Today is Tuesday, the day they bathe the Cuban Chili Pepper. I can hear them getting ready in the hall outside my room, Lawrence grumbling and sighing as he gets the chair unlimbered and the straps unfastened, Rolando whistling and making noises with his mouth like a drum and a steam engine and a tire going flat. And all in one and the same breath. Amazing.
I tilt my good ear toward the door to listen, but she in the next room hasn’t cottoned on to what’s coming down the pike for her, what’s on her immediate horizon, so she hasn’t started up yet. With the screaming and the swearing and the spitting and the sobs and squeals, I mean, and all the other noises the Cuban Chili Pepper was so well-known for back when the screens were black and white and the light was always silver.
Mainly silver, I mean. That silver light. There was color too then, I know, I know, but that’s not the part I want to think about. If I want to remember color, I can turn my head and look out the window at the sun lighting up everything outside like a Howard Hawk’s set, day after day after day every minute, every hour, from six in the morning until after six at night.
There’s your color, all right, as real as oatmeal, and you’re welcome to it. Eat it while it’s hot down to the last grease mark. I’ll wait until it cools first and gets a little darker, thank you.
Lawrence doesn’t really enjoy it, I can tell, the getting them up and the undressing and the pulling them out of bed and the pushing them down into the chair while Rolando makes his mouth noises and fiddles with the straps and buckles and Velcro binders and waits for just the right time to pinion a hand or a foot and then another and another until they’re all fastened down and ready to roll.
Lawrence, as I said, doesn’t enjoy the first part, the getting them ready to take that trip down the hall, then roll left at the intersection and on through the extra-wide door that lets into the bathing room. Water World, I’ve come to call it, because that’s a name most of the crew living here can still recognize and know what I’m talking about. I tried calling it the Esther Williams Commemorative Spa for a while, thinking some of them would like that, maybe see a little wit connected with the title. But none of them did, not even Tory Mimsel, who worked in three of Esther’s pictures and was Best Boy in at least one.
He’s here, Tory is, and has been since the early ’80s, and doesn’t even know his own name anymore, much less who or what Esther Williams was. Is. She’s still outside somewhere, I believe, moving around on her own. Finding her own way to the refrigerator, taking naps on her own schedule and flushing her own toilets, too, as far as I know.
What I was talking about, though, was Lawrence, how he doesn’t enjoy the prep part of the bathing job, the waking them up and strapping them in. What he appreciates, and I know this fact from paying attention and making close observation, is what happens once he and Rolando get them rolled into Water World and one of their chairs hooked up to the dipping mechanism.
It’s like a crane, you see, a long metal arm that bolts to the back of the chair and that swivels around and lifts things up and sinks things down. Once that contraption’s hooked up to a chair it’s got as much flex and movement as a camera crane. And it’s hydraulic and one man can handle it with no more effort than he would have to use to lift a fork from a plate to his mouth to take the next bite of sautéed veal.
Or field peas and cornbread and okra. It depends on the circumstance and just where you find yourself. It’s all timing. You eat what’s before you.
So Lawrence is at the controls, and the man or woman Velcroed into the chair, ex-first lead or ex- second lead or background or production crew, it makes no difference in Water World as the chair swings out over the pool full of bubbling warm suds and gets dipped right down to the chin line. Sometimes it’s further, sometimes as much as a foot below the surface for a second or two, if Lawrence so decides. It’s up to him. He’s the one pushing the buttons and figuring the shot and measuring the focus and the duration of the close-up.
And what the director decides, the director decides, and nobody anymore of our whole bunch can pull any rank as regards exposure to the elements of the scene. Box office and bankability don’t apply any longer. You go where he puts you, and you stay there until he decides he’s got it right. And there is no agent or legal counsel involved in establishing the scene.
The Cuban Chili Pepper’s trip is underway now, and the procession of her chair down the hall toward the turn to the left and then the turn to the right is in hard focus. We’ve already got past the wide shot, and we’re in deep close-up now. We’re tight on the Cuban Chili Pepper’s face, and she is working her mouth for all it’s worth. Or almost all it’s worth. At least what’s left of that million-dollar set of lips, teeth and tongue. It was quite a unit in its day, that mouth.
“Barry!” She’s calling my name as Lawrence and Rolando wheel her past my open door. “Barry, for the fucking love of God, don’t let them take me out of my cottage. Not again, not again.”
And so on and so on, she goes. Most of the rest that I’m able to hear is simply a series of whoops and moans and squeals and sobs, all delivered at the rate of speed which earned her her name in the first place.
The Cuban Chili Pepper! Hot, hot, hot. Fast, fast, fast! A Latin spitfire who takes nothing from no man. Nothing but love, that is, if she so chooses.
