We shoulda known it. Barnett and that bank shot of his. The Piney Vista Drive-In’s what he called it, a wonderment of entertainment technology ginned up out of – typical Barnett fashion – nothing.
“Spiney vision?” said Lynch.
“Piney Vista,” said Barnett. He looked like he’d slept in his clothes. Or maybe not – from the look on his face – slept at all. But the voice was the same. Big. Bright. A vehicular expedition into a land of enchantment, said he, a marvelocity, as if it were the goddamn Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Ice Capades atop a zeppelin off the coast of Maui.
Goddam cow pasture’s what it was, off the road a ways, a fringe of timber in the bare center of which he builds, with his own hands, a projection booth. Not much of a projection, no, not in the bald light of day. A cinderblock bunker with a tin roof, that’s what it was, a cozy little oven inside of which the smells, the fresh and the stale and the ancient, they simmered. A single window was all, and covered with a flap of canvas, windowless window the projector peeked out of, and the mortar still damp in the seams, and the squidge of the bitten cigar and the zinc of the ten-penny nails, and the sweat that sours and the turpentine applied, not to the splintery raw of the rafters alone, but to the very air itself. Engraved on the cast iron base of the picture machine, the surplus Army projector? Eastman 25 Carbon Arc, 35 Millimeter. When he flipped the switch and fed the reel, it squawked like a wood-chipper, shivered up a dust the color of dried peas.
Outside, up top the bunker (we could just make it out in the glare), one of them neon bug zappers to cull the heavenly host, to juice the night air with a tang of danger. Under-foot, a spangle of broken pavers Picasso-ed up into the approximate shape of the state of Florida. Right this way, gentlemen, he said as we passed the PortoLet (throne of the gods he called it) flanked by a pole with a spigot, a scrap of rag, a cake of soap on a spike and a hand-lettered sign all stenciled up as if to celebrate the natural wonder of it all: Water.
Glory be. Hark the herald. And when he led us out to the little clearing under the trees (an Adventure Park is what he called it) — picnic table, teeter-totter, hump of sand the height of a toddler — it was with open arms he stood in the shade and cast his eyes up through the pine to the crush of the clouds, to the unbuyable blue of the sky overhead. You gotta open your eyes a little bigger, boys!
From glory unto glory, verily, up the gravel path that wound through the trees to the road. At the foot of the Plexiglass marquee with the ticky-tacky red letters — the S-O-O-N that clicked in the breeze — stood a telephone booth liberated from the wreck of a diner and furbished with a cash box and a stool and a cladding of fleshy posters, Hot Rod Rumble and Wild Women of Wongo and Cat Women of the Moon. Not a ticket booth, no, but a sentry box, a guardhouse, a gateway to the Holy of Holies where the plywood trailer tarted up into a snack bar swayed, the picket line after picket line of tinny speakers fizzed, the grassy ridges rippled outward from the spectacle at the center of it all, the —
“Ok GB. Where the hell you put the screen?”
“Coming attraction,” said Barnett.
“What, you gonna park a cloud up there to catch the picture?”
Bank shot. Another bank shot. As if he didn’t already know, the weasel, that before they could broaden the shoulders of the county roads they had to scrape away all the fences lolli-popped with mailboxes and swing-gates, bird-houses and whirligigs and oaken placards. Goodbye to the brand of the ranch in the days of yore – the Ring Bone, the Dog Iron, the Broken Arrow – the blazon they scored with the router, the torch of the welder, the flaming sword of the Cherubim. Goodbye to the ditches they’d have to obliterate, and the Hydrilla that bloom in the muck, and the gators that ripple the algae and here and there the mini-bridges that, corduroyed with pipe to keep the cattle in, span the green. It would all of it have to go. The stick-pinny signs (Burma-Shave and See The Monkey Jungle and Beautiful Atomic Tunnel, Home of Happy, The Walking Fish) gone, swept away, the mile-markers, the Mandevilla, the briars in a clinch across a plywood Jesus and the rusty junker and the booming oak and – especially — the telephone poles. One by one, candles on a cake about to be cut, they plucked them out and tossed them aside, sixty-footers studded with rebar, branded by cleats and by woodpeckers and by (splinter the size of a thighbone) lightening. Not perfect, no. Not the poles Lynch had spent a goddam week at the mill to render, no, but a boon from out the hand of the Almighty, a hobo’s delight, a – to hear it from GB – magnificent hunk of road kill there for the picking, gratis, out where the diesel blackens and the sky batters on above the clamor of the dig and the flash of the acrid flare.
So the bastard got the poles for fee. And the labor too, courtesy of Deputy Hogan, who stirred up a choir of convicts to spread the gravel, wire the speakers, unspool the fencing and, when the screen finally arrived, to bolt it across that palisade of poles.
