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by Ken O’Steen
It was morning in America, as Ronald Reagan was proclaiming in his campaign ads, but remarkably, it was still dark at night, and cold. I fumbled with the keys, hands stiff after taking off my gloves. The lock finally turned, and I pulled open the heavy metal door.
This is how it would begin. I would walk through the lobby and go behind the counter and drape my leather jacket over the tall swivel chair. I would check the carbonation and the syrup in the drink machine. If either of them was low I would replace the canister.
I would climb the stairs to the projection room, which also was a storage space, where the popcorn maker resided, and drink cups and boxes of candy were stored. I would turn on the lights in the auditorium, and find a tape to insert in order to fill the place with music. Tonight, French jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty.
The movie was King of Hearts, the story of a town in France, near the end of World War One, when a British soldier arrives to defuse a bomb. What he discovers is that mental patients from the asylum there have taken charge of the town in the wake of the German retreat. It seemed fitting during morning in America.
In the center of the room was a series of spools. That was where the film was. It wasn’t on a large reel as they sometimes were. The film came off its spool, went down through the projector, then came out of the projector down at the bottom, and wrapped around an empty spool. I opened the projector up, threaded the film through, clamping the holes firmly onto the sprockets. Then I closed the projector, pulled the film over to where the spools were, and connected it to an empty one. After that, I put oil and popcorn into the machine and turned it on.
I descended the stairs, went into the auditorium, turned on the lights in the restrooms, and then the lights that illuminated the movie posters in the frames on the wall in back. I returned to the top of the stairs, carried the popcorn in its container down to the kiosk where it belonged, and dumped it in.
Fifteen minutes before the feature, I would open the doors. That night they trickled in as they always did, young and old, students and bohemians, the curious, the bored. I pulled a ticket off the roll and handed it to them, put the money in the drawer, and handed them back their change. When I was free, I served them at the concession stand.
There was a switch on the wall beside the stool, and I flipped it in order to begin the film. When the lobby was empty, I could dash up the stairs to ensure the movie was moving through the projector, and picking up on the spool as it was supposed to do. Most of the time I would sit reading, except when a patron came out for a box of popcorn or a Diet Coke. That night, I was reading The Last Gentleman, a novel by Walker Percy.
There were fifteen or twenty minutes between the first showing and the second, and it was trickier between the shows, with people coming and going, or wanting concessions during the interregnum, to run upstairs and thread the projector again. But I always managed to do it.
That night, after the movie was over, and everyone was gone from the theater, I went upstairs and put the Jean Luc Ponty in again. I returned to the auditorium to check the restrooms, pick up the trash, and check to see that the exit doors were completely closed. As I was walking back up the aisle, I spotted an old woman stretched out on the floor between the rows of seats, clearly trying to hide.
The theater was near the university, and it specialized in foreign films, classic films and obscure, yet acclaimed films. It was owned by a man who ran a multiplex in another part of town, and though the fare there was rather advanced by the local standards, it was at the smaller place where his cineaste’s soul was allowed to flourish.
It was only seldom crowded, and most nights of the week I would work alone. On Friday nights and Saturday nights, James, a college student, was there to assist me.
I mostly liked the job. There were no bosses around. I didn’t see anyone in authority except when I went to pick my check up at the multiplex. Otherwise, I communicated with the owner, and usually his son, on the telephone.
Except for the days I would come in early in order to splice several reels of a movie together that was starting its run, I would come in at six or so. There was time afterwards to get to a bar for a drink or two prior to last call, and then I could sleep long into the day that followed. Often enough there was a companion for the night, her place or mine, I didn’t care.
The theater was closed Mondays, and that was the only day I needed off, as I never went anywhere or did anything. I was contentedly stagnant, young enough to think that I had forever, if not really that young. I had an education, useless in the middle of a recession, and as an English major probably for eternity. Like many, I majored in English only because obtaining a college degree largely by reading novels seemed obvious other than to a fool. Who cared about English otherwise? It was a language, something people used to order coffee and to hector their spouses. Yes, it could be made beautiful in the hands of an artist, but there weren’t that many of them.
I had dreams, who didn’t? But no plans. I’d do something eventually, having to do with books I thought, though what exactly I hadn’t a clue. Career. I didn’t even like the way it sounded. There was a reek of petty competitiveness, of opportunism, of credentialism, of hollowness, confinement, weakness and a lack of imagination. On the other hand, what the hell was left?
Maude saw me looking at her and knew that she was caught. She had on jeans, a ratty, suede jacket with fringes she must have bought at a yard sale or plucked from the trash. When she stood I could see she was wearing a banged up pair of rubber snow boots.
“What are you doing there?” I asked.
“What does it look like?”
“It looks like you’re hiding on the floor between the seats. There’s nothing in here to steal you know.”
“Steal? Hardly. People willing to steal usually aren’t homeless. They’re the ones who usually end up loaded.”
“May be. But you can’t stay in here. Sorry.”
“I really need to explain that?”
“It’s your decision isn’t it? Not anybody else around.”
“I don’t own the place.”
“You’re autonomous as far as this decision goes. No one is going to know but you. Morally you’re solely responsible.”
I rolled my eyes. Who was this? A down and out debating coach?
“People come in here at various times to bring supplies, or to change the cash box or do repair work. So, other people could know. Then I lose my job.”
“My name is Maude,” she said, craftily changing the subject.
“Like the singer?”
“Yes,” I sighed, “like the singer.”
“Why are you sighing? Catch the Wind, what else, Season of the Witch, those were great songs.”
“Yeah, they were good.”
She didn’t appear to be a boozer. She certainly wasn’t stupid. To the contrary, she seemed extremely capable. But she was pretty old.
“Look, it’s really bad out there,” she said, sounding less combative. She was going the compassion route it appeared.
“Yeah, it is,” I admitted, the one feeling defensive now. “How’d you end up like this?” I asked, regretting it immediately, realizing the circumstances didn’t matter at all, and not wanting to hear them anyhow.”
“Blame Reagan,” she said.
“I do” I said, “for practically everything. But this isn’t a place you can spend the night.”
“Did you buy a ticket in order to try and stay? Seems like a risky use of your resources.”
“No, not only for that. I wanted to see the movie. It happens I adore King of Hearts. I’m fluent in French you know. I haven’t seen a French film in ages in fact. I thought I’d see the movie, then stay where it was warm for the night. That is, unless some Scrooge type kicked me out.”
She was actually grinning now.
“Seriously,” she said. “I’ll tuck myself away in here where nobody will see me even if they do come in. I’ll go in the morning.”
I didn’t say anything. I was thinking.
“It’s frigid out there tonight,” she said, “besides times being really hard. Cutting off people’s food stamps and welfare and unemployment benefits. Goddamn Reagan.”
She was squeezing me into the hypocritical liberal corner. I could practically see her arm reaching out giving me a shove. She also had the advantage that I desperately wanted to get to the bar before it closed. Calling in the cops, making a federal case of it would be the end of that.
“Look, stay out of sight,” I said. “If you decide to leave, make sure the door is solidly closed and locked behind you.”
“You have my word. And thank you. I’ll sing at your wedding,” she said cheerily, using an expression I hadn’t heard in a thousand years.
“That won’t be necessary,” I told her.
It was snowing when I stepped outside. Not hard, looked like nothing more than a dusting when all was said and done. But the cold was bitter. And the wind was loaded with razor blades. I walked to my car swearing, and pulling my jacket tight. Raked by bursts of arctic wind, there was a bit more brutal indifference hovering in the streets than usual.
At least everything looked better under a coating of snow. The same old streets and houses, the dreary tree limbs, everything I drove past fifty times a day. Even the campus buildings suddenly had a warming glow.
The bar was just on the other side of the university. The car heater still was blowing cold by the time I got there. I stopped near the radiator just inside the door and stood beside it for several minutes, luxuriating before I got a drink. I remembered Maude back there camping out in the theater. She wasn’t your ordinary homeless person, that was for sure. If there were such a thing as ordinary homeless people. Not that I knew any.
A little snow perked things up. Everyone was a little friskier, a little sparkier. Was there such a dynamic as a cheerful camaraderie of inclemency?
I had never spoken to the woman who came back to my apartment with me, not until that night at least. I had noticed her though. She had beautiful deep dark hair and eyes. From a distance she appeared aloof, friendly enough, perhaps quietly, subtly mischievous. Mischievous in a way you were never exactly aware of, or at the least, sure of.