That’s the way some of the copy read, as I recall it, some of the first stuff the studio used right after the war when they used her in Havana Nights. Her breakthrough vehicle, I guess they’d call it these days.
“Hold on, Elsie,” I call toward the door. “Stay with it, girlie. It won’t last long.”
“Barry,” she interrupts her cries and moans and screams to say, her voice fading as Lawrence trudges along. “These assholes are going to do things to me. Things I can’t bear.”
“Relax,” I say. “Enjoy it.” But, of course, no one’s close enough to hear me and appreciate the wit. Nobody but Tug Sanders, my neighbor on the other side, so far gone by now he thinks Cream of Wheat is lamb chops.
“Hang in there, Elsie Flattman,” I say to the empty air. “Bend your knees and spread your toes.”
That makes me laugh a little out loud, myself alone as audience again and the best one I ever had and I feel better, good enough to let the weight of my legs dangling off the bed pull me halfway up toward a sitting position.
My ears pop, and the wall across from my bed does a little swoop to the left and then one in the other direction, but the scene rights itself by the time I’m sitting all the way up, and that wasn’t too bad. Not bad at all, in fact, for the first resurrection of the day, and I even allow myself to test the stability of the room in which I sit and the world in which I live by wagging my head back and forth like Johnny Weismuller used to do on the set when he would get water in his ears.
Everything sticks in place despite the maneuver, the wall across the way and the framed print in the middle of it and the small bunch of plastic flowers Myrtice has stuck onto the wallboard with some sort of substance tacky to the touch, like chewed gum.
That temporary stability of all I’m seeing, short though it’s likely to be, is cheery enough to cause me to remember and sing the next line of the old blues number I just quoted to the Cuban Chile Pepper, nee Elsie Flattman. “You know I love you, goodness knows.”
And I did at one time, goodness knows, as the song says, goodness knows, Lord God, I did, I did. Back when she answered to Elsie Flattman when called, and I was still Lester Moye from LaPlata, Maryland, and not one Barry Foxmoor from parts unknown.
She was a child, and I was a child, but where we dwelled was no kingdom by the sea. No, Elsie Flattman and Lester Moye did not enjoy their first encounter in a magic land far removed. It was not a fairytale setting, but it did happen to take place by water, and that has remained a constant, the water part, for as long as I’ve known her.
Even now as I listen to her last squeals coming from down the hall as Lawrence and Rolando bump her chair through the swinging doors to Water World, the wet stuff is playing a large role in the storyline, upfront and in hard focus. Wetness is motif, as a screenwriter would say.
It was off and on, that relationship we had. I suppose I should say, to be truthful, the relationship I had, because for most of the time I knew her and have known her and do know her, Elsie Flattman was all pure object in reference to me. What I mean by that is I was here, and she was always yonder. Somewhere out there just within the range of touch, at least on a part time basis, but just barely, barely, and not enough in evidence even for her to have to admit to it.
So while the Cuban Chili Pepper screams and bubbles and strains at her Velcro bindings in that room full of dampness down the hall, let me remember the first time I saw Elsie Flattman by water.
It wasn’t standing still, contained in a manmade concrete pool that first time. And it wasn’t intended for bathing, that water. It was a river, and it was wide and it was moving, though you couldn’t tell it was by looking at it. The Potomac by the time it gets to George Washington’s house in Virginia is almost a mile wide then, and it’s practically tidal, flat and dark in the summertime and slick enough to skip rocks off of.
It has picked up and is carrying all the filth of the District of Columbia by then, and that is a heavy load to bear, so it’s just easing its way down between Virginia and Maryland as it oozes toward the Chesapeake Bay. It doesn’t make a ruckus, and it doesn’t make a sound. It’s already been flushed, thank you, and by this time in its journey the tanks of the commodes that gave it the kickoff are almost all filled up again. Geographically, we are talking aftermath.
I wasn’t on the good side of the Potomac at the time I met the Cuban Chili Pepper in training. I wasn’t lounging on the greensward of the ancestral home of a national forefather large in American history, gazing at a vista as I sipped a meaningful drink.
No, I was on the Maryland side, across from Mt. Vernon, sitting on the end of a dock with my feet dangling over the edge and watching one of the ride wranglers fishing with a cane pole.
His name was Bud Pickle, and he operated one of the most popular rides at Marshall Hall Amusement Park, the Whip’Em, and he had no idea that the moniker he answered to could be considered by some people as funny. He didn’t have the capacity to understand that fact. Whenever Bud laughed, it was always tentative.
It was midweek, and the time of day was just after supper. The cruise boat that brought passengers down from Washington, DC, the SS Mt.Vernon, had left at four o’clock. Local customers came to the park only at night and the weekend, and everybody who worked at Marshall Hall Amusement Park–the barkers for the games of chance, the ride operators, the bottle boys and the ticket booth girls, the bosses and the security guards, the keepers of the hot dog stand–everybody but me and Bud Pickle, were all holed up in small rooms resting up for the spasm of visitors to come later that evening, if they did. There was not a customer in the park.
