Faith and Guts
I don’t know what it was about you. You weren’t the prettiest girl I’d known. Perhaps it was your compactness, the way you seemed to carry a whole other world inside your body. Though how you could cut out a flounder’s guts, scrape its scales, and chop its head off in seconds was what first made me notice you. And those pictures on the walls of your apartment, all those photographs of black and white movie stars long dead. I still don’t know what makes someone want to watch silent films, to revel in a past without sound. You had a mystery and I was determined to find it. I know you thought I was shallow, that the two of us wouldn’t work, but I disagreed. I felt that if I could cup your face in my hand, turn your head at just the right angle, show your eye the light, you’d agree.
It was Friday night and we had the weekend to ourselves. Like even the most faithless of atheists, you called God’s name on Saturday afternoon. It disappointed me, but the green, viscous gob you spat in my eye that night upheld my original feelings. Which is why it shocked me on Sunday to find your eyes glassy already, the choir in the church across the street belting out the first hymn of the day, windows open for the summer morning to let everyone hear.
I remember when you and I checked groceries at Publix and you had lost all your black thread so you’d sewn your buttons back on with pink and it didn’t match against that ugly lime green uniform. I prodded you to tell me who was ripping them buttons off when we were slow and you blushed and looked down, but didn’t tell. I was teasing and could tell you liked it. I suppose you were in love. And that prevented you from realizing the terrible position you got yourself in.
This happened more than once. I told Momma about the buttons. And that I thought you were in love. “Is she?” Mom said smiling which annoyed me. You were always Mom’s favorite. She got on the phone with Uncle Frank and then got on the phone with Uncle Joseph. I had to hear the story all over again but different each telling and Joseph was hard-of-hearing and wanted to make sure he understood so it was told a few times very loud. It was creepy hearing my little sister’s romantic liaisons getting told over and over with male relatives, but they were all more excited about your beau’s government job at the Custom and Border Protection agency keeping the Spanish and Caribbeans out of this country than whatever you got into in the bedroom. I didn’t really understand what kind of border work there was to be had in Tennessee and I still don’t.
This was not long after cousin Phyllis had gone hitching west, planning on going all the way to California, and been picked up by a crazy man on the interstate. She was just another victim—he’d killed a whole bunch and had done unspeakable things to their privates and chopped off their heads and whatnot, some not discovered until they were skeletons. Creepy devil staring at the camera after they caught him like he didn’t have a soul or what he had done was kind of nice or something to be proud of. He had been a killer of prostitutes and Phyllis got lumped in with that lot, though I know she weren’t no prostitute, just a pretty star-struck girl who wanted to see if she could make it in the movies and who could blame her seeing as she weren’t never that smart and only had a part-time job at KFC and lived at home. I couldn’t just dismiss Phyllis as a prostitute, though, could imagine her screaming and questions and praying but knowing things weren’t going to end well for her as they drove through the night with all those cities sparkling so near that she could almost touch them, people impassive and deaf to her fear, headlights bouncing around inside the car, red tail lights in the distance. And maybe she jumped from the car and maybe he chased her through the woods and under bridges with a knife, but in the end, all she was was meat. And her wig was found first, mashed down soggy with weeks of raining. The newspaper said that.
But Phyllis was more to me than a wig or meat. She was also a little girl once, a girl that you and I ran with through the hills in the foot of the Smokey Mountains with cousins Seth and Maureen playing basketball in their dirt-packed driveway or Superfriends amidst the buttercups, snapdragons, geraniums, eucalyptus, and ivy covered hills, sun sinking until it became a moon, reds and greens turning to pinks and oranges as the houselights came on, day’s heat turning to cool, air filled with fireflies and mosquitoes, until we finally wandered into our cousins’ white aluminum-sided house to drink cokes and cut slivers off a block of round cheese, peeling the red wax, to eat it with Triscuits.
I remember the first day I worked at Publix. I was sixteen and training to be a cashier and learning to bag groceries and after the first fifteen minutes, I was so bored I thought I would die if I had to stay the whole six-hour shift. I thought that I might walk out the door and not come back, not even to get a paycheck for these fifteen worked minutes. But by the next fifteen minutes, or maybe it was thirty, anyway, not too much longer, I realized that I could do it. And then it was seven years later and I had health insurance and a five-year pin on my uniform and ten dollars an hour and you’d joined me and I was thinking of how much longer I got to do this until I can retire.
