“Fade Out” by Eric Wasserman

02Feb09

The morning brought drizzle, but it was expected; late October tended to be that way. In Los Angeles it would be considered rain. Not in Puddletown, Oregon. Simon woke to the drizzle, like fingertips rolling over a countertop. If he knew anything, it was that nobody in this town owned an umbrella. If it drizzled one simply put on a hat and went about the day. There was no professional baseball team in Oregon, not even up north in Portland. There were bush leagues, of course, but Simon wore a Red Sox cap when he left the house. Nobody would ever believe he was a local anyway. He didn’t care; he was finished pretending now after seven years.

That Sunday morning he had splashed water on his face and stared at himself in the bathroom medicine cabinet mirror. His hair was shaggy, covering the tops of his ears; his beard concealing his upper lip. He needed a trim and remembered the days when he never went two weeks without a snip.

Simon was dressed before his wife, laced into his work boots even though he was not working onsite today. He stared at May still asleep in their bed before going to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. May was larger than when he first met her. Not fat, simply more meat on her. She had put it on during her pregnancy and never lost it. Simon liked her with a little extra weight, though. He had been worried that after their daughter arrived he would no longer find May attractive. He was wrong. Her curled red-brown hair had straightened a bit since they moved to Oregon, but she still wore it to her chin. A strand had fallen over the side of her face and was being gently blown by the rhythm of her breathing.

He went outside to fetch the newspaper from the doorstep. Simon saw that his neighbor, Patrick Fenns, was already working on his pickup truck, his son Billy raking leaves from the yard. A boy liked to make a little spending cash. Simon made a mental note to offer Billy a few dollars to rake his own leaves and went into the house to sit at the small table at the breakfast nook to drink his coffee and read the newspaper.

He thought of his neighbors as he read, thought of Patrick Fenns having recently decided to splurge his savings to build a backyard bomb shelter complete with double-bunks, water rations and canned foods in the event of an invasion now that Russia had acquired their own hydrogen bomb. Fenns still had a weathered VOTE FOR EISENHOWER sign stuck in his lawn. Simon had always imagined living on a farm in Oregon, but May pointed out that he didn’t know the first thing about farming and that they could probably never make a thirty acre mortgage payment if their lives depended on it. This small house was fine, and Simon found that he liked knowing his neighbors. He had no idea who his neighbors had been in Los Angeles, assumed that they didn’t even note his absence when he vanished. He had once sworn he would never own private property. But ideas change; people change. He now had a family to provide for. He compromised mostly because he wanted his daughter to grow up with a backyard, not a tenement fire escape. Owning a home was acceptable. Besides, May had always said that America was a culture that lived on its credit: the more you owed, the richer you were allowed to think you were.

Simon sipped his coffee. It just wasn’t the same without a cigarette, but he had quit smoking three years ago. Instead, he focused on the newspaper. Like always, he read everything; the crop and weather report, a poem about parenting written by the mother of one of his daughter’s classmates at the grade school, new state hunting licensing restrictions. He found his own article, a column he contributed every two weeks, this time about the new cinema house that was opening that day.

The town was not large, although it had a nice volunteer chamber orchestra that performed once a month at the Lutheran church. It wasn’t the Hollywood Bowl, but the acoustics were solid and that was good enough. Most of the people worked at the mill or held jobs around the two road intersection: teachers, hardware store merchants, cooks at the diner where May had been a waitress since they arrived seven years ago, just before Elizabeth’s birth. Simon’s contribution to the newspaper was printed right between a piece on the new high school civics teacher who would also coach the football team and a story about the election for sheriff. He wrote for the Puddletown Gazette at no charge. It was a community publication, after all.

Simon had not seen a movie in over seven years, although he thought about them often. He regularly thought of Barry Lords’ advice. “The trick to making it in Hollywood is that you have to love watching movies more than making them.” But Simon had made May a promise. They had come to a place without pictures for a reason, and he had sworn that he would never see one again.

The new cinema house was certainly an accomplishment for the town. People talked about it constantly, were anticipating its opening today. The arrival of movies meant something to these people. Things were changing, growing, developing. The town was going places even if people only left for a few days out of the year to hunt or take their kids to Lincoln City during the summer, maybe to purchase a used car in Eugene.