“You know what I’m using for bait?” Bud Pickle said to me as he detached something he had caught on his hook. I forget what it was. Not a fish exactly. Something small, dark and nasty looking.
“No,” I said, to be sociable. I still thought at that time in my life you had to respond to everything that popped up and confronted you with a demand, mild though it might be and however inconsequential its source. “What?” I said to Bud Pickle, though I didn’t want to talk to him.
Bud turned away from fiddling with his hook to look at me, the expression on his face the same one that must have appeared on D.W. Griffith’s when he regarded his work and thought it good. Bud’s eyes were closer together than D.W.’s probably were, though, and I don’t imagine the T-shirt Bud was wearing–heavy with grease from close acquaintance to the engine of an amusement park ride–was anything Mr. Griffith would have ever pulled over his head.
And the best I can remember from photographs I have seen and stories I have heard, D.W. had all five fingers on each hand, clear down to the nail. Bud Pickle kept getting parts of his nipped off.
“Nothing,” Bud said and dropped his mouth well open to wait for my surprised response, his eyes dancing.
“Nothing?” I said, giving him what he wanted, puzzlement mixed with a smidgen of awe and a good dollop of eagerness to be enlightened. “How can that work?”
“Nothing,” Bud said, looking back at his hook and poking it with the remainder of one of his digits. “Just a little piece of my shirt tail I tore off and stuck on the point of this hook right here.”
“Fish will bite at a piece of T-shirt cloth?” I said, though I wasn’t looking at the hook or at the shirt tail Bud had pulled up out of his waistband for my inspection and verification that it was missing a piece.
“Things hungry,” said Bud, “will bite at whatever they see in front of them. They’ll worry about where or not they can chew it up and get it down later on.”
“Later on,” Bud Pickle affirmed and flipped his hook and line back over the guardrail into the waters of the Potomac. “After they get whatever it is into their mouth. Then that’s a new job, see. They done got the hard part done.”
“So you have caught some fish like that,” I said.
“What do you think’s in this bucket?” Bud said. “Rhubarb pie?”
I didn’t deign to answer that example, though it was Bud’s best attempt at wit, but I did get up from where I was hanging my feet over the water and walk over to look into Bud’s bucket. It had a little water in the bottom, and it was moiling with several dark-colored fish of a small size all fighting to get their noses down into the element which had sustained them at one time. None of them appeared to have much hope evident in their eyes, yet all but one or two were still in the struggle.
I was leaning over, getting closer to the scene and attempting to identify one of the lead actors, a snaky looking thing with what appeared to be two underdeveloped legs near the front of its body very close to its popped eyes, when it happened.
Somebody laid a hand on my left shoulder and tugged at it as though the owner of the hand wanted me to get out of the way, push me to the side, make room for himself or herself to get at what was of interest and worthy of consideration before us. Move, it said. Shake it. Now.
It was a herself, of course, and not a him, and it was the first time that action was to take place, though I was to experience it in one form or another for the rest of my days, and I mean right up to now, the present moment, where I sit in a well-lit, two-person room in the Spencer Tracy Wing of the South Florida Retirement Facility for Motion Picture Personnel.
It’s got a ring, doesn’t it, that label? It was explained to me once by Mr. Gilpin, a superintendent or two before the one now, Caughran the Drunken Gnome, as I call him, why the name for where we all live doesn’t have more punch to it, more marquee value.
“No metaphor,” Mr. Gilpin said, his eyes bright as he peered out at me from the big swoop of hair that lay across his forehead. “The Board decided unanimously and to a man at the founding that people like you, Mr. Foxmoor, would want it that way. In his wisdom, Sol Golding put it best. ‘They’re sick of stuff being called what it’s not, these show business veterans. They want reality up close and in front. Call it what it is. No more B. S. for these troopers.’ ”
“No more secrets,” I said to his pompadour, “no fancy names. No make-believe.That’s what you’re saying.”
“None,” Mr. Gilpin said and slapped his hand down on my shoulder hard enough to sting. “A spade is a spade, right?”
“And a cemetery is a bone yard,” I said. “Call it that and be done with it.”
But I wander, and that I don’t like to do, unless it’s late at night and my actual eyes are closed and I’m watching the credits for some production roll up on my own personal screen for viewing, and I’m the projectionist making it happen on my inner eye. Which is the bliss of solitude, as the poet said.
The hand, that’s what I’m supposed to be telling about, the hand on my fifteen-year-old shoulder, and the first touch from it as it pulled me aside so its owner could get a good look into that bucket full of creatures fighting for a little more of the life-prolonging properties of water.
