on my own.”
He lifted her to her feet —she was surprisingly light for so full-bodied a woman— and as he brought her to him — so curvy and soft in the style of the ‘50s, of Madeleine Gray — she grimaced again. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Everything hurts,” she murmured.
Unable to stand on her own, slumping damply against him, the droplets that clung to her hair brushed his cheek. She was trembling. “I’m so cold.”
“Here,” he said and helped her out of the limp, waterlogged coat. “Oh, my.” She gripped his arm. “Everything is spinning.” She held onto him as he draped his tweed jacket over her shoulders. He folded the ruined cashmere coat over his arm, pressing it to him, feeling its cold, clammy presence seep through into his blue pinstriped shirt. Bracing her firmly around the waist now with his free arm — for clearly, she could not walk on her own — he started for the wings. The backstage was cluttered and in disarray, and they kept bumping into objects in the dark, ropes hanging loosely. Zigzagging through this gauntlet of unexpected scrapes and snags, he had almost steered her clear into the wings when she pulled away, turned sharply.
“What is it,” he asked, looking behind him.
“I thought I …”
He squinted into the dimness. His eyes were adjusting now. Nothing there but painted backdrops and oversized props left over from long-ago stage shows. But hadn’t there been a softly lit pool of light too, right where he found her? Hadn’t it been a beacon that led him directly and rather smoothly through the jungle of ropes? He looked about. He wasn’t sure in all the confusion. If so, the pool of light was gone.
“Just nerves,” she conceded with a sigh.
She took his arm, hanging on it with much of her weight. It felt unexpectedly intimate. “I was always a frightened child,” he was surprised to hear her begin. “Always…” Her voice dropped to a silky whisper. “Susceptible…. Thunder and lightning… heights, it still…” A mournful look crossed her face. “It’s like something is waiting…something…” She spoke dreamily. “…coming to carry me off .. into the shadows... into darkness. Oh, I had many childish names for it. But later I learned to call it …”
Tom could finish the line for her.
“Fate,” she said grimly.
This was famous dialogue from the film Fog. The breathy hesitancy, the sudden fall off to a whisper — she had nailed it.
The woman sighed, seeming to come back to herself. “I think I just need to sleep.” And for the first time, she gave him a wan smile.
They came out onto the stage. The theater was no longer under the dull house lights but in its natural state, dramatically lit, as if waiting for a performance. “Can we sit for a moment,” she asked, a bit winded.
"Certainly.” He helped her down the small steps at the side of the stage. They were too narrow for two, and he had to place the soggy coat on the stage so he could take her by both hands, walking backward down the steps. For a moment she wavered. He righted her. “I’m still a bit woozy,” she apologized.
Gently he guided her into the nearest seat in the front row. She sank into the red plush and closed her eyes. But only for a moment. Remembering herself, she sat up properly and raked her ash-white hair back with both hands. It settled in damp, thick strands close to her head, giving her a sleek, sophisticated look
He was about to fold the retrieved coat over the next seat when she stopped him. He gave her the coat as she asked. Though it had been ever-white, ever-virgin throughout the filming of Fog, the cashmere was now streaked with black gunk and tugboat oil that smelt of brine.
It was sad to see so debased a duplicate of that famous ghost-white coat. The cashmere coat in Fog has its own little fan base. It stood out in every scene, so pure, so much a metaphor for the haunted Eden. The eye followed it as the wintry heroine went about the slanted streets of San Francisco, disappearing at one memorable point into a flower shop where our hero loses her amid the profusion of floral pinks, yellows, reds. The whitness of the coat, the paleness of the heroine seems overwhelmed, vanished, eclipsed somewhere between the bright chrysanthemums and the coral gladioli.
“I need to find …” She spoke breathlessly as she dug through the pockets. “If I may ask another favor … I would like to go to a hotel. I just need to sleep and sleep. Oh, where is it! It must have slipped away in the water! My wallet purse! What am I going to do now!’
“We’ll figure something out,” Tom said soothingly. “By the way what is your name?”
But before she could catch her breath, he knew how she would answer.
“Eden,” she said.