Not the screen you special order from California, by the way, zigga-zagga-ed outta some hydraulic loom, sheered off by the acre and basted with titanium oxide for optimal luminosity. Not even the screen that Lynch, with a protractor and a T-square and a foolscap of carbon envisioned — the flying buttress and the bonnet of French curves and the cross-hatchery of pine and maple unwarpable in Nome or Tahiti. No. No-no. Billboards. Ex-billboards. Three of them altogether – Lucky Strike, Weeki Wachee, HoJo’s – kicked over by a hurricane, raked off the right-of-way, sledge-hammered back of Red’s Auto Body into a weldable slab of steel.
A hunk of junk? No, says he. A canvas. The canvas upon which the pictures appear, the sine qua non of the whole shebang, a vasty slab of nothing the prisoners – to consecrate them, said Barnett, to a higher calling – painted with barrels of (courtesy Florida Department of Transportation and a cousin with a set of keys) dotted-line-down-the-center-of-the-highway white. Barbasol white. Pepsodent white. Not merely an erasure of what came before but a fearsome white that blazes back at the onlooker, that simmers in the blue of the day and phosphors out into the chill of the night.
The Postcard From Nowheres-ville we called it. Barnett smiled and spread his arms wide, as if to absorb through the pores of his shirt the smell of the luminous paint. This was the bank shot he’d set into motion months – no, centuries – no, eons ago.
Think about it. Every single second – no listen, now listen — you got a quadrillion corpuscles of light that boil up out the heart of the sun, that ricochet off of every other goddam corpuscle, takes about a billion years to ping their way up out of the core, break the surface, bust out, every which way, a billion directions, right? And for free, right? And out of all of that mess, not but a single spit of light the width of a finger true enough to count on, quick enough to – nine minutes from the sun to the earth – cross the void and, in a perfect synchrony, strike the face of the cowboy up top of the stage coach there with the shotgun on his knee, the pretend-to-be-a cowboy – that’s right – halfback out of UCLA, lug of a kid name of (till the light hits him) Marion Morrison, till the light rebounds off the planes of the face to strike the lens of the camera, crash into the film, punch out, in a flitter of celluloid the size of a stamp a likeness, a flimsy-as-a-whisper facsimile of life sizeable enough to hold a whole new name and you guessed it, right? The Duke we call him. John Wayne the name the light dubs him when the sun sinks, and we gather up under the stars in the dark, up under the shelter of the trees, where the Piney Vista Drive-In simmers in the static of a hundred iron speakers impaled upon a hundred iron poles, and into the wind we peer, the wind like a window to wait for the hiss of the bulb at the click of the switch, and the blast of the light from out the projector, and from out the orb of the lens (a sun the size of a fist), the sliver of light that crosses the void to strike the white of the screen, to burn the face of the glacier, to paint again the Duke up top of the stagecoach with the shotgun on his knee, and the billions and billions of bbs of light – talk about a view — bounding off into the dark in a bank shot, a rebound off of this screen the height of a silo, broad as a damn, bright as a sheet of beach at the drop of the tide.
“Like I said, boys. I’m in the window business.”
“Good luck with that, GB. Out in the open like that.”
“Jesus, GB. The highway’s not but a hundred yards away.”
“Two bits for a peek at the moon. You gonna charge for that too?”
“Build yourself a wall maybe.”
“Great wall of China.”
“I already got me wall,” said Barnett. Smiled. And then we saw it, what we didn’t see before, pictured it in our mind’s eye. “That’s what the trees are for, boys. That’s what they do.”
The bastard. The trees to hide the screen. No. To half-hide — which was even better, even more perfect. As the traffic scoots along, the picture – the blaze of the face the size of a dirigible, the hand the size of a house – flickers through the branches, like a stripper it dances and, try as you might, it’s all you can do not reach out, to tear at the veil, to – what do you call it? Reverse psychology. Nothing like a negligee to stir the blood.
But no matter. No matter. What good is the shadow of a shadow compared to the thump of the jackhammer and the slap of the trowel? Our land was the better land, the land that was ripe, the all of it, the all of us, and after all the years of deprivation, the sticks and the bones and the cinders underfoot, we were ready, steady, girt for the harvest and keen to make a killing, hungry for the gold in the molar and the dime in the loafer and the piggy bank smacked with the ball-peen hammer. The fruit of the land, the fat of the land, the fungible swag of the invisible millions. The hollowed-out Bible and the fiver in the sock, the burlap satchel the wetback coddles and the slab-of-leather wallet shingled off the butt and the promissory note in the vellum credenza and even the swaddled-in-moss, tucked-in-the-crotch-of-an-oak lunchbox where the hooker hides her rubbers and her bennies and her roll of green.
This was the land that would feed us, favor us, bring us the ching-ching-ching of the asbestos bank bag and the snip of the silver clasp and the squeak of the patent leather accordion clutch. That would bring us the money and the bearers of the money, the flesh that ferries the gold from there to the here, here, the swollen knuckle the trucker ices on the porch of the barbeque shack, the sting of the sweat where the day-trippers queue, the flash of the match in the face of the smoker and the jab of the elbow and the thump on the back and the sighs of the honeymooners, parked in the dark of the grove, the glass all soapy with vows (dooms-day and got hitched and do not disturb) as they kick at the sack of grapefruit and the baby gator ashtray on the back seat, as they shed the buttons and the zippers and the ties, as they vibrate the cluster of shoes there carameled up onto the rear bumper.
Bring us more is what we said, is what we cried out for, bring us the whoosh of the engineers at Martin-Marietta with their wives and their kiddies and their Karmann Ghia convertibles squirting in and out of traffic, in and out to jog the diapers and the stocking stuffers in the trunk, to jog the toddler and jiggle the kiddie wheel — stamped by the Japs out of pink polyurethane, smuggled across in the bowels of a freighter, suctioned up onto the curve of the dash. Give us the jog of the bouffant of the Barbie, and the tip of the whip of the retractable antenna, and the frosty bottle of Bud in the brown paper cladding, cocked and at the ready, stick-shifted onto the fist, spritzed open in the wind like a Molotov cocktail. Glory. Glory be.
And so it came to pass. Parrish (who the hell’s ever heard of a Romanian Pancake House?) went under the first week. Lynch held on till August. Army/Navy Surplus – that bounty of ski goggles and canvas bandoleers and commando sweaters in shades of olive and khaki and bark? Not the most lucrative endeavor in a climate that bubbles sap and squeegees tar up out the sidewalk chinks. Bidwell’s Bait and Tackle you would think, what with all the anglers and the crabbers – but no. It was the stench that did him in. Not the workaday funk of night crawlers and maggots no, but that little something extra, stench enough to pickle your palette, odor of the briny main all sautéed up into the reek of that taxidermy lab at the back of the shop: spirit gum and tannic acid, formaldehyde and sawdust and varnish and meat.
Not that Bidwell didn’t try. Ten Dollars read the flyer – still damp off the ditto machine and pungent with menthol – he palmed up onto the windshield of every car in every church parking lot for miles. Ten Dollars… it said in block letters above a whiskered face of indeterminate lineage. … Mount A Raccoon. Whether the godly saw this as an invitation to romance, a provocation of the flesh, or a fulfillment of the Biblical injunction to take dominion over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth we never knew. The phone never rang. The mail-orders (Taxidermy in the Comfort of Your Home!) never arrived. Never did it jangle, the tiny bell that hung from the line that swung from the jaw of the sockeye salmon there ambered up over the doorway. You would think, what with all the dogs and the cats rolling in off the interstate from Snow Country to cavort in the sun and then, eyes turned heavenward, die, you’d have a booming trade in the preservative arts. Even your disposable pets, your turtles and your finches and your hamsters, it stands to reason — lifespan of a light bulb — you’d want, not a trophy, no, but, at the very least, a keepsake. Paperweight. Doorstopper. Ashtray. Something.
“To hell with them all,” said he the day the salvage truck came to cart away the inventory. “Something callow about a people care more for the wax on the hood of their Chevy than the fate of a loyal companion.”
Callow people. Shallow people. Even Maxie’d bailed by the time the winter rolled around, there not being much call for a top-of-the-line Polyphonic Edison Radio here in the cubicular kingdom of the picture machine, the almighty Philco in the red mahogany cabinet with the Bakelite knobs, the screen the size of a cheese danish and the tube like a toaster, the magic lantern around which the families huddle in a amphitheater no bigger than a bathmat to eat the geometrical dinner — the rectangular meat, the triangular potato, the octagonal apple sleeved up into a tin envelop and baked in a steel box and unbuckled in a cloud of steam that cleanses the soul and frees the lid, the tin-foil lid to perform the office intended for it by The Almighty the day He laid the foundations of the deep and the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy – the flag of aluminum foil they crispy up onto the stalk of the antenna to whisk, from out the invisible air, the erasable flame of the face.
To hell with it. To hell with it all. Trekking home that night from the pub the four of us, afoot, afloat, we stop at the edge of the wood, the timber that border the Piney Vista.
Bidwell pees. Holsters. Comes a gust of wind, a shiver in the crown of the oak, a breach in the wall and behold: we see it, a blaze of color, the whole of the screen.
When Worlds Collide the movie. Big as a frigate the rocket up there, chockfull of pets and provender and people in a break-out, a break away, a Noah’s ark. All aboard. We gather round to hitch us a ride. Up the side of a mountain they roller coaster, a burst of orange and boom: into the stars they — and every mother’s son of us, us all of us a stowaway, and grand, and talk about a bank shot – go. Free. Gratis. For free!
Serves him right, the bastard.