“What is it?” the voice said. “Let me see. Let me see it now.”
So the first time I heard her voice, my first experience of that instrument, was by the dark flat wet sheet of the Potomac on the Maryland side, late in the day in the summer of 1939, about a month before Adolph Hitler invaded Poland.
“Yeah, sure,” Bud Pickle said, moving to claim his rights to the bucket at the focus of attention. “Let the little lady see into there at what I caught, Lester. Let her get a load of it.”
So I did, though I hadn’t completed my study yet of what was inside, the strange snaky creature with the legs by its eyes where there shouldn’t be any legs, none at all. I moved out of the way, I dropped everything and stepped aside, and I focused on the person tugging at my shoulder.
Actually, I looked at her hair as she thrust her head forward to look into Bud Pickle’s bucket, and I found myself rubbing my shoulder where her hand had been a second before as though it was bothering me, the way you’ll do if something physically sudden has stung you a little.
Where she had touched me didn’t really hurt, and flesh has no memory, but I could still tell where her hand had been, despite that fact.
“Why, there’s nothing in there,” she said in that voice, its direction this time all the way down, nothing at all like the way it had first sounded when I heard it ordering people out of the way so that its owner could get at what she wanted to see. “Just some ugly little fish.”
“Well,” I said, “what did you think it was going to be? What else would come out of the Potomac this far downstream?”
“Wait a minute,” said Bud Pickle, snatching the bucket back toward him as though it was a child he had been carrying proudly down Main Street and someone had spoken against it somehow. Called it bug-eyed, maybe, or asked when it was going to grow some hair.
“These here,” Bud Pickle said, peering hard into the bucket which he had lifted chest high in a protective instinct, “is real good eating. See that eel? You couldn’t buy nothing like that booster in no store for no amount of money. He’s prime.”
Her hair was what I kept staring at, as I said, and I was doing that for a couple of reasons. First, there was so much of it. Not that it was especially long, I don’t mean that. Girls back then were all wearing it controlled and bobbed with the general appearance of its just having been stamped out by some kind of machine that produced a uniform product.
No, her hair was the required and accepted length and up to the standards of the national hairdo licensing board, if there had been such a thing, but it was dense, thick, concentrated. I swear, at the time I had my first glimpse of it, her hair must have had twice the count of individual follicles per square inch of scalp than the standard woman would have had. And every one of those follicles was filled to capacity, no vacancies to be observed.
The other thing remarkable was the color, and as she stood toe-to-toe with Bud Pickle downgrading his catch from the black water of the Potomac on a hook with no piece of real bait, merely a sketchy symbol of one, I found myself trying to determine precisely just what hues were present in that mass of curl and swoop of tress that would cause the late afternoon light to continue to shift the message it was giving my eyes.
The predominant color here is brown, that river light in Maryland would say. No, it would amend its statement in the next second, not exactly. Auburn, maybe, just now. Wait, darker than that again. On towards true brunette, maybe. Is that an authentic reddish glow that beam of sunlight just picked up? At least we’re not seeing blonde, for certain. There’s color here, there’s pigment a plenty, not an absence of anything. What it appears to be is not a lack, but an abundance, too much of lots of hues and shades and colors, and they’re all fighting to dominate, and the outcome remains in grave doubt.
“I wouldn’t put any part of any one of that bunch in my mouth,” the girl was telling Bud Pickle. “I’m particular about what I eat and where it comes from.”
“Huh,” Bud Pickle said in what he obviously thought was a tone of killing rejoinder. “Huh, huh, huh,” he continued as he backed away, his bucket full of trash life from the river flowing by the home of the Father of Our Country. “I ain’t asking you to. These is all mine, every damn last one of them. Huh.”
Then she laughed and turned to look at me, and the sun shot forth a final beam to attempt to solve the riddle of the color of her hair, but failed again and quit trying. I give it up, the light said. You figure what to call it. I’ve got appointments on the other side of the world.
“Why aren’t you fishing?” the girl said. “Afraid you might catch something?”
“I don’t like fish,” I said, my eyes still fixed on the abundance of hair before me. “They don’t smell good. They taste funny.”
“Real fish don’t. Just what comes out of this old river is what tastes bad.”
By this time Bud Pickle had moved his bucket and his pole and line as far down the pier and away from us as he could without leaping into the Potomac itself, so I felt emboldened enough to attempt to change the subject. That was the first time I tried that with her, and it never worked for long, though I have been employing that strategy from 1939 up until today.
She does not like that, being redirected, and has always insisted on considering what she has selected for discussion, not someone else, and she always will. Right up until the entrance interview at the Gates of Paradise, I expect. Or, to be fair, at the alternative, Hell Mouth.
