I could check the exact release date for In Search of the Castaways, a 1962 Disney adventure starring Hayley Mills, but it’s enough to know that the wind off Lake Charles is cold and damp and the neon lyre above the letters L Y R I C hums in the twilight. At thirteen I’m happy to be alone. My mother has dropped me off in front of the Lyric Theater and will pick me up again when I call her. A rare event for me to miss the evening meal, but becoming less so—my brother will likely be at basketball or band practice, my father still at McNeese Esso. Perhaps my mother won’t have a meal to prepare this evening and will spend her time in the empty house grading papers or watching a Perry Mason rerun. “Enjoy yourself,” she says as I pull my London Fog overcoat (black with hidden buttons) tighter about me and step out of her two-toned ’56 Chevy. “Call me when it’s over.”
I could walk home after the movie instead of calling for a ride, but walking would take almost an hour through regions of the city not altogether familiar to my pubertal self, past Weingarten’s Supermarket and Thibodeaux’s Saw Shop, two of my markers on my way home from downtown, but also open fields, railroad tracks, mansions (at least to my lower-middle class eyes) and slums, a confusion of Pak-a-Saks and liquor stores, an Esso station (not my father’s, his isn’t on the way home from downtown), a Conoco, a Gulf, and dark would have fallen two hours before. Today is Thursday, tomorrow a school day, though perhaps it’s Christmas time and that’s why I’m out on a week night. But no, I’m sure it was a school night and the lessons to learn as oblique as ever, in fact present already in the lobby of the Lyric, though how could I have known it then? The lobby takes me in, little Jonah, fleshy Pinnochio, about to be swallowed whole into the story.
Is the girl I’ll soon meet already here?
I don’t know. The posters and stills for the coming attractions call to me, but this evening I move quickly deeper into the lobby’s popcorn-spiced air toward the concession stand with its bouquet of moonpie-sized suckers and Paydays, Fifth Avenues, Zeros, Boston-baked Beans on display. The concession stand lady in her red vest is cracking a roll of quarters on the side of the counter; the coins rain into the register. From her, with the remains of my summer lawn-mowing money, I purchase a pack of Pom-poms, then hang out in the lobby for a moment, flicking the snap-on band of my watch open and closed, open and closed, like worrying a scab, the solid click, the give and take of the metal as it snaps shut.
Am I here only to see Hayley Mills in a movie?
Yes, already felled, as perhaps only an adolescent at that time can understand, by her performances in Tiger Bay and Whistle Down the Wind, dark black-and-white tales of childhood and perception brought over from England after her successes in Disney’s Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. I am here most of all to see this actress on the screen again. The need to be alone, it seems, secondary to the pleasures of watching Hayley Mills, even if only in this rickety Disney adventure with her as Mary Grant on an island in search of her missing father. Though alone enough on this day—the cold, the gray, my London Fog coat, the theater, the stained carpet, its golden lyres faded, the air stale from years of popcorn and sweat and the thick, warm Gulf air.
What other than Miss Mills interested my 8th-grade self?
The year before, I write a research paper on cowboys, draw a Picasso-esque chap on the cover of the notebook, paste pictures from magazines, the material only as interesting as the American Educator Encyclopedia allowed, but the object itself—the drawing and pasting of the pictures, the feel of it—meant more to me than the potted history I’d written. Shortly after turning the work in to Mr. Houston, I start my first novel, a baseball tale modeled on the books by the contemporary masters I was reading then—Bishop’s Larry of Little League series, McCormack’s Bronco Burnett, Bee’s Chip Hilton with his buddies Soapy Smith, Biggie Cohen, all as wholesome as Holsom Bread, the bread of choice in our home.
What else was I reading that year?
The Hardy Boys. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m not keeping a list yet.
Had the girl watched me as I entered the lobby, ticket gripped tight between my finger and thumb? Perhaps she was in the restroom or coming down the stairs from the balcony in search of someone like me, or perhaps it was the weather outside, night falling fast, the fact that children aren’t supposed to be alone at the movies, perhaps this is why she comes up to me and asks, “Do you have a light?”
