Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane
It didn't start with a desire to change anything, just to catch a matinee of Broadway Melody of 1940 at a theater that played old movies on the weekend, and to find something to do with my inability to sleep. But Rachel took too long with her coffee, so we missed the whole first scene, and I didn't feel like walking in late. She made it up to me by emailing a digital brochure for the CineMotel, a string of connected city blocks dedicated to those who want to get immersed in film culture and can afford the price of a single movie ticket. I don't know how they manage to provide room and board for that little, but no one I met there ever asked.
Of course, I had to be there on the weekend someone died. Eleanor Powell had just danced her way back into my heart, and I was about to settle in for the night, small travel bag ready for the morning's shuttle home. There came three stern knocks at my door, and I buzzed the guest in. A suited concierge with acne scars on his forehead stood with his hands folded in front of him, ready to perform an act he'd already done a thousand times.
"Miss," he said, "I don't believe we've had the pleasure. I'm Wade, caretaker of your building. Someone else must have checked you in."
"I'm Greta," I said. "Yes, it was someone named Charlie."
"Good kid," Wade said. "Big future ahead. Maybe not in pictures, but you get my meaning."
He scratched at a little bleach spot on his pant leg. "Sadly, one of our guests has passed away in her room. Local law enforcement has requested all guests remain at the CineMotel until a cause is determined and a full investigation completed."
A couple thoughts crossed my mind. One: this is the plot of several movies, and I must have come here on a weekend they were doing some kind of murder mystery. Two: I would rather be here than home, pacing around my apartment until four in the morning, knowing how useless it would be to shut my eyes.
"Of course," Wade said, "all films you choose to attend during your extended stay will be complimentary." I was amazed he kept his cool, telling row upon row of guests how the cops had five city blocks on lockdown because one of us might have inhaled too many whiskey shots and taken The Silence of the Lambs literally.
"What if I want to pay for the tickets?" I said.
Ah. Got him. I could tell by the brief pause and the extra bleach-spot-scratch, no one had asked him this yet. He gathered himself. Never broke character.
"Management insists upon this concession."
"I like to keep my stubs," I said.
I like the feeling of a movie ticket in my hand: how every theater, even the separate ones at the CineMotel, have their own ticket design; how the ticket-ripper gives half back to me like a friendship necklace; the sound of the ticket ripping; the souvenir I get to tack on my corkboard, a little piece of paper with an abbreviated movie title, as if they were coming up with the title as they were printing the tickets.
Wade gave a warm, knowing smile, once again in control of the conversation. "We will continue to provide tickets as usual." He looked down at the stub on my night table. "Ah," he said. "Broadway Melody of 1940. One of my favorite memories with my mother. Though when you think about it, things fell into place a little too easily for Fred Astaire in that one."
He examined the stub for another second, then looked back at me as if pulling himself out of hypnosis.
"Well," he said," if all is agreeable to you, I will move on. Please enjoy yourself."
Not until now had I really looked at my room: blood-orange walls and black furniture, Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman giving me side-eye from a black-and-white Persona poster over the couch, glowing bell lamps on every flat surface, none of them bolted down. The film schedule lay on the kitchen bar. I placed my fingers on the cover.
The CineMotel's size allowed it to provide everything from small Art Deco theaters and old-school movie houses with a little marquee out front, to rooms with stadium seating and even an actual drive-in. I figured I'd get to the drive-in eventually, but not tonight; the Flash Gordon/Attack of the 50 Foot Woman double-feature had already started, and I didn't actually have my car with me.
I tucked the schedule under my arm and headed to the elevator at the end of the hall. Inside hung a full-length mirror with tiny bulbs framing it, so you could feel like a star while freshening your lipstick on the way to one of the CineMotel's in-between-theaters places, like the restaurant built to look like Grauman's Chinese Theatre, or the dive bar whose every inch is plastered with old photos of Marilyn Monroe. The person in the mirror tonight was wearing a gray hoodie and sensible shoes. She slipped a sand-colored curl beneath the hood with the tip of her finger and hoped she at least looked suitable enough to be let into the Monroe dive.
The elevator hovered at the second floor, and in walked a guest wearing a tux and fedora, a few inches shorter than I, even with the hat, neon green hair spilling out around the brim. The guest looked at the pad of buttons, and seeing the L already lit up, leaned against the wall and waited.
"Hi," I said. "Seeing anything good?"
The guest turned to look at me. Slight frame. Delicate face and lips. Fluid mannerisms, not exactly feminine, not exactly anything else. "Something suspenseful seems appropriate." Smooth, boyish voice. "Can I look at your menu?" A nod toward the booklet under my arm.
"Sure." We stood shoulder to shoulder, exiting the elevator together when it hit the lobby, scanning the selections.
"On the count of three," my new friend said, "say the name of the movie you want to see."
"One. Two. Three."
I said The Shop around the Corner and my new friend said True Romance.
"Let's try again."
Through the lobby's glass wall, a small group was marathoning 1960s grindhouse films on an old box television. I could see a VCR alongside the TV. Couldn't tell what the movie was, though. Something with Lee Van Cleef.