“Are you visiting Marshall Hall for the first time?” I asked her. “Did you miss the boat back to D.C.?”
“Who’d visit this place?” she said and put a hand to her hair to push it back. It returned immediately to where it had been. “I mean after they’d turned twelve years old.”
I didn’t say anything to that, but continued to focus on the hair while now and then letting my eyes jerk down to get a glimpse of her face. I was afraid to do much more than that, because I had sensed already that if I let myself go too far in that direction I would be in jeopardy of becoming riveted into a stare on the spot. Struck dumb on a pier poking out into the Potomac, eyes glued on some portion of a strange girl’s face, while a thin line of clear saliva worked its way out of my slackjawed mouth to gather on my chin and drip onto my shirtfront. Not an attractive scene. But an attention-getter.
“I wish I had missed my ride on the Mt. Vernon,” she was saying. “And that I was really upset about not getting back to D.C. in time to arrive back at my apartment to get dressed to go out to dinner.”
“You live in D.C.?” I said. “I thought from what you said at first you didn’t.”
Her lips are thin, one of my little eye sorties told me, but before I could register that thought well and adjust to it, the next little glimpse my eyes allowed me revealed that rather than being thin, her lips were pale–full enough, certainly, but pale to the degree that no obviously visible boundary existed marking where the skin of her lips began and the facial skin ended.
She always has hated that, all her life, and that’s why in every close-up in every scene in any movie she was in, her lips look either glossy black if the picture’s not in color, or deep crimson if it is. She always kept the make-up people slathering away before every take, no matter how many the director called for.
If you remember her at all, you know that the Cuban Chili Pepper had a mouth, and it was a trademark one of the species, and anyone who saw it could have no doubt about the fullness of the lips which formed its body and gave it life. There was a line, my friend, which marked it off from the rest of the face, and it stood out. Got that? her mouth said. Understand? See me? I am here. Do not mistake it.
“No,” she said, shaking her head back and forth with enough vigor to put a mild thrash into the density of that hair whose color I had yet to be able to categorize. “I’m imagining this, goofy. See, I’ve got to get back in time to get ready to go out to a cocktail party in Georgetown, and then to a restaurant, a French one, and then to another party that starts at midnight. Understand?”
“Yes, sure,” I said. “I guess so.”
“And the problem is I’ve come down here to Marshall Hall because somebody told me to, recommended that it might be quaintly amusing for an idle hour, and I’ve never been here before, so I didn’t know any better. And now here I am, on this dock, and I’ve missed the fucking boat back to D.C.”
To that point in my young life, I had never heard a woman say the word fuck or any variant of it, so I stood there on that Marshall Hall dock completely astounded. That’s not the right word for it, exactly, astounded, because that implies more consciousness on my part than I actually possessed at the moment.
What it was really like, the way I felt watching her getting into the part she just conjured up and hearing that word come from that mouth, was not awareness, astounded or otherwise, but a sensation that somebody or something had slipped up behind me and hit me on the back of the head and neck with large flat object, hard enough to deaden for the moment and to warn that the pain when it came had better be prepared for. This is going to hurt, it said. For a long time. Get ready.
“When is the next boat?” she was asking while I stood there watching the word fuck float in the air between us. “When does it leave?”
“Ten-thirty,” I said after a time. “Are you going back on the boat to D.C.? I thought you said you weren’t.”
“No, goofy,” she said. “I told you. Not me. I’m asking for her.” She jerked her head to the right and back a little as though pointing out some other person standing a little distance away from us. I actually looked over her shoulder to see who she meant, despite trying my best not to.
“The girl who lives in D.C. in the apartment on Capitol Hill,” she said. “With the sheers in the windows. The one with the date with the congressman. You know, that good-looking young girl from out in the Midwest somewhere. Tennessee or Texas or one of those places.”
“That’s not the Midwest,” I said, saying that because it seemed to offer the opportunity to speak about something I knew to be real. I wanted to seize on a verifiable fact. “That’s the south.”
“All I know,” said the girl before me, lifting both hands toward her face as though she was about to touch some fragile and precious object someone had just presented her for the purposes of admiration, “is that I have missed the boat, and I’ve probably missed my chance at true happiness, too.”
After reaching her destination with her hands and saying that, she lowered her face toward the cup of her fingers and sobbed twice, quick intakes of breath which, though muted, seemed to me totally real.
The numbness down the back of my head and neck caused by my first experience with that word coming from a person who was female and looked the way she did was wearing off, and I braced myself to begin feeling the pain it had promised. It didn’t come, of course, actually, but the sense of dislocation stayed right there with me where I had first felt it on that amusement park dock shoved out over the edge of the Potomac.
After those two small expressions of despair, the girl before me straightened her head again to look at me, no sign of grief evident on her face and her hair as lively and dense as ever.