“Of course,” he replied. He took the seat at her side. Gently, he tried again. “And your other name?”
It took a moment. He almost didn’t want the charade to end.
“Windess!” she said suddenly, with an air of discovery. “Eden Windess!” The recovery of a last name seemed to ground the young woman, and she stared off distractedly into the distance as if following wherever the Windess name might lead.
Tom began to wonder now if this were something more than a charade. Perhaps as a beautiful little girl, she had always been told she looked like Madeleine Gray, a star from the 1950s that nobody thought about anymore. The little girl might have cut out pictures from yellowed movie magazines, dreamed that Hollywood dream of being someone more extraordinary. At some point, she must have seen Fog, a few times, many times, drinking in the lines, absorbing the inflections. Then one day, one Sunday, she reads of his course and the hoopla around the Palatine Theater. Fog is mentioned among the films that will be shown in their original big-screen glory. She thinks she will slip into the theater with the students, and wouldn’t it be fun that first day to dress up exactly as the heroine of Fog.
Maybe not fun.
This was a troubling thought. What if she had been dressing up as Eden for a while now! Somewhere found a knock-off of the iconic white cashmere coat, the almost-as-famous trim Edith Head gray suit. Had walked into his theater, this Olympian palace that encouraged make-believe with its vintage Hollywood splendor, its mythological figures on pedestals, and had had a sudden, terrible psychotic break—
Just then the woman inhaled, sharply gripping her side. She was trying to lift the coat. He took it from her and placed it on an empty seat. Now he was truly concerned.
“Perhaps,” he said carefully, “we should stop at a hospital first.”
“No!” Her eyes came alive. “No hospitals!” Her hand flew up to her neck, fingers spread, resting on her clavicle. “I won’t …” She spoke in gasps. “… won’t be put … in one of those places!” Panic rouged her cheeks. You never saw that in the film, where the heroine’s wintry complexion was always a composed white-on-white.
“Okay,” he said hastily, pressing the hand that had raised such an alarm. “We don’t have to. We won’t.” He tried to meet her gaze, but her eyes were downcast. She pulled her hand away.
For a long moment, there was silence.
Then she seemed to collect herself. Lifting her beautiful blonde head proudly, her slicked-back hair in rows of orderly streaks and strands, she turned to him. “I didn’t mean to raise my voice.” She sounded painfully embarrassed. “I’m not at my best today.” There was something very fine about this, something well brought up, as if she had boarded at an old-fashioned finishing school for upper-class girls, where the ideal was to be beautiful and poised at all times and never ever to raise one’s voice in an unguarded moment. “I’ve always been leery of doctors.”
“Like thunderstorms and the dark?” he helped, with a sympathetic smile.
“I know it’s silly.” She looked away, disheartened.
Tom stood. “Come. You’re cold, and you’re wet, and I think a bit frightened. You’ll take a nice warm bath at my apartment and rest in a nice big bed.”
A cloud passed over her face. She seemed not to know what to do next. Then something clicked in, a finishing school response. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”
Tom understood immediately. “You’ll be quite safe,” he promised. He cocked his head in a lighthearted way. “I’m completely housebroken.”
But the woman gave him a lost look
“Alright, I’ll take you to a hotel then, if you wish. We can use my credit card — y-you don’t know what a credit card is?” he wondered, reading her deepening confusion. “Really? It means your problem for today is solved. But what about tomorrow? You’ll wake up in an empty hotel room, on your own, still not sure of who you are, where you are. Is that what you want?”
She looked away and again made what Tom realized was a characteristic gesture when she was ill at ease: her hand went up to her collarbone and delicately rested on it with the tips of her fingers. She turned back to him.
“W-would you mind taking off your glasses?” she asked.
“Just for a moment. I want to see your eyes.”
He did as she asked.
“You can tell a lot from a person’s eyes. Who they are…where they’re going.”
It sounded like a spooky line from the film. “And mine?” he asked.
She was gazing at them intently. “Kind eyes … lived in … they’ve seen…” She turned away and seemed to look inward now, with a troubled expression. “They’ve been … hurt. They’re stronger now,” she added.
“Here,” he said firmly, “take my hand.”
