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Up Among the Stars
Movieland - Chapter 4
The zodiac dome of heaven.
Up Among the Stars
Had caution been a part of Dante’s character, had he not been so reckless and full of swagger, he might have heeded the following as an omen:
No sooner did Dante slip through the doors of the balcony than the entire theater fell away. His dark glasses made the blackness profound, and for a moment it seemed the heart of the world had come to a stop.
Then a beam of light streamed forth overhead from the projector booth, dusting the ripped-up balcony seats with pale illumination. The film was beginning below. Its staccato score, all stabbing violins, hinted at what was to come. Across the black screen, titles raced forth: “Twisted,” spelled out in white-hot letters that sliced into jagged halves, zigzagging this way and that, frantic with the music.
The credits faded as the screen brightened into a crisp black-and-white landscape. A long shot of a mountainous western city cast reflected light up on the balcony. The camera wandered, came to a row of windows, seemed to search for the right one, passed it, then turned back and dipped under a windowsill where the shade had been drawn. But Dante was not paying attention.
He was taking in the twinkling stars on the Palatine’s ceiling, hidden till now in the balcony’s darkness. They caught oblique glimmers off the screen, and as his eyes adjusted he began to make out traceries in white on the ceiling, men and beasts, a fantastic bestiary.
The ceiling depicted the night constellations. There was a centaur pulling taut an archer’s bow, a bull with lowered horns, a lion’s head peering majestically out of starry darkness, twin youths connected by umbilical cord, one upside down to the other —all the signs of the zodiac, scattered here and there. In the center, larger than the rest, an athletic Roman maiden, a half moon in her hair, a quiver full of arrows at her back. She steered a chariot pulled by winged stallions. Her form in the chariot cart was faintly circumscribed in a silvery disc, which Dante correctly took to be the moon, for this was the goddess Diana, ruling over the hidden things of night in her silent way.
The movie dialogue below was too mundane to hold Dante’s attention, some crisis between a nurse and a complaining old lady in a wheelchair. He was more intrigued by the broken landscape of balcony rows that flickered in and out of the light, the empty niches with the plaster debris of their toppled gods shattered on the floor beneath them, the shallow figures embossed on the walls, the regal opera boxes come to grief. He began to explore the ruins.
Working his way along the wall on the right, he followed a line of chaste nymphs molded in bas-relief, coming up on their leader, a maiden with the same placid face as the rest, her head bowed, playing a reed flute. By the flickering projector light, the nymphs led him into a bas-relief woodland of fleet leaping stags and dejected peacocks, trailing feathers in heavy trains. A step more and he was in darkness.
He took out his cellphone and clicked it on. It gave off a feeble glow. Turning this way and that, he held up the cellphone and made out that he was in the narrow hallway that ran behind the opera-box bays. Each bay had a locked door that he made a passing attempt to jimmy open, one after the other, but none of the three would yield. Like checking out asses, breaking and entering was an old habit for Dante Alessandro.
At the end of the hallway, he found, to his surprise, a turning where no turning should be. A corner as irrational as it was unexpected. He made the turn, his dim phone light describing the contours of an L-shaped chamber.
As he looked about the black room, he discerned the faint indications of a door on the far wall. It had neither a lock nor a handle and was cunningly camouflaged in a stand of slender bas-relief trees, where, to distract the eye, a lecherous Pan with goaty shanks sat nearby, shaggily crossed-legged on a rock, tootling on a flute made of reeds.
How to enter? Dante held the phone close to the wall and went about the L-shaped chamber, looking for a clue. Around the top, not too high, easy to reach, was a border of embossed cherubs, falling all over each other in mirth. Returning to the far wall, Dante noticed an oddity. Not too far to the left of the door, amid the tumbling and kibitzing glee, one of the cupids was in high relief and more crudely rendered than the others. Dante tugged on the fat babe and felt it detach slightly from the wall. All he had to do now was listen. Pressing his ear against the wall he rotated the wings by slow degrees, this way, then that, listening for the tumblers to fall into place. Which, one by one, they did.
Dante smiled and thought of his Uncle Vinny, a career second-story man, constantly serving jail terms for one impulsive burglary or another. Uncle Vinny had taught him skills. The 14-year-old Dante even snuck off to go on some jobs with bad-boy Uncle Vinny, getting all blacked up in black chinos and hoodie. It was a kick breaking into locked windows, barred doors and stubborn little safes. He had a real gift for it, Vinny told him.
Actually, they were cousins. Vinny was only eight years older than Dante but had the tense, hangdog look of someone who had seen too much, eking out a rough, improvised existence on the outskirts of big anonymous cities. Still, it was a form of respect in old-fashioned Italian families that senior males be granted the honorific of ‘uncle.’ And when Vinny was passing through Philly, on the lam from one thing or another, young Dante loved hanging out with him. His bad-boy uncle always had a joint to share behind the garden shed, or a dirty story, or a stripper girlfriend, or some too-hot-to-fence swag that he’d slip to the young teen. In no time, Dante became amazingly swift and effective at lock picking. Uncle Vinny said Dante was “big time” with an air of pride, acknowledging in an unspoken way that he himself would always be a second-rater.
Dante thought he was big time too. But unlike Uncle Vinny, he did not see revolving prison terms as a great career path.
Dante did enjoy breaking and entering, though. Tricking out locks was just a game to him, another puzzle, and he was good at puzzles. Now he used that skill to puzzle over people, figuring out what they wanted most and how to work that to his advantage.
With a soft metal click, the door gave way.
Just at that moment, his cellphone, which had not been attended to for awhile, went dark automatically. Unaware that this might be a second omen, Dante was too excited to care. Jesus, he still had it! He had won the battle with the fat little cupid. What a rush! Full of his awesome self, not knowing any better, Dante stepped from the darkness of the L-shaped chamber into the much vaster darkness behind the door.
Time was about to move on without him.
Preview: Right about this time the film breaks… or seems to.
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