Of course I don’t, but she is thin and her hair long and her face not at all unpretty. Surely she’s no older than I. But I don’t have a light, am only thirteen, and shy and very sorry I don’t have a light. Lord, why didn’t I have a lighter? What is she thinking? The same as I in my dark gray London Fog overcoat with the collar turned up in the back and masturbation at least a half year before begun?
And isn’t she, too, wearing a long dark coat? Was this the affinity that attracted her?
Size and shape and the late afternoon light going fast in the lobby and at the most only two or three other patrons in the huge theater, and she coming down from the balcony stairs.
I pat my pants pockets. “Sorry,” I say, “I don’t . . .,” but already she’s drifted away and the lazy usher tears my ticket and I sail down the aisle toward the front of the auditorium.
How many times have I taken this journey in movie theaters? By now, four to five hundred—in Baton Rouge, Texarkana and Magnolia, Arkansas, and now Lake Charles, Louisiana in the Lyric, the Paramount, the Pitt, only these three left after Hurricane Audrey five years before closed down three other city theaters and as many drive-ins, as if a giant hand had swiped through the middle of the screens, leaving only a U-shaped skeleton and rubble.
From all the way up here at the top of the aisle to all the way down there, down front, where I always sit. A bank clerk on the back row stares at me as I pass, as if I had entered his room without knocking. But the librarian arranging her shopping bags in the empty aisle seat beside her acknowledges me not at all. Today I veer to the right at row five, I don’t know why, but all that emptiness between me and the other two patrons, and me as small as Scott Carey shrinking and shrinking, the incredible shrinking man, my favorite childhood film—the transformative fog, the battle with the spider, the Magritte matchsticks, the descent into the infinite—and I, too, smaller than small in the enormity of the theater.
Nervous, distracted, I sit down and wait for Miss Mills to take over the screen, watch the previews blur past while I peel Pom-poms off the clump melted in the box. The encounter in the lobby still taunts me with its possibilities. She must be in the balcony. She couldn’t have only wanted a light. But I don’t carry matches or a lighter, not yet, and I preferred down front with the world above, not below me, preferred where I as a child mostly sat, seldom in the balcony, so I did not follow her up the stairs, no matter how hard I told myself I should.
Hayley runs toward the camera, hits her spot, and in low-angle throws her left forearm above her as the sun strikes her troubled forehead, and then someone touches my shoulder, says, “Can I sit here?”
I make room, the film shattered, silly, irrelevant to the moment, the back of her legs touching my knees, her hips for a moment obscuring the garish colors on the screen. She slumps down in the seat beside me, her hand grazing my right arm. Nothing now but the overwhelming sense of her, the rain-cold cigarette scent of her, her quick breaths, as shallow and terrified as my own.
“What’s your name?”
I tell her and ask her hers.
“Where are you from?”
“Did you have Miss Arnott in the sixth grade?”
I don’t tell her I know she is not Glenda Demaris because I knew a Glenda Demaris who sat in the back row of my class over a year ago while I attended sixth grade at Westlake Elementary where my mother was in her last year of teaching before transferring to Brentwood a few blocks from our home. For nine months I rode with my mother or with her colleague Jane Perry and one of Jane’s two daughters across Lake Charles to Westlake, a small town nestled under the bridge and petro-chemical plants. For the rest of the day I would be at the service of Marge Arnot, my mother’s best friend and my sixth grade teacher, who often sent me on errands into town. I would stay for hours in the public library or wander the town with Margie’s handwritten, undated pass allowing my release, spin the book carrousel in the drugstore, buy a soda at the Tastee-Freeze. Altogether a magical year, strange and all my own, from trapping flying squirrels which no child should ever have done, no child should ever not instinctively know not to do, to my three loves in the classroom: Sherry LeBlanc, dark-haired and as smart as a whip who one day cries out and faints from appendicitis and is carried out of the room by an ambulance crew; and Donna Lee, the beautiful tomboy who really was one of the top three in baseball and basketball on the playground; and Barbara Dennis who sang “Tammy” at the school talent show I was chosen to emcee. Not that being the teacher’s pet didn’t have its downside, but I was only chased, never caught on the playground by the bullies of the school, and in the afternoon while my mother graded papers in her classroom, I strolled under moss-laden oak trees at the side of the elementary building, dug holes in the dirt, shot marbles by myself, sang “I love to go awandering across the mountain plain, and as I go I love to sing, a knapsack on my back.” If the world was flawed, it wasn’t by much. (Then why one day do I break out in a rash the moment after I’ve turned in a test I had worried over for a week?) That year Glenda Demaris sat in the back row and I seldom talked to her. A shy girl, not altogether pretty, rather plain, a bit overweight. Not at all the girl in the seat beside me, her hair and coat ghostly with cigarettes, cheeks splotched from the cold, her thin shoulder touching mine.