Judah came in. He was a sweaty guy with receding hairline, the start of a gut and sparkling eyes with a hint of red. I felt, after seeing him with you, the way he shook my hand and kissed your cheek, the way he waited patiently at the front while you went to get your purse and punch out, that he was mostly harmless. And, I suppose, compared to the guy that picked up Phyllis, he was. He just cheated on you. Slapped you around a little, busted a lip now and then. Gave you two babies and then left you high and dry. But I was gone by then. I got in my old Escort and hit 75 going north. I wasn’t going to make Phyllis’ mistake. I wouldn’t stand on the side of the highway and wait for some man to come and kill me. I’d take myself out of there, hitting Interstate 10 going west and who cared if my car didn’t make it. I’d stop off in some other metropolis and live since I didn’t really give a shit about being famous. I could wait tables or check groceries in any city, maybe attend school at night to make something more of myself. I guess, just like Phyllis, I’d been taught by the movies that that’s what girls do.
The Clumsiest of Cinematic Techniques
So you didn’t win Best Director. It went to John Depreción. Of course, it went to him. He directed The Dupe Journal and Wheels! He’s the founder of Other Fish in the Sea Productions, has been called the Walt Disney of the 21st century. He’s the face of family-friendly entertainment without all the cloying elements so familiar from most children’s movies. Adults become children watching his films. The public sorely wants to be entertained these days. They need it.
Depreción is a film director for the new millennium. Like Hitchcock when he won his Lifetime Achievement Oscar, Depreción knew better than to blather on about things that don’t matter, simply said, “Thank you,” raised his statue to the cameras, and walked offstage. Dialogue is the clumsiest of cinematic techniques, always a last resort. You, too, are learning this. Your films have slowly progressed from promising to sub-genius work. I predict that a similar award, perhaps the same, will be in store for you. Someday.
I saw immediate promise in you back in grad school when you were my student and I created a graph to plot your career. On the horizontal axis I marked the years; on the vertical, I charted “quality.” In an attempt to quantify this amorphous concept, I gave points to various attributes: setting, lighting, editing, sound, cinematography, linking of narrative and stylistic elements, etc. In the twenty years since you worked your way through my program—starting with your thesis film, Information—your trajectory has moved steadily upward from the lower-left-hand corner to the upper right of the chart with only the occasional blip downward.
Don’t be shocked. I do this with all of my students, but yours has been the most pleasurable for me to yearly trace. In fact, you might or might not be surprised to hear that most of my students don’t succeed as film directors. Some settle for work as teachers or tech people, but the vast majority don’t find steady work in either the film industry or academe despite my efforts to guide them. A few years ago, I attempted to find a few of my more promising students who had disappeared, tracked them down to make an informal survey of what they had been up to in the years since graduation. In order to earn a living, it seemed that they were doing almost anything but making films: waiting tables, tutoring children, guiding tours, modeling for life drawing classes, editing gay erotica. They were doing every kind of awful job from working as secretaries to prostitutes.
Remember Orville Bonds? He stopped by last year and was living in his car. What a car! A rusty station wagon crammed with cans, broken bottles, hoses, lawn chairs, clothes, and whatnot. He was making ends meet by scrounging for scratched CDs and moldy books to sell. CDs! He and Ada Teratian had split. Surely, you remember her. Apparently, they’d been living in the car until she came after him with a pocket knife at a rest stop in Georgia. He’d left her there and hadn’t seen her in years.
Orville had seemed so self-possessed, so smart and innovative when he was my student. He seemed to really think in film. I know you all looked up to him. But I couldn’t connect my memory of him from those days with this trashy guy speaking too loudly in the faculty parking lot, almost yelling about various embarrassing episodes. Apparently, he and Ada had had a child though I’m not sure what became of it. He seemed to be barely tethered to reality, his rambling dialogue giving me no clue about whether they took the baby with them when they were moving around the country, left it with a family member, or if they simply put it up for adoption. I don’t even know what gender it is.
We went out for a beer. I didn’t really want to, but for some reason couldn’t come up with an adequate excuse. It was awful. He picked a fight with some frat boys, screamed the most offensive obscenities and then the bouncer tossed him into the alleyway. That’s the last I’ve seen of him.
I suspect this is not news to you since that image of Orville—snot-faced, shrieking and crying as a bouncer hulks toward him, cracking his knuckles in preparation for punching—is astonishingly reminiscent of your most recent film, Effigies. Except your homeless guy doesn’t curse. And he never leaves the woman at the rest stop; they’re together in the bar when he goes down to his knees. He’s grabbing at his chest, apparently a heart attack. The other people in the bar are strangely—and poetically—indifferent to his suffering. The main thing that really sticks in my mind, though, is the bright yellow shirt your protagonist is wearing. It’s very similar to the one that Orville was wearing the last time I saw him, the only clean thing he had on. Right before he got into the argument with the frat boys, I was getting us a pitcher of beer, carrying it back to the murky corner table where Orville sat by himself, seeming to speak on one of those hands-free telephones, except that he didn’t have one. I felt that I was going to weep. I thought if any of my students would have made a name for himself, it would have been Orville. He was my favorite, maybe even the son I never had. And there he was, talking to himself in a dive bar, wearing a stupid yellow shirt. That shirt, it seemed to glow.