He smiled as he noticed the many errors the typesetter had made with his article. But friendship, something Simon had thought little of in the past, had become precious to him now, and he didn’t have the heart to bring the errors to the attention of his pals at the Gazette. As he read his own words he noticed how factual he had been about the arrival of the cinema house. Nobody in town knew how close to the pictures Simon had once been.

He was given a sneak peek of the cinema the week before when he was asked to write the article. The empty building that once housed the Marcus Feed Store was bought by Randy West, a thirty-year-old originally from Puddletown who had worked as a projectionist at the Bagdad Theater in Southeast Portland since graduating high school, and was now returning with a little money and a big family, set on raising his kids in his hometown.

It was a good cinema, much larger than Simon had expected. Randy did not have the money to make it lavish, but one could tell that the young owner took pride in his business. The seats were clean, the glass atop the concessions counter was spotless, the carpet showed vacuumed lines. A fresh coat of teal paint was complemented everywhere by amber trim. The men’s room was also teal, but Randy had splurged for mustard wallpaper with flower prints in the lady’s room. Simon mentioned these little touches in his article; the homey atmosphere, the watercolor of the HOLLYWOOD sign painted by Randy’s wife, framed over the coat-check door. Fred Gupster, a local gaming legend and taxidermist, had donated a moose head to go over the concessions counter, which seemed terribly out of place, but Simon mentioned Gupster’s generosity, tied it in with a nice ending for the article about how Randy West had not just opened a business but had built something the entire community could enjoy. The Marcus Feed Store had moved to nearby Groveville and this building had been empty for two years. The time had come for something fresh.

Randy had been kind, had shown off his cinema as if Simon had never been in one. “These are the metal reel cases the distributor sends the movies to me in,” Randy had explained. “They’re air sealed to protect from any water or shipping damage. Moisture is really bad for celluloid, Mr. Park. I learned that running the projector at the Bagdad in Portland.”

“Is that so?” Simon had said, still uncomfortable after seven years of being known as Simon Park, having taken May’s name to avoid HUAC minions still wanting to burn him.

“Ever been to Portland?”

“Not yet,” Simon said.

“The Bagdad’s the most exotic addition to Hawthorne Street, opened in 1927. Universal Pictures spent one hundred thousand dollars to build it in Middle Eastern décor. When I worked there the usherettes and cigarette girls had to wear Arabian-style uniforms. They played vaudeville shows on the large stage before I joined.”

Simon thought it sounded like the most tasteless movie-going experience he could imagine. “Sounds as if Portland wooed you. Why did you come back, Randy?”

“Are you kidding? You can’t raise kids in a city. Aren’t you from Los Angeles?”

Simon paused. “Boston, originally.”

“So that’s why you got the Red Sox cap. Sure wish we had pro ball here, the PCL Beavers don’t have much of a team up there in Portland.”

“Do you miss any of it—Portland I mean, living in a city?”

They were standing in the right aisle of the cinema, the wall lights only half lit. Randy peered up to the ceiling chandelier as though contemplating a star constellation then looked back at Simon. “I miss the beer. Weinhard’s is the best. You ever had it?”

“I don’t drink.”

Randy laughed. “Now I know why you moved here, you fit right in.” He patted Simon on the shoulder and began walking back up the aisle.

It was the first time Simon had been in a cinema house in seven years. It was like coming back to religion for him. He looked at the empty white canvas screen, knowing he would not see a picture here or anywhere else, but he felt he was coming home again to worship in his own way. He didn’t need the institution; he just needed the faith. And he had it again.

 

The sound of the alarm bell on the bedroom nightstand could be heard followed by a sudden click. Simon imagined May—never a morning person—slamming her hand over the snooze and going back to sleep. She was getting over the flu. He thought of how he had once been in a bed on the verge of death and that she had never left his side. That always gave Simon comfort; let him know he would grow old with her.

He quickly finished his coffee. He had a few chores to do that morning: chop wood and stack it in the backyard, build a fire before May and Elizabeth were awake, see if he could stop the leak under the kitchen sink before asking Patrick Fenns for assistance. He thought of working on his novel a bit, but shrugged it off. He had never thought of writing a novel but the past year he had been tinkering with one. It wasn’t serious, though. He told May it was just a hobby, something to keep him busy when she was in her garden out back planting things to grow—her own dacha. He had sworn off writing along with the pictures, and May was concerned initially when he started up again. “What’s next?” she had scoffed, “are you going to start smoking again? Because if this is the way it’s gonna be, Elizabeth and I are gone. It’s bad enough that you contribute to that rag of a newspaper they have here.” He told her that it was only for fun, and that’s really all it was. And she believed him. She didn’t know that his novel was based on a Western Union telegram his older brother Benny had once sent him with a picture idea.

Simon fitted his Red Sox cap snug, put on his wool Fillson’s jacket. He needed to get to his chores if he was to keep his promise to his daughter for the afternoon.

 

“Don’t drag your feet, Lizzy,” Simon said as he held his daughter’s hand and walked her out of the neighborhood and into town. When they first moved to the area it had looked like Simon felt now: spent, tired, resting after a long storm. It had been a perfect fit. But the town changed and so had Simon.

“Daddy!” Elizabeth snapped, stopping and staring up at her father with that same irritated frown May gave him when he dragged muddy boots into the house.

Simon smiled at his daughter, who was practically a miniature version of his wife, only with his black hair. “Yes, Elizabeth?”

The child smiled and kissed her father’s knuckles that were wrapped around her small hand. “Thank you, Daddy,” she said and they continued to walk. She no longer dragged her feet.

Elizabeth had been going through a phase since the first week of school, not wanting to be called Lizzy anymore, as she had been since she was born. May had honored this request, but Simon still slipped occasionally. She was a good daughter, if not a child with a slight temper when she didn’t get her way. Aside from sulking when told to go to bed, she was rather agreeable, nothing like Simon and his brothers had been when growing up. Simon hoped the phase of her wanting to be called Elizabeth would end, the way her previous phase of answering, “I’m pretty,” when asked how she felt had. But he was hopeful her love of reading would become a lifelong habit. He relished in watching May reluctantly read her stories even though May hated fairytales. The “I’m pretty” phase had not bothered Simon, but it irritated May, who knew her daughter was doing it because she wanted acceptance from her peers who did the same. Simon reminded his wife that all children wanted to be as other children were. May protested that she had never been one of those girls until Simon convinced her that she had been.

Simon had always hated the subway in Boston. In Los Angeles he had fallen in love with the freedom of a car. But in Puddletown he liked walking, preferring to use his truck as little as possible. Now, walking with his daughter, the first building they passed as they entered town—Elizabeth balancing on the edge of the sidewalk like a tightrope walker with Simon steadying her—was the Carlson Lumber Company office. Ted Carlson ran three-dozen yards throughout the Willamette Valley and Simon worked in the local office, although he was out in the field daily as a safety surveyor. The men liked Simon, and were surprised when this rather short man who said he was from Boston and had lived in Los Angeles helped them organize a labor union and reach an easy agreement for gradual wage increases with the Carlson family. They were even more surprised when one day, way up in Hood River, having been contracted out by a northern logging firm that needed extra help, one of the drivers asked, “Are you Jewish?” Since leaving Los Angeles, Simon had gone by the name Park, but after one beer with the boys he let his real name slip, then covered it up by saying it was his mother’s maiden name. It reminded Simon that he could not hold his liquor and shouldn’t drink. He had said factually, “Yes,” to which he learned that almost none of the men had ever met a Jew and were shocked that one had helped them organize a union. Simon had asked May to help him but she wanted nothing to do with it. This surprised him. May had always thrown herself into such causes. He expected her to do so with motherhood as well, but she hadn’t. It was Simon who had embraced parenting.

It stopped drizzling and Elizabeth had to be restrained from the temptation to leap off the curb into puddles and ruin her new saddle shoes. She liked to test her father; faking a jump and having him pull her back. She was a small child. Simon imagined that May had been about the same size at this age.

It was a Sunday, but there were people about. The Smith Meat Company had a sale on ground beef. Canned foods were being faced in the window of the Sunnyside Market, a hand-painted sign indicating a reduced price for Monopoly.

They reached the new cinema house and Simon lifted Elizabeth to the ticket booth window. His stomach muscles ached as he did so. Elizabeth once asked, “Daddy, why do you limp?” Having become a father had taught Simon that sometimes silence was a good enough answer. He allowed his daughter to hand over the money to admit two.

“What do you say?” Simon asked her when the teenage girl in a perfectly pressed white blouse and blue vest handed over two ticket stubs and change.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, and Simon put her down, smiled at the teenager and took his daughter’s tiny hand in his. He walked Elizabeth to the concession line. He had expected the cinema to be packed, but it was the early matinee. Many people were still at church. He assumed business would be better that night when the high school kids came. He hoped his article would help Randy’s opening.

Standing in line at the concession stand, Simon felt that seeing a picture again would be like a man running into an old girlfriend he once wanted to marry but who rejected him. He wanted to see a movie but didn’t want to at the same time, and couldn’t decide which desire felt more genuine, more right. Four days ago, when he was at his typewriter working on the cinema article, Elizabeth came into the study after duck-and-cover drills at the grade school and asked, “Daddy, will you take me to the new cinema house Sunday? Jenny Peterson’s father is taking her.” Simon had a date to the movies. That was enough to break his promise to May. At least his daughter hadn’t begged again for him to purchase a television console. May wouldn’t hear of it, wouldn’t allow their daughter’s mind to go to mush watching Hopalong Cassidy. Elizabeth could keep herself busy outside when it didn’t rain and by reading Beverly Cleary books when it did.

He could feel Elizabeth fidgeting as he held her hand. He looked down and saw that she was glancing around the lobby. “The movie plays four times today, sweetie,” Simon said, leaning down. “Jenny’s dad might take her to a different show.”

Elizabeth looked up at her father, confused by this, then stared ahead.

Simon bought two small popcorns and told the teenage boy behind the counter to not put butter on one of them because Elizabeth did not like butter. And even though May did not like Elizabeth to drink soda because she was always hyper after having sugar, Simon bought her one anyway. What’s a picture without a cold soda? he thought.

“Do you need to use the restroom before the show?” he asked Elizabeth before they walked through the red velvet drapes to the theater.

“I’m fine,” she said, factually, just as her mother would, and Simon led her into the theater.

“Where do we have to sit?” she asked.

“Anywhere you like,” Simon answered. “You get to pick.”

Elizabeth skipped down the right aisle and turned at the ninth row. She bumped past an older couple with her popcorn and soda in hand trying to reach the two empty seats beside them.

“What do you say?” Simon asked her.

“Excuse me,” she said and sat down in an empty seat, her feet dangling above the floor. “I can’t see.”

Simon removed his Fillson’s jacket, folded it and placed it under her.

“Do we get to see dogs?” Elizabeth asked, since she had been dropping hints lately that she wanted either a baby brother or a dog for her birthday.

Simon tried not to frown. The dog was a possibility if he could talk May into believing it would not tear up her garden. But a baby brother would never happen. Simon had accepted that May was not comfortable with motherhood and might never be. She was not a bad mother, but Simon was certain she would not have had Elizabeth if she could do it again. She was good with their daughter, in her own way, but it was Simon that did most activities with the child, whether it was playing at the park or jumping hopscotch in the driveway. “I don’t know; we’ll have to see,” he told her.

The theater slowly became three-fourths filled and Simon was thankful that the two teenage sweethearts that had stopped and looked at the seats in front of them decided to go to the back and did not sit in font of Elizabeth.

“Daddy,” Elizabeth said, “we’re inside, you need to take your hat off.”

Simon began to laugh. She was definitely her mother’s daughter. It amused him how his wife, who was certainly not conventional, dogmatically instilled manners in their daughter. He removed his Red Sox cap and ran his hands through his hair that needed a trim. He thought that maybe it was time to cut off the beard, too.

“Nothing’s happening, Daddy.”

“Just wait, be patient.”

Finally, the lights dimmed and the conversations about them hushed, which forced Elizabeth to whisper, “Daddy, why are the lights going out?”

“Just watch, you’ll see.”

The curtain opened and the hum of the first reel wind buzzed from behind them in the projector booth. The clean white canvas was lit up with an advertisement for candy bars followed by a newsreel about the hula-hoop craze. Simon knew it was another thing Elizabeth would inevitably want that he wouldn’t be able to keep himself from buying for her and it would make May irate that he was spoiling the girl. And then Simon held his breath slightly as he saw the logo for Sunrise Pictures sweep across the screen followed by A Martin Laskow Production.

“Look Daddy, it’s a train!” Elizabeth shouted, which immediately produced laughter from the couple beside them.

Simon leaned down and whispered into his daughter’s ear. “We can’t talk during the picture, just watch.” Elizabeth remained silent throughout the rest of the film.

He watched the movie for about two minutes, right up to the point where Feldon Tyler and Susan Kramor, dressed in the worst Western frontier wardrobe he had ever seen, entered the town bank of the Sunrise back lot. The bank folly front had also been converted to be the restaurant exterior where James Anderson and Cecelia Bends had their romantic dinner in The Fire Affair.

Simon was done. He knew he was beyond the pictures now, or they were beyond who he had become. He looked at his daughter, stared at her for the next hour as she watched her first motion picture.

Simon had forgotten what somebody looked like when they saw a picture for the first time. He watched as his daughter became excited, frightened, tense, held her mouth open with suspense and finally released a soft “Wow” when she was surprised. He saw how she became sad when the film hit its second plot point; how she was suffering with the characters. Most importantly, he saw that she was having fun. He was surprised how Elizabeth stayed fixated on the screen, even watching the closing credits for people she did not know, but whom her father had once worked with. Simon noticed that she had not touched her popcorn or soda since the lights dimmed. That was a good sign. She had been captivated, she had been convinced.

When the lights came back on, when the audience began to rise from their seats, Elizabeth turned to him. For a moment, he was concerned. She had tears streaking down her plump cheeks that were tiny replicas of her mother’s. But she was also grinning. She wasn’t upset. She looked at him and said exactly what Simon had said to his own father years before when he was taken to the pictures for the first time. Elizabeth said what everyone says when they see a movie they really enjoy, whether it’s their first time to a cinema house or the thousandth. Simon’s daughter looked right at him and said plainly and sincerely, “I want to see it again!” And he knew exactly what she meant.

He stared at her, pleased, then leaned down to her cheek. Simon gave his daughter a big kiss.

“Daddy?” Elizabeth asked. “Can we see it again? Can we?”

Simon bought two tickets to the next showing and they kept their same seats. He thought that, perhaps, this time he would watch the picture. As the lights dimmed once again in the cinema, he felt his daughter take his hand in her small, smooth fingers. The projector lights flickered on the screen.

The movie began again.

Simon Gandelman kissed his daughter’s cheek one more time, just before they were left to bond silently in the dark with imagined heroes—with celluloid strangers.

 

 

Eric Wasserman is an Assistant Professor of English at The University of Akron, where he also teachers in the Northeast Ohio MFA Consortium (NEOMFA). He is the author of a book of short fiction, The Temporary Life (La Questa Press, 2005) and his stories, articles and interviews have been featured in or are forthcoming in publications such as Glimmer Train, Poets & Writers Magazine Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, Vermont Literary Review, and Istanbul Literary Review. His story “He’s No Sandy Koufax” won First Prize in the 13th annual David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest and his story “Brothers” was the winner of the 2007 Cervená Barva Press Fiction Chapbook Prize. Eric recently finished his first novel, Celluloid Strangers. Learn more about Eric at www.ericwasserman.com

 

“Fade Out” is a novel excerpt from Celluloid Strangers by Eric Wasserman.

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Comments on this story by Renée Thompson, author of “Twelve Pencils”
Eric Wasserman’s “Fade Out” is the deftly crafted story of Simon, a young Jewish screenwriter who was blacklisted by his colleagues in 1950’s Hollywood. As a consequence, Simon takes his wife’s last name, Park, and the two of them move to a mill town in western Oregon in the hope of rebuilding their lives. After seven years and the birth of their daughter, Simon grows tired of pretending he no longer cares about the life he has abandoned, and takes several small steps toward reclaiming the work he loves – writing movies.

Wasserman’s gift is his ability to convey these plot points without once telling the reader that Simon is a former screenwriter, or that he’s been blacklisted; instead, we’re able to surmise nearly all that transpires via small, well-placed clues.

We know when we’re reading that something is up, and while we’re compelled to wait and see what happens, we are also rewarded, as the author doesn’t disappoint. By the story’s end, the puzzle is revealed, and looking back, we realize each piece was artfully and purposefully placed.

 




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