Why had she lied about who she was when I hadn’t?
“Will you come sit in the balcony with me? I don’t like it down here.”
Nor today do I. The auditorium is too big, the cave too bare, the images on the screen no longer compelling. But the twilight is full of promises, some I can only barely discern, others deepening into the folds of fantasy and memory formed over my already richly sexual life. The bathtub, the woods, the bamboo, the alleys. Magnolia’s fever dream, Baton Rouge’s beginnings. Whatever it is we take with us down the corridors of the self that lead to this walk back up the aisle behind the girl in the dark coat, as thin as I, her hair, as best I can tell in the screen-lit dark, a light brown, perhaps tinged in the summer with red, but now plain, lusterless, as ordinary as this day is not.
If she weren’t from Westlake, how could she have known the right lies to tell?
Westlake was where she was from, I didn’t doubt that, only knew she was not who she said she was, knew she was lying.
Did she, then, know me?
Perhaps she might have heard of me—less than two years had passed since my time in Westlake—but she didn’t say. I followed her into the balcony, to the corner in the back beside the projection booth, the side opposite the booth’s door, wondered if Mr. McCallum, the father of a friend of my brother, were projecting the film, wondered if he might have spy holes to look out onto the balcony at us. Why else were we here in the balcony’s back row, the highest point, the darkest, while light coned out to the screen?
“Do you want to do something with me?”
In her fear and desire, her adolescence, surely she was as confused as I.
I slid my hand into her blouse and she did not stop me, but held my hand over her breast, and we kissed some more, both of us eager for that which will never happen no matter how we lose ourselves in the other or the moment or whatever it is we’re after, oblivion, I don’t know, only this surge toward it. Like suicidal lovers we step off the cliff, and her eyes for a moment gleam in the dark, our words lost in the whir of the booth beside us and the screams of Mary Grant’s siblings as they escape from cannibals, though in every sense nothing is right in our fumblings, our kisses too hard, my hands fingerless paws, the caramel taste still thick in my mouth, her hair sour with cigarette smoke, our mumblings monosyllabic “do you can I yes yes yes,” and her hand now in my pants, fumbling there.
Not long and I came into her hand.
“You can touch me here, if you want,” she said.
But my heart’s no longer in it. I’m still too young, too unsettled and naive to share. Uncomfortably we sit, led into temptation with or without grace, two children, but only barely, holding hands in the balcony of the Lyric Theater, then not holding hands but wondering at the distance between us and the screen, us and our lives, while Hayley and her siblings evade a volcano.
Afterwards, I walk downstairs with her, wondering if we’ll ever meet again. The lobby is empty. No evening viewers line up yet for the next feature.
Outside, huddling in his long coat under the marquee, a man smaller than I (her father?) awaits her. She does not say goodbye to me, nor I to her, already lost as we separate.
I finger a nickel out of my jeans pocket, then call home to tell my mother the movie’s over.
Tom Whalen has written for Agni, Bookforum, Film Quarterly, Georgia Review, The Literary Review, Mississippi Review, The Southern Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. He teaches film at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany.