The warm California sun, made famous by The Rivieras when All the Way With LBJ still sounded like the way to go, tumbles on a downward arc past a curve of cloud toward the Pacific. Its brightness presses the eyes of primary voters lined up outside the polling place at St. Marguerite’s Church into a squint, but ocean breezes keep this Tinseltown June day cool. Outside the Hollywood Orpheum Theater across the street, little kids toss pennies into the pool of a switched-off fountain. Points of blazing sunlight surf on the ripples the pennies make. The ripples roll to the walls of the fountain bowl, bounce back, interfere with other ripples from other diving coins, and slowly diminish.
“I see Molly,” said Linda Wong. “Short, round glasses, bellbottom jeans and tie dye, like a hippie Edith Head, coming back with our popcorn and cokes. I don’t know how this movie’s going to be. Molly said not to expect much, but just the taste of butter and salt’ll make it all worth it.”
“I see my seat,” said Molly, “Next to my stepfather. Why couldn’t Linda sit next to him? I need a buffer.”
“I see Patrick Parnell,” said Peggy, “with his friends, down front. Why aren’t they sitting closer to us?”
“I see a blank screen, clean and white,” Howard said. “This is my favorite part of any movie. The white screen. Anything can be up there. Anything. It’s magic. It’s the only magic you can buy for $1.50.”
“I ask Molly’s stepdad,” Linda said. “How many movies he’s made. He doesn’t look at me. Seems a little resentful I broke his train of thought.”
“I say ‘five’.” Howard said. “Why is she talking to me? I’m glad Molly’s sitting next to me. I don’t know why she brought this Jap girl. She speaks good English and all, but I’m glad we have a buffer zone between us.”
“I pass Linda with the armload of goodies and take my seat,” Molly said. “I still don’t get why she wanted to dress up for this. She looks like she’s seeing off her astronaut husband. She takes her soda and a handful of popcorn.”
“I sip my soda,” Linda said, “and whisper to Molly, ‘Is your Dad okay?’”
“I feel a headache, as bad as any in any Anacin commercial, coming on. Control yourself, Molly. Sure you’re tired, and you know Howard’s movie is going to hurt, but don’t take it out on Linda,” Molly said. “‘He’s my stepfather, and he’s never been okay.’ I whisper back. Ever since Mom married him, I feel like I’ve lived my life suspended between the setup of a joke and its punch line. USC has been an escape, but I have to keep coming back for things like this.”
“I want to ask what she means, but I don’t,” Linda said. “Instead, I change the subject, ‘You want to come with me to The Ambassador to see Kennedy? He’s going to win. Should be fun.’”
“That explains her clothes. Shit. Mom’ll pitch a fit if I don’t go to dinner with her and Howard,” Molly said. ‘I can’t. I’ve got family stuff.’ I say to her, ‘How’d you get in?’”
“‘157 yard signs, and over a thousand doors knocked on.’ I say. I gave up designing costumes for the drama department’s mainstage production of The Merry Wives of Windsor for this, and you bet I’m going to go and maybe shake Bobby’s hand,” Linda said.
“This’ll get her,” Howard said. “‘Why don’t you skip dinner and go be with your boyfriend, Goldwater Girl? I’m sure you’d have a better time.’”
“What?” Linda said. “‘Goldwater Girl?’”
“‘Shut up’. Why does Howard have to keep bringing that up? How does a man whose whole life is an embarrassment have the nerve to tease?” Molly said. “Okay. The lights are going down. We can shut the hell up now, and — who are we kidding? Nobody’s going to enjoy this.”
The kids have left. Under the still water lie dozens of drowned pennies, little Lincolns and little Lincoln Memorials, resting comfortably at the bottom. The voter lines are still long at the church. An old man leaves the church, lurches across the street, and, wiping his sweaty brow, sits by the fountain to rest a while. With one liver spotted hand, he splashes the water, disturbing the surface and obscuring all the drowned pennies.
“Okay,” Molly said. “Here we are. Curtains. A Howard Zez Film. Produced and Directed by Howard Zez. Dad’s homage to noir begins. Black and white.”
“I wonder,” Peggy said, “how David feels having his name in the credits. He’d be in his rights to use a pseudonym. Maybe he thinks he needs fresh credits, or maybe the blacklist made it so that having his name in any credits feels like a victory for him. Of course, he’s not here to look, but maybe it’s just knowing.”
“And so, fade in,” Molly said. “A woman in a snood, full makeup, and a black peplum dress with a keyhole neckline—who doesn’t dress like this when kicking around the house?—picks up the telephone in her kitchen, calls a drunken private eye, and says she’s coming over. Why didn’t she hang up on the slurring drunk who could barely say his own name and call a sober P.I.? Because that would make sense.”
“I think she looks better in that dress than I did,” Peggy said. “David said I looked like his mother when I last wore it.”
“That was definitely the best take. She looks so great in that dress,” Howard said. “And it’s amazing how close we got to a 1940s look on our budget.”
