The music swells, the lights come up. The floor rises from the dark, becomes solid.
The emptiness around you fills with faces.
At the back of an old lot, through a hole in the fence, down a hill to the broken pavement of the parking lot. Past a low, loose board, into dark and the smell of rot. Puddles, mildew, dust, dirt. Past rows of empty shelves, broken equipment, empty boxes. Up some stairs to the lobby, down the hall and into the main room, carpet worn flat and creaky under our weight.
We found the electricity. We coaxed it on. We drew it through the wires, over gaps, like water. Long after the laughter, the flickering lights, the terror, the fear, the music, the panic, we crept in one by one and filled the seats to stare at the big blank screen. Some drank, were drunk, others slept or confessed, yelled or whispered, each from their own favorite seats and sections, out from the darkness and into the light.
They didn’t even show movies downtown any more, but we showed movies downtown. It was the Paramount. The Majestic. The Orpheum. Some derelict from before streaming and data and bytes and noise. From a time when the sights and the sounds were physical, of one thing rubbing against another. Elemental. We romanticized a metaphor, became those elements ourselves- touching, scraping, creating. It was our outlet, and our escape.
For some of us it was a shelter- a place to hide, a place to withdraw, but there was more to the magic than just having a secret place to be. There was a vulnerable level of trust like we’d never experience anywhere else, all the rest of our lives. We never talked about it, never referred to it. We kept it in its dark place, we got giddy with anticipation. And even then, we tried not to make a big deal out of it.
We sat in those seats, calling scenes out to silence. Pausing as we imagined with our shared mind, and then- reaction. Cheers, groans, some commentary. Then darkness, and quiet again. Attentions drifted. There were conversations, gossip. But we were never restless, we never wandered far. We chose to sit still, within that perpetual twilight, and watch pictures in our minds cross the dark.
We did it while water dripped in some far away corner, plaster fell from some high-up place. We talked until the credits rolled. Our projectionist for the night called out the last of the lines, and we craned our heads back in our seats as that big chandelier light rose to luminescence out of the dark. We followed it like a buoy to the surface. We rose with it from the ether, fully formed.
We would meet up, crawl down through those loose boards in the back, go up the stairs blindly, our hands at the splintery rail, into the light of the lobby. The worn, musty carpet pulled loose where the walls met the floors, and the boards sang songs under the weight of each step as we crept inside. The projectionist chose the films, acted as conductor to set the tone, called out scenes, spoke the most memorable bits of dialog, and we chanted along in low voices. Our celluloid shaman, painting the pictures we all saw, leading the vision, the mass hallucination.
Tonight, Apocalypse Now. Another night, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Something like Star Wars had the greatest cross-crowd appeal, but it didn’t screen much, though Raiders would occasionally show. There were a few potential projectionists each night. They presented their films and we deliberated. For something to show, it had to have spaces, something we didn’t need to follow too closely. In action movies things were always happening, and you had to pay attention. But something like Apocalypse Now- you just needed to know where the big scenes were. Thirty-four minutes: Charlie don’t surf. Fifty-five minutes: the tiger in the jungle. Two hours, nine minutes- the horror… the horror. There was a lot of time between those scenes, well paced and dramatic. And in those in between times we would talk, or sleep, or explore… argue, excavate, break-up, and make out. We watched classics. Iconic stuff. We needed to know them backwards and forwards. Modern movies were driven narratives. There was too much to keep track of, too much to remember. Foreign films worked well. Eastwood’s old westerns.
It was cooperation unlike in any other aspect of our lives. When you’re young, the paranoia’s real. Someone is always watching you. But not there, not in the dirty, velvet grip of those old seats, leaky pipes, crumbling walls. We might spend every second outside watching our backs, but inside that space, we didn’t even think. The projectionist called out the cues, and we all concentrated, pulling from our collective memories. We filled the screen with ourselves. We projected.
We never broke anything, stole anything. We cleaned the place up, made it comfortable. We may have each had our separate reasons, but we all needed the place. And more than that, we didn’t want some other thing to take it from us, or to tell us it wasn’t ours. There are some things you only understand out of focus. You revisit them during the silent, solitudinal moments, between each flicker of the light of your future life. They will never leave you, but haunt you endlessly.
Rain on the roof. Wind at the walls.
We drift down like smoke through the aisles. We sit in groups, we sit alone. The scenes glide across the screens in our minds until we all see some version of the same thing. We remember the details a little differently, but we all watch the screen, and we all see.
We sit in silence. We sit in the fog of each others’ low murmurs, voices that drag and crawl, laughter that drips and falls, holding on.
To each other, across the dark.
josh gilb has a stack of notebooks full of half-finished stories and other such fluffery. he's also woefully behind on his photblog- www.whateverwelose.blogspot.com. he apologizes profusely, but insincerely.