“Well,” she said, “I feel sorry for her, but she ought to be more careful who she listens to.”
“The girl with the apartment in D.C.?”
“Yeah. People will tell you anything when they want something from you. I learned that years ago.”
I was in no position then to doubt anything she said, so I nodded a lot to show I was in agreement with what she’d just told me, though the fact was at that point in my life nobody had yet to want anything from me enough to lie to me to get it. I had a lot to look forward to.
I remember I looked away from her face to gaze out at the Potomac, thinking if I didn’t, she would rapidly come to believe I was even dumber than she already seemed to categorize me those two times she’d earlier called me “goofy.”
A boat was passing, a small cabin cruiser outlined black against the setting sun, and I watched that while I tried to think of something else to say. Somebody at the rear of the cruiser threw something out into the air, and a gull swooped down and made a successful grab at it before it hit the water. After seeing that transaction completed, I turned back toward the girl who’d been facing me, but she had begun walking back up the dock toward the shore, and she had almost reached the big arch built over the end of the dock to indicate to folks that they were entering Marshall Hall. I forget what it said now, the tag line under the name of the park, something like “Step into Pleasure” or “Enter into Pleasure.” Pleasure was in it somewhere, I do know that, but I don’t know the precise claim that was made about the concept all those years ago. I did watch her walk through that arch, though, and continue her progress.
And I do remember, as well, of being suspicious even at that time about what was being promised by that sign to lie just beyond that brick and wooden construction which marked the end of the journey down the Potomac, up the dock and into Marshall Hall. I wanted to believe it then, don’t misunderstand me, and I did my best to for as long as I could. Enter and receive. Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you shall find.
I have endeavored to live my life expecting great and enduring changes whenever I cross a boundary, announced or unannounced, wherever and whatever it is. I have always lived with the hope that I’m just one step away from wherever it is I need to go.
They are coming back down the hall now, Lawrence pushing the wheelchair and Rolando strolling along on one side or the other of it putting a little extra flourish in his step to show the residents peeping out of their doorways that he has assisted once again in breaking one of them down–he has removed all of somebody’s clothes, no matter who they were, first or second lead, male or female, camera crew or grip, best boy or makeup girl, costumer or director, horse wrangler or caterer’s assistant–and he has dipped them in warm, soapy water up to the level of their mouth and beyond, and then he has scrubbed the living bejesus out of them with a longhandled brush that stings like fire, no matter how much Mr. P.U. Caughran, PhD and Executive Superintendent of the South Florida Retirement Facility for Motion Picture Personnel says it doesn’t.
She is in the wheelchair, of course, being pushed and accompanied by her attendants, but the Cuban Chili Pepper is now huddled in a terry cloth robe, wet, weeping and small. She has cursed until she has cursed herself out and has nothing more to say, and I can see through her damp hair all the way down her scalp, pink as a cooked shrimp. She doesn’t look into my room as she rolls by in her chair.
“You look like a million bucks, Sweetness,” I call out into the hall as soon as I see her. “Back from Water World, looking like a dream.”
She automatically starts to lift one hand toward that damp head of hair, but she can’t, of course, because of the Velcro strap binding her wrist, and she lets go the struggle and doesn’t bother to look in the direction the words are coming from.
“You the next,” says Lawrence in that deep lazy voice, slipping me a glance by lowering his head a fraction and tilting it sideways. He could have played a great heavy, a real menace in one of the late ‘forties B movies, maybe a Mitchum vehicle, but of course they didn’t use blacks back then. Now his type is a dime a dozen.
“I can’t wait,” I say through the empty door. “I’m as dirty as your socks, Lawrence. Come hose me down. Do your worst, Big Boy.”
Nobody can hear me, the people in the hall have moved on by, and my roommate’s last response to the world of sound took place years ago. That doesn’t stop me from delivering my line, though, with the words coming from way down deep at the level of the diaphragm. What I say booms in all that empty air.
* * *
Here’s what we’re eating today, this is what’s for lunch at the SoFloRetFac on a Tuesday, round about eleven thirty. I am limiting my description of the grub and the enumeration of the vittles to the Spencer Tracy Wing, of course, and I’m not including what’s being served to those of us entertainment folks with special feeding needs.
I don’t know what that gray stuff is they pump through feeding tubes inserted into the throats of the ones that are trying to die by not eating. Or in some cases, where the throat approach won’t work for one reason or the other, directly into little plastic valves cut straight through into the stomach cavity.
No, what I’m talking about is the bill of fare for all of us still able to sit up, open our mouths and make chewing motions before we gulp down whatever it is we’re having to deal with.