“I wonder why we’re not starting the story at the private eye’s office. Why did we have to watch her make an appointment? Maybe something’s going to happen to her on the way?” Linda said.
“Okay. Now film students gather round and watch the Howard Zeleznick Never Cut School of Filmmaking,” Molly said. “The woman hangs up the phone. She puts on her hat, gloves, and coat, because if we didn’t see her do that it would be confusing later on if we saw her with additional clothing. Do we cut now? No! We follow her outside to the Packard Howard made me spend a month locating and renting from that family in Chula Vista. Now she gets in the car? Cut? No. We’re driving. We’re going to experience her entire drive from her house to the private eye’s office in real time. Thrill as she rounds a curve! Delight as she stays in her lane! Hold on to your date as she pulls up to a stop sign! Okay, Howard, does she come to a complete stop at the stop sign? Is there another car at the intersection, and if so, who has the right of way? And does the driver who has the right of way nevertheless wave the other drive through? Slow down, Howard! This movie’s going way too fast for me!”
“That car was gorgeous. Not a bad shot of it either. Amazing,” Howard said.
“Salad dressing. Iceberg lettuce. Frozen orange juice. Some cokes and cake mix. Toothpaste. Carrots. Celery. Beef stock. Stewing beef,” Peggy said.
“Something is going to happen during this drive, right?” Linda said. “Right now this is like those educational films we used to watch in school about the new Interstate Highway System. I keep waiting for some man with a deep radio announcer voice to say: ‘Freedom of movement. Commerce. Prosperity. The American Way.’”
“Ah, Howard, pulling up to the curb. Careful parking. You missed showing her turn the wheels toward the curb and setting the parking brake. Still –” Molly said. “Now observe. The woman’s arrived. We’re at the building. We can surely cut to the Private Investigator’s office. But, no! We watch her put coins in the parking meter before she goes inside.”
“Paper towels. Napkins. Dress shields.”
Linda said, “Is there some reason her checking the building directory is going to be important later? I’ve been wondering this a lot. ‘Will this be important later?’ It’s been — let me see — about 15 minutes. When is something going to be important now?”
“And now up the stairs we go,” Molly said. “Several flights. Her every step lovingly documented. I swear if she’s somehow in the wrong building and has to go back outside and drive somewhere else, I’ll have Mom hold Howard down while I pour all the Coca Cola syrup from the concessions stand down his throat.”
“I always love how the staircase scenes in Hitchcock and Carol Reed movies built the suspense. I think it works here too,” Howard said. “And our staircase is one I’d pit against any of theirs.”
A scuffle breaks out in the voting line between a white McCarthy supporter and a black Kennedy supporter. Others in the line keep the two would-be anti-war combatants at bay. The suspense of the day seems to be getting to everyone. As things settle back down, the McCarthy and Kennedy supporters grumble insults at each other about who sold out whom. A McCarthy supporter says either “goon” or “coon”, and an angry, snarling knot forms in the middle of the line before a pair of women, one middle aged, one young, step in and break it up. An onlooker, sitting at the fountain, says to his friend, “I like Kennedy, but I think they’ll kill him too.” “Who’s they?” says his friend. “Kennedy, King and X weren’t killed by the same guy, so that’s a they, right?”
“So these are the villains?” Linda said. “They have to be. We must be nearly an hour in. We should’ve gotten to the villains long ago, but at least we made it.”
Patrick Parnell said, “I look so goofy up there. Why did he shoot me from that angle? I look like Droopy the Dog.”
Howard said, “Look how one stands with his back to the other. That’s drama right there. That’s what drama’s all about.”
Molly said, “Oh, Jesus! ‘Don’t walk away from me!’ That’s fucking priceless, Howard. Fucking priceless!”
Peggy said, “Why did he say ‘Don’t walk away from me” to a man who wasn’t walking away from him?”
Howard said, “What’s Molly laughing at? I don’t see what’s so goddamn funny.”
Linda said, “Jesus that’s insane! Especially the way he said it, like he was saying it to a wife who was leaving him. My ribs hurt. Wait. Molly’s Dad and Mom are pissed off. ‘Molly. ‘Molly’.”
Molly said, “‘Watch the elbow, Linda. What?’ What are you pointing at? Shit. Mom, don’t give me that look like you don’t know why I’m laughing. How are you not laughing?”
“Kid has no respect,” Howard said. “No respect for me at all. I can’t wait for her to move away and stay away, not come back and do her damned laundry in my damned house with the damned soap and water that I pay for. As for her friend, she can go back to China and live with Chairman Mao if she doesn’t like my movie.”
“Come on, Mom,” Molly said. “It’s laugh or go crazy. Which do you want to do?”
A Buick rumbles by the theater. Its windows are open, letting Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” serenade the neighborhood. The voter line has different faces in it, but it hasn’t gotten any shorter. An old drunk shambles by and tosses his paper wrapped bottle of wine in the fountain. The ticket seller bounds out of her booth and shouts “litterbug”, but he keeps right on walking. She groans, leans over the lip of the fountain’s bowl, and falls in face first trying to retrieve the bottle. She swears and splashes before she gets hold of it and fishes it out. Some of the voters have a laugh at her expense as she walks over to the trash can to toss the bottle in.
Molly said, “I just came back in. I had to go out into the lobby and say ‘Simple minded motherfucker! Why is he so fucking stupid? How could Mom marry such a complete moron? Why does he think he can make movies, or that other people ought to come and know he does that?’ I think the pimply red headed guy who sells the popcorn is afraid of me.”
Linda said, “It must be almost over. We’ve been in here for twelve days, at least.”
Peggy said, “I wonder how David has the patience to write these things.”
Patrick Parnell said, “I can’t believe Howard used that take for my death. I was making that face. I’m dead and I look gassy.”
Linda said, “Okay. The cops are here to arrest the murderers. Funny thing. that whole scene where the lady goes to see the private eye had nothing to do with the rest of the plot. The investigator never found out anything, got killed, and it didn’t matter because she was an investigator anyway. Why was that even in the movie?”
Peggy said, “Good. She got her stolen paintings back. It’s early for dinner really, and I think Molly wants to see Kennedy, right? Maybe stop for ice cream, or should we just try to beat the traffic back to Redlands?”
Molly said, “Wait. Did that mobster they were arresting just say ‘You dirty rat’ like Jimmy Cagney? Oh, yeah, Howard, that’s the cherry on top of the sundae of your movie.”
Linda said, “The end! Free at last! Free at last! Great God almighty, we’re free at last!”
Howard said, “When the lights come up in a movie theater, that’s the saddest moment in life. It’s like a whole world died and it’s time to mourn.”
“I say, ‘Anyone for ice cream?’” Peggy said.
“I say ‘Sure’.” Molly said. “I mean, I have places to go, but free ice cream is free ice cream.”
“I say ‘I think we need to beat the traffic.’” Howard said, “Because I don’t want to spend any time with Molly right now. I don’t need her damned spite.”
Linda said, “Now what should I say? I should definitely say something, shouldn’t I? Something other than ‘This is by great lengths the worst movie, TV show, play, or other form of narrative art that I have ever experienced in my life, or am likely to ever experience in my life, and you were the one responsible for it.’ How do I open my mouth without that just slipping out?”
Patrick Parnell said, “Just wave while quickening your pace. There you go. I’m glad I got parking close.”
Linda said.,“Okay, here goes. ‘Mr. Zeleznick, thanks for letting me join you. That was — a — movie — and I enjoy watching — movies — and other narrative art forms — and that was — one of those –’ I shake his hand. He gives me the dead fish. I think I need to leave now.”
Molly said, “I give my Mom a hug and a kiss and wish her a safe drive. I tell Howard I’ll see him around and join Linda in the lobby. She asks me ‘Was that really only ninety-two minutes?’ I say yes. She says ‘I don’t believe it. I think the rest of universe travelled near the speed of light for ninety-two minutes and came back here while spent one million years in the theater.’ I think she might be right.”
Linda said, “I ask Molly ‘Want to get some ice cream anyway, then come to see Bobby?’ Molly says ‘Sure thing. Let’s go.’”
Howard said, “I put on my coat and I wonder how she can resent me so much? Just politics? Is that all? I don’t get it. We both loved Goldwater. Then it all changed. She became some kind of elitist snob. To hell with her. ‘Honey, you liked it, right?’”
Peggy said, “I’ll say what I can, ‘It was the best film you ever made, dear.’ I’m not lying. It’s much better than The Ant-Headed Teenaged Mutant. No one in this movie had an unconvincing head. And at least I didn’t have to dress up in a nurse’s outfit for this one and pretend to examine audience members for heart trouble. Now the only costumes I wear are at David’s.”
Molly and Linda catch the 31 bus at the stop by the fountain. As they board, they’re confident that the worst of the day is behind them. The voting line has shortened some, though it will probably lengthen again when people leave their shops and offices to weigh in on the outcome of the primary. Howard and Peggy step out of the theater. Howard puts on his hat, then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a quarter. The way he figures it, he has a lot to wish for. He closes his eyes and tosses the quarter in. It sinks. When Peggy asks what Howard wished for, he doesn’t tell her that it was for Molly’s heart to be broken.
Jim Snowden has fiction in The Seattle Review, MAKE, Constellations #7, Elsewhere Lit, Across The Margins and elsewhere. ‘Dismantle the Sun’ and ‘Summer of Long Knives’, his first two novels, were published by Booktrope in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
Jim’s novella, ‘Escape Velocities’, was named a notable story by the editors of StorySouth. His one-act play, ‘Dr. Kritzinger’s 12 O’Clock’ won the Bill and Peggy Hunt Playwright’s Festival in 2015.
This story is part of a series about the making of the fictitious 1969 Grade Z film epic, Dope Dealers From Outer Space. Previous installments have appeared in Elsewhere Lit, Constellations #7, Across The Margin, Page & Spine, and New Reader Magazine.