Now, this was an odd thing, quite amazing, but the firmness in his voice, the directness of this simple command seemed to have an absolute power over her as if she were indeed a character in a film, and his statement was a direction in capital letters, like the camera directions in a script: THE WOMAN TAKES THE STRANGER’S HAND.
Hesitantly, she placed her hands in his, squeezing them as she rose, coming up close to his face. My, but she was a ringer for the young Madeleine Gray! The snowy complexion, the white platinum hair, the palest of pink lips. And to set it off in high-fifties drama, the black arching eyebrows, the soft outlined eyes.
She settled into the tweed jacket as he arranged it about her shoulders.
“Tomorrow,” he told her, “in the morning, we’ll sort things out.”
“We’ll do a proper search. Clear things up.”
“Tomorrow,” she repeated pensively. She searched his eyes, troubled. “Thank you.” Her voice was sultry, she couldn’t seem to help that. “You’re being so good to me … it’s just that…”
“Should I know your name? I’ve forgotten so many things lately.”
“It’s Tom. Tom Day. And we’ve just met.”
“Oh, that’s a relief.” She smiled warily.
Now he made a calculated decision. “Is there something else … Eden?”
She met his eyes. Being called by her name, or the name she had claimed for herself, seem to bring a light to her cheeks. “May I beg one more favor— do you mind?”
His arm was now securely around her waist. “I’m sure I won’t mind at all.” They started up the aisle.
“You’d think it would be the last thing I’d want.” The silence in the theater made her husky, exhausted voice carry. “But I’m terribly thirsty.”
“There’s a water fountain in the lobby,” he said, adding brightly, “and starting today, I’m told, it’s working again! Aren’t we lucky.”
But her reply was solemn. “Yes, I am lucky. Lucky that it was you, and not … not someone else who found me.”
They were almost at the door when she went paler than pale and pulled away.
“What is it,” he asked.
The aisle’s slight incline had left her breathless. She turned now to look behind her, one hand gripping his arm. “I keep having this … feeling…someone is watching me!”
Tom turned now too. The theater, dramatically lit, with lights and shadows, gave nothing away.
She was contrite. “It’s just the shock, I guess,”
“Of being here.” She searched his eyes for understanding. “It’s as if I’ve woken from a dream … only to find I’m in another dream.”
This too was a famous line from the film.
“You’re overtired,” he said.
They came out into the lobby. He brought her to the water fountain, a beautiful marble confection in the shape of an open clamshell that had been recessed into a small grotto, itself a larger shell that might have carried Botticelli’s Venus unto the shore of the Palatine. The young woman held onto the scalloped sides of the fountain, as Tom opened the water spigot— an exuberant, leaping dolphin.
Dipping down, she took a long drink and came up, swaying, panting. He caught her. “I’m alright, really,” she insisted. Again, he held her as she took a longer sip, this one between gulps of air. Straightening, she careened wildly in his arms, but his grasp was firm. Tom knew enough not to mention hospitals again, but he could not conceal the concern in his eyes.
“It’s the air here, I think.” She was trying to make some sense of it, and her voice was strained. “I can’t seem to catch my breath. The air is wrong … somehow. Heavy.” Her beautiful smooth brow furrowed. “Like I’m trying to breathe underwater. Like I’m …I’m still drowning!” She glanced up at him and in the manner of a dutiful schoolgirl confided, “I’m not making much sense today, am I?”
“You’re doing fine.”
Tom was just about to brace her up again when he heard something rustle. He swung around. The lobby was well-lit, benefiting not only from its own lights but from the bright afternoon that penetrated the series of plate-glass doors.
Nothing but a flotilla of dust sailing through a slant of light. The carpet of raised roses stretched silently to the defunct candy counter, looking mundane and freshly vacuumed.
Just his imagination then.
But it wasn’t imagination.
Someone was watching them, had been watching them from the start.
Another stranger from a limbo land, who had passed through the cave, passed through the whirling storm, and then passed out as he hit the hardwood stage. He came to before she did. But unlike the woman who called herself Eden, this stranger felt but did not buckle under the heavy air.