I had listened to the Cuban Chili Pepper cry for a few minutes after Lawrence and Rolando had unstrapped her from the wheelchair, slipped her into something more comfortable, as women used to say in motion pictures, and tumbled her back into bed. She didn’t cry long, though, Elsie didn’t, and evidently drifted off to sleep because I never heard her radio come on all the rest of the time between then and right up to now.
But it was the food I was telling about, lunch today in particular, a Tuesday, washday for the Cuban Chili Pepper, and the cart is rolling from door to door of those able to feed still, and it is an important time of the day just as it is everyday. I can hold my breath and listen, and through the white noise that has been buzzing in my ears ever since Duke Wayne clipped me up beside the head repeatedly during the sixteen takes of a saloon brawl in Red River come the sounds from up and down the wing of the boys and girls rousing up to sniff at the trough one more time.
It is baked beans today, and Cole slaw chopped so fine it couldn’t choke a canary, a slice of white bread, and at the center of the plate which Myrtice puts on the handy-dandy tray before me, a weiner boiled and sliced bite size. It is plumped and red from the boiling water where it has been at swim, and it says to me now as its ancestors have all my days, eat me.
“Here’s your weinie,” says Myrtice. “I know you always like your weinies, Mr. Foxmoor.”
“Myrtice, you are right,” I say. “I have always appreciated a waitperson who remembers my preferences. But please call me Barry, won’t you?”
“Shoot,” she says. “All right. Enjoy, Mr. Foxmoor.”
It is a game we play, as much for her benefit as for mine, and Myrtice deserves a little special attention and a perky hello from all who can muster one. Most of us troopers can’t these days, and those who’re still able generally conserve their energy to complain and threaten and beg.
“I’ll have your job for such impertinence,” an ancient director will say when Myrtice has moved the bedpan wrongly or committed some other breach against protocol on the set.
“The light strikes through the window in a peculiar way and puts me at a disadvantage,” a former female lead will opine. “Adjust it now, or I walk.”
“Look, please call my agent,” another old fool will whine. “I can’t get to a phone, and he’s Morris Morris at Whitehills seven two-thousand.”
As if, as the young actors on daytime television today continually honk at each other. As if.
But not me, not Barry Foxmoor, that’s not the way I come on to the currently most important woman in my life, Myrtice Jefferson, when she comes into my room and brightens my day. When I say important, I’m speaking of practicalities, you realize, and not emotional history. I keep hoping that maybe someday Myrtice will slip a hand beneath the coverlet for me, you see.
We don’t go a long way back, Myrtice Jefferson and I, to a past of close relation and lost passion or anything like that. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve only known Myrtice for a little over two years, back to the time she came to work here at Slow Motion Acres, which is what I call the facility in which all us retired motion picture personnel now dwell. That’s not original with me, that designation, but most everybody here now thinks it is, those of them who can still think, and most of them still smile or make an attempt at it whenever several of us are gathered in a clump for one reason or another and I use the phrase.
No, it didn’t come from my fertile imagination originally. It popped out of the mouth of Eddie Jarman, who spent most of his career being a stand-in and stunt double for Cary Grant in long shots and chancy situations on the sets of yore. Eddie had Grant’s carriage but not his chin.
Eddie and I were sitting outside one day, frying in the late afternoon sun on the west side of the Spencer Tracy Wing of our E shaped facility and watching the parade of stars, supporting staff, grips and best boys, and the odd camera man or two and all the rest of the assortment shuffle by on their way back into the building. It must have been close to suppertime or maybe the beginning of a rerun of Gilligan’s Island on the television set in the lounge, I don’t know. All I remember is that they were on the move, they had a destination, a great long procession of them, and Eddie and I were the audience.
Here they came. Some on walkers, those metal contraptions you clump ahead of yourself and walk up to and then clump ahead of yourself and walk up to, some rolling themselves in chairs by reaching out with one foot, or in some cases, both, to scrabble at the sidewalk and draw it to them, some using their hands to push at the top parts of the wheels for purposes of rotation, several walking on their own as they tottered along amid the walker-assisted and the wheelers. There was all manner of locomotion on display for me and Eddie Jarman to observe as we lounged in our Adirondack chairs.
“You know what this reminds me of, Lester?” Eddie said, making a gesture with one hand to indicate his subject matter, the parade of ruined talent before us. I didn’t bother to answer since I knew he would tell me whatever he had on his mind, unprompted.
“It’s a premiere, see, and they’re all turned out for the big night, the whole damn kit and caboodle of them that worked on the picture. And if your eyes are as bad as mine are, and if you squint them just a little bit, enough so you don’t see what kind of get-ups they’re actually wearing, you understand, if you do that, it almost looks like it’s real, like it’s something happening in the actual world.”
“The actual world?” I said, unable to keep myself from responding aloud to Eddie, which was always a danger.
“Yeah, the world before this one,” he said. “Back there where we all lived before we got swept into the waste bin. You remember, Lester. When things were real. Before the shitcanning.”