It felt cozy at home, yet odd, when another person was there. Something incongruent in the atmosphere. In the dim bedroom, Laurie, that was her name, was in no typical way provocative. She smoldered there in the shadows waiting for you.
Her chest was rather flat, something I tended to like. I must be some kind of anti-mammary freak, I told myself. An anti-mammarian. You were supposed to salivate over big knockers, but I was out of the mainstream even on that.
It was less than surprising when I opened the door to the theater, and Maude was sitting there on the ottoman in the lobby.
“I was getting ready to go back in there,” she told me before I could say a word. “I have no idea what time it is in this place.”
“There’s a clock right there,” I said, pointing to the one on the wall of the lobby after I turned the lights up.
“I didn’t notice. It’s dark in here. It’s a cave.”
“Most of our overnight guests don’t complain,” I said.
“That’s good,” she answered, smiling.
“Thanks. But you need to go back into the auditorium.”
I had no idea what I was going to do about her.
“No problem. When does the movie start?”
“Thirty minutes or so.”
“Don’t you eventually need to eat?” I asked.
She opened up the big green bag on the floor beside her and pointed to a box of saltines, several tins of sardines, and an Almond Joy.
The audience was the same as the night before. Students, taking a break from studying or dawdling in the dorm, a few Francophiles and cinephiles, a few lonely souls, and one or two diverting themselves from overbearing existential dread no doubt. Thank god for movies.
I sold some Milk Duds and large Cokes, read another chunk of The Last Gentleman, and switched out the carbonation tank. After the movie was finished and the auditorium emptied out, except for Maude of course, I locked the doors, and ran through my usual list of chores. Maude came out from the auditorium and made herself at home on the ottoman.
I’d decided to take a pass on the bars for a night. I was getting the sniffles, and besides, I’d had quite the nice time the night before. Go home and get some sleep. I still wanted a beer and a bite to eat though.
“I’m going down the street for pizza,” I said to Maude. “I’ll get enough for the two of us.”
“I like the sound of that.”
I still didn’t know what I was going to do. She could stay again tonight, but then what? If I let her stay beyond that, and she tipped off others in a similar situation as hers, and they all ended up buying movie tickets, I could find myself running a de facto homeless shelter. Or else, having to look them in the face while sending them back into the streets again like some unofficial surrogate of the Reagan administration.
I brought a six-pack back, and a couple of slices for her, and a couple for me. We sat on the ottoman having ourselves a picnic. Reticence wasn’t among her problems, whatever others she may have had.
I learned several things. She had studied art in college, and had a minor in French. She’d lived for seven years in Paris.
“I think I might have slept with Louis Malle, the film director, but I’m not positive.”
“Fair enough. At least his movies are memorable.”
“Murmur of the Heart and Atlantic City especially.”
I nodded agreement.
“I lived in the Thirteenth Arrondissement for a year or two, and once I was making money working at the frame shop, I moved over into the Ninth Arrondissement, which in Paris you’d definitely consider an upgrade. I had a lot of male friends, pals and lovers both, lived it up in cafes and galleries, a real cliché. But wonderful. Paris was still getting back to normal after the war, a lot of suspicion and recriminations going back to the occupation, ugly politics. And turmoil over Algeria and the rebellion there. It took a while, but finally I got homesick, if you can believe that. Living in Paris.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “Homesickness has never been a problem of mine. I haven’t been any further than Ontario. For two weeks.”
“Oh, you’re still young,” she said. “Or youngish,” she added with a twinkle, which didn’t take much of the sting out, though she was right of course.
She had taken her shoulder-length gray hair and swept it up into a ponytail, which she held together with a purple ribbon. She still had the bangs in front, and she looked younger, closer at least to sixty-four, which was how old she had told me she was. At first I’d pegged her closer to seventy-four. She wasn’t the hard-bitten homeless type. She’d only been on the streets a couple of months.
As she explained it, “I only got married in my forties. I just liked having different kinds of jobs, instead of one, and I had all this time for drawing, or reading, or whatever took my fancy any given minute, you know. Even after I married Henry, it didn’t really change. We didn’t live hand to mouth or anything, but we lived on a modest income. We didn’t save a penny. He was an instructor here at the university for years, never a tenured professor. He didn’t care, just taught his couple of courses each semester. And he was brilliant, when it came to opera. Knew more than anyone. He had a beautiful voice too, my Henry. And he always took me to French films whenever there was one in town.”
“Ah,” I said, some leeriness apparent in my voice perhaps. I knew, obviously, the direction the story was headed, and I thought she might have picked up a slight whiff of angst in the air. In any case, she must have elided some of the grislier details.
“So you know, even before he got sick, he had chronic asthma and a thyroid thing, and nobody would have sold him insurance, even if he’d had the money. So the bills left behind were substantial. We rented, we didn’t own the house. Nothing really to sell. I got a blood clot in my leg, and some other nuisances that piled up the bills more. Nothing out of the ordinary. But we were gadflies. Ill prepared really. But even if I could have seen into the future I couldn’t have lived another way. I wouldn’t have. And certainly not Henry. He was so wonderfully eccentric. Even more than me,” she added, laughing.
She held up her hand, and said, “just a minute.” She dug down into the green bag, pulled out a small change purse, and held up a picture of a man with long white hair, leathery skin, and a ridiculously wide smile.
“You know,” I said, “I think I recognize him. I think he came in here a couple of years ago.”
“He was known to wander off by himself to a movie every once in a while.”
“The reason I remember is that we were running The Passenger by Antonioni, and I mispronounced the name. And he actually corrected me. I’m almost sure it was him.”
She was beside herself, happy and sad laughter at once.
“Had to be,” she said. “He spoke Italian. He knew his librettos.”
She’d been unable to pay the rent eventually, had no friends or family to speak of. And it was hit the bricks. It didn’t sound like she’d been particularly daunted.
“I’m an adventurer,” she said, “in my way at least.”
“Without a roof over my head I’d be a basket case.”
“It was a relief in a way. I was sad, I wanted to be sad, but I had to spend all of my time feuding with bill collectors and medical offices, and then the county over an EMS bill, and on and on. I had to be on guard, at fighting readiness every second of the day, when all I wanted was to be by myself and be sad. The good news is, I get some Social Security, a pittance, since I didn’t earn that much, and Henry died before he was even eligible. But I use it to eat and keep clothes that are warm on my back. The better news is if I can tough it out seven more months, there’s a senior living apartment with subsidies I’m eligible for. I’m already high on the list. From there I’ll manage fine. Medicare kicks in. Hooray. Unless Reagan screws it all up.”
“Never put it past him.”
We drifted to other, more pleasant subjects. She told me about seeing Godard’s Breathless during the original run in Paris. I asked her if I was missing anything reading Stendhal and Flaubert in translation, and she said, “I’m afraid so.”
It was then that the big green metal door lurched open. In came the owner’s son. We’d finished off the six-pack, and I’d actually crumpled up the cans like a moron and tossed them onto the carpet. He stopped in his tracks and stared.
“What are you doing?”
“Just beer and pizza.”
“Why’s she here?”
“I have to let you go.”
“Seriously. You can’t work here anymore.”
The truth was he was a spoiled brat, with a strong innate predisposition for being a massive dick, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. One more petty authoritarian to rule the world, or his little slice of it at least.
After he left, Maude became profusely apologetic, to the point of being gravely distraught. I assured her, it only would have been a matter of time before I ran afoul of the prodigal son.
“Anyhow, I’ve been treading water here long enough, really. I’ve known that.”
It hadn’t snowed much, but what little it had still was on the sidewalk, frozen hard. The cold was ferocious. I asked Maude if I could drive her anywhere. I mentioned a homeless shelter.
“No way,” she said, alarmed. “There’s only one, and it’s a blooming nightmare. Just mayhem.”
“Maybe there’s somewhere else?”
“I have a place I go sometimes on the other side of campus. But I’ll just walk there. I’ve caused you trouble enough.”
“That’s not true at all. I’ve brought back beer and pizza plenty of times. He could have shown up any one of them. I’ve just been lucky on the beer thing.”
“A hard and fast rule they have I guess.”
“Maybe. But he likes to be a prick.”
She smiled. “Well, I’ll get on my way, Donovan. I do love your name by the way. Try not to end up like me if you can avoid it. I’ll be fine though. See you.”
“Take care, Maude.”
I hoped she wasn’t offering herself at the last minute as a cautionary tale of any kind. She wasn’t, far as I was concerned. But I thought, if my life turned out as rich as hers, I would take my chances.