Everything was heavier when you took on a dimension. The transition made you ache, and this stranger had ached, but he was hardened to aches from boyhood, becoming accustomed to dips in the oxygen level from leading mountain-climbing tours for the summer people who came to his mother’s rustic motel, a dozen detached log cabins in a semi-circle, with a neon sign out near the upward climbing road. The sign had some internal electrical weakness because the letters would go out and come back on at random, an irritability that went deep through the wiring for the neon was always flickering. “The Fireside Log Cabins,” as it was called on the postcards his mother had printed up when she was still alive, “in the shadow of Echo Mountain, by the placid waters of Fallen Moon Lake.”
He had awakened on the hard plank floor of the stage. Everything felt broken, but the lanky young man sat up dizzily. The sound of panting. Someone was nearby. He looked and had to look again. It was so extraordinary that in his dizziness he took the body at first to be glowing, like something he had seen on a dusty album cover stored in the attic, a mystical Viking virgin lying in a pool ringed with fire.
Throbbing with pain, he crawled his way toward the celestial vision only to find the fire was no fire at all but a spotlit pool of light. The mystical virgin was simply a woman. Human, alive, struggling to breathe. Yet so unreal, so beautiful. So unlike the others, the ones who came banging at the door at 2 a.m. when they got lost on the road, attracted by the flickering of the faulty motel sign, leaning over the register with their penetrating perfume, sleepily appraising him with worldly eyes. He mustn’t think of them now. They were his sister’s doing.
This woman was a chaste blonde being that had descended from some snowy holy mountain. For him and him alone, she had—
But then he saw something that crashed his reverie. She was drenched through and through, her soiled coat sprawled open, and her soaked blouse clung wetly to soft, full breasts. Brazenly, she wore nothing underneath!
And though the stranger was a grown man of twenty-seven, he scrunched his eyes shut like a schoolboy, feeling the heat at his cheeks. But the disturbing afterimages persisted, the pale areolae beneath the white blouse, the pert nipples. Turning away, he gingerly lifted the soggy coat by its lapels and pulled it closed to cover the sight. Only now could he risk a squint, a peek.
She was perfect again.
He was looking into her beautiful face, starting to dream, when there were heavy footsteps on the wood planks. The stranger had enough presence of mind to scramble into the darkness, scraping his leg against some sharp stage prop, rubbing the bruise as he watched from behind hanging ropes.
An intruder had come upon the stage. An awful man in black-framed glasses who crouched down beside the woman. They were talking: her voice smokey and hesitant; his, low and smooth. The stranger leaned forward against the ropes as she spoke of caves and storms and things only he understood. Then the intruder, the thief, took her away!
The young man followed, limping —his sides hurt so much—slipping in and out of the shadows, watching them finally from the deep recesses of the wings.
“Eden,” he whispered to himself when she divulged her name to the cruelly insistent interloper. Eden. He closed his eyes to embrace it. Eee-den. He called to her silently from somewhere deep within, certain she would answer in her mystical way, not so the invader could hear, but with something deep within herself that could not deny him. A secret channel coursing between them.
He began to dream, and as often happened when this young man was dreaming, time played tricks on him. Abruptly his eyes opened. With a flash of pain, he saw she was leaving, going up the aisle, saw her slump against the man!
The moment they exited and the auditorium was clear, he stepped out into the light. Recklessly, he loped up the incline of the aisle, refusing to give in to the prickling pain bristling through his body. He slipped into the lobby, hid behind an ornamental drape, peeked out as she swayed at the water fountain. An electric spasm made him go to grip his side, but the curtain rustled, and he ducked back into its folds. Waited … waited … heard a plate glass door whoosh open, then the slow swoosh as it closed. A moment of distress. Then he rushed out after them … blindly into the street … blindly into the bright, garish daylight.
Everything glared up at him. He shielded his eyes, squinting through his fingers, and peered down the hill.
All trace of her gone in the bleary sunlight!
Now came the wicked snickering at his ear. The little girl that sometimes appeared at his side was just out of eyeshot.
“Go away, Ruby,” Raymond said darkly. “Go back to the attic.”
Preview: A quiet boy. Isn’t that what they always say when they find the bodies?