“How do you make that distinction, Eddie?” I asked him. “Right now seems real enough to me to satisfy. Just as real as the wooden slats of this chair cutting into my aged ass.”
Throwing in that last little reference to my ass would please Eddie Jarman, I knew. He is a man hungry for entertainment, and it doesn’t take much to gratify him. The odd obscenity now and then is a delight and a comfort to the old double, accustomed as he was in his working life to long waits while nothing was going on. Any little variation, even linguistic, was to be appreciated, then and now.
“I’ll tell you the difference,” Eddie said. “If you want to know. Back then was real because a lot of it was being filmed, and you can still watch it if conditions are right. I can show you my picture in Bringing Up Baby. You know the scene when I fell over that little dirt cliff. You know the one. The big one.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, right,” hoping he wouldn’t sketch out the whole sequence for me again. I was lucky. He didn’t.
“See,” Eddie went on. “I was real, see, we all were, because we were filming or being filmed or helping the filming get done. Got me?”
“Now, today, right now, nothing’s being filmed, and you can’t tell today if you were even around this morning, much less yesterday, because you can’t point to nothing to prove it.”
“O.K.,” I said, seeing the dangerous area he was straying into. “Got you.”
“Now is not real,” Eddie said as he flopped to a better position in his Adirondack chair. “Then was. Now’s not. That’s the difference. And that difference is a son of a bitch.” And then he said it. Twice. “Slow motion acres, slow motion acres.”
The weiner Myrtice has presented me is real, though, and I know that by another way of testing evidence, one different from the visual that Eddie Jarman swears by. And it’s this, because over the years I’ve perfected it.
If I can get a thing into my mouth, like this weiner dyed red here before me, say, and it bites back, it’s real. By bite’s back, I mean resists, of course, because the difference between really biting into something in the world and doing it in a dream or a fantasy or somewhere imagined is all in the resistance.
Here’s what I’ve learned. Anything worth really having bites back at you, it resists, it puts up a struggle. It says not so fast there, friend, I’m sorry if I’m in your way, but this space is taken.
What comes in at the eye, the sense on which most people like Eddie Jarman depend and live by, will fool you. It’s just light and shadow, after all, and all that shadow is, is the absence of light. So it’s a nothing, a deceiver of children and the mentally weak. It’s film, it’s motion pictures, it’s sitting in a dark room with a bunch of other solitary fools watching the wall flicker.
It’s what I grew up on and what I made a living doing, and it’s what put me here in the Spencer Tracy Wing where I’m living out the remainder, waiting for the big projector to click off and the real light to come back on, the one that burns your eyes to see.
So what’s real is this weiner, dyed falsely to appear more zestful than it may be, and I know that not by the look of the meat but by the way it fights back when the caps on the good side of my mouth bite into it.
Yes, and yummy. I win. I cut through, I masticate, I swallow, I digest. I’m here now, my bite says, converting something other than me to my use. I bite harder. I’m winning once more, one more time finding myself on top.
It’s so good, my bite of this weiner, that it brings Elsie Flattman’s face swimming up into view from somewhere deep in the brainpan, and the face is Elsie’s as she was when I first knew her at Marshall Hall Amusement Park on the Potomac in Maryland all those cans of film ago.
The face is hers as she was that day on the dock where Bud Pickle caught fish on an unbaited hook from a stream so slow it seemed not to move at all. And her hair is that color so rich and dense that not even the sun can fix it nor my eyes focus to classify. And that picture is just beginning, the credits still to come. Always.
“Elsie,” I call out, loud enough, I hope, for her to hear as she lies now one door down in a whimper on her single bed between silver-colored protective metal bars. “Elsie girl, have you tried the lunch entrée yet? It’s done to a T and fit for a queen.”
She doesn’t answer, of course, and I don’t expect her to, here in the post-Water World where we live at the end of the day. Now her gaze is fixed on something moving far off toward her, a thing she can’t identify but knows the shape of, and I’m speaking again to make her look away from it.
“Try it, Elsie,” I call out. “It’s the dog you love to bite. Come on, girl. You can do it one more time.”
And now I’m straining to be heard and to have that notice from her I’ve forever craved to be directed at me. “Let’s do it again, girl. Hit your mark, and let’s show them. We’ll do it in one take this time, you Cuban Chili Pepper. Don’t be afraid to look in Bud Pickle’s bucket at all that life swimming in the bottom. Stare them down, Elsie. They’re only fish, dark ugly fish, and they’re drowning like you’ll never do, girl, like you’ll never do. You catch the light, Elsie, you always catch the light, and it holds on to you.”
The screen is fading now as it always does, the silver light is going, and I’m offering her all there is.
I go on telling her all I can.