One of the guests, a chubby younger guy with a receding hairline, winked at me through the glass.
"The Big Gundown," my new friend, waiting beside me, said.
"That's what you want to see?"
"No. That's what they're watching in there."
The two of us finally decided on Miller's Crossing, and then I realized we must have also agreed, without my even thinking about it, to see a movie together.
"I'm Greta," I said before my friend passed through the lobby's automatic door.
"Jack in the Pulpit."
"Can I call you Jack for short?"
Jack and I sat next to each other in the CineMotel's little art-house cinema. The upstairs screen was showing our movie, while the basement theater—named the "Broadbent Room" after one of their projectionists—was playing Andrei Rublev. I thought we'd chat during the movie, maybe about the strange Wade visits, or the dead girl, or the tug in my chest saying there was no actual death, that management was keeping us here for some other reason, that it was just a bit weird that no one was complaining about being detained. But Jack's feet remained perched on the seats in front of us until the credits rolled, dark polish glowing in flashes of projector light, and the only time we spoke during the film was to quote John Polito's lines.
After, in a velvety corner booth at the Monroe dive, we hashed over the movie while a server in a red visor slid appetizer plates onto our table. Jack noshed on bacon-loaded potato skins, doing Miller's hard-boiled dialogue with a stuffed mouth. I waited for a pause, then brought up the CineMotel's calm and the jitters it was giving me.
As I spoke, Jack examined one of our coasters, emblazoned with an image of Marilyn from before she was a big star, probably from the private Andre de Dienes album. In this image, she crouched on a beach in a white bathing suit, bare toes squishing prints into the sand, little chipmunk cheeks pleased by something on the horizon. I didn't think Jack was really listening.
"Damn. Marilyn had great arches."
"I'm serious," I said. "I'm happy to stay forever, but people must be talking. How can they stop everyone from leaving? How can that be legal? What about guests who have babies and shit?"
Jack took a sip of ginger ale. "Why?"
"Why are you happy to stay here forever?"
"Not much waiting for me but a twin bed and a pile of laundry."
Another sip, a twirl of the straw, swish of ice. "Sounds almost like a line from a movie."
Jack's back was to the bar, above which three televisions were playing Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with subtitles. When our plates of fried food were gone, we ate ice cream sundaes from shot glasses and talked about what movies we'd see tomorrow. Eventually, we got tired enough to pass out. At least one of us would actually be able to.
I walked Jack back to our building, then hit the sidewalk again, alone this time. I caught a moderately crowded midnight showing of Betty Blue, and even though I sat by myself in the back and didn't speak to anyone, I imagined everyone was trying to puzzle out what was really going on with the CineMotel. No one seemed to be calling management to protest—heck, they were still silencing their phones before the movie.
My mouth tasted sour. It had been a perfect night with Jack. I wished I could have gone to my room instead of another movie, glided into bed like a swan, and left the perfect night embedded there forever, like hand-prints in cement.
I conked out for about an hour, lying on top of my fully-made motel bed, then awoke to rollicking jazz drifting from the room's muscle-car alarm clock. The previous guest must have set it up for an early morning. I smashed the button on the car horn, then flipped open the notepad on the nightstand and scribbled Why did they want to wake up at six?
I shook out my bird's nest of hair in the mirror, tore a whitehead off the side of my nose, and noticed a folded piece of motel stationery on the floor, slid under my door during the night.
Jack's door sat slightly ajar. Through the opening, I could see Jack in downward dog, hands and feet crushing into the shag carpet.
"Hey," I said through the crack.
Jack's face popped up, green hair pulled back in a band. "Yeah. Come on in."
The room was similar to mine, as far as lamps not being bolted down and the bathroom being tucked in the same corner, but it felt like someone else's home. The comforters were peeled back and bunched at the bottom of the bed. Dresses, pinstripe pants, and blazer tops lay humped across the fitted sheet. A Dr. Strangelove poster stretched above the pillows.
I sank into a cushion by the open blinds, sun cutting into my sundress in little blades. Jack went to the kitchenette, then returned with a glass of something red, a towel draped over one shoulder.
"I have an idea you might like." Jack sat next to me and crossed one leg over the other, sipped the drink. Our thighs squished together. "Have you ever heard of Artemis?"
A few years ago, I'd seen a film called The Last Village Girl, a low-budget chestnut with a die-hard following. It turned out the filmmaker was 17 years old. No one had seen her face, but in a text-only interview, she'd discussed the process of casting the film's sole actress, who sat at a wooden table and read fairy tales to a starling, whom she called an "invasive little shit," before traipsing through a plantation of dead spruces and describing her life from 40 years old back to her first memory. The entire film was a single tracking shot.
The filmmaker called herself Artemis, and ideas about her true identity exploded: maybe she was some famous director's daughter, or she was a group of people, or there was no filmmaker and The Last Village Girl was actual found footage. It helped that the actress, Lily Luzzi, was a total unknown who never appeared in anything again.
"I don't know," Jack said. "But look at this."
I looked at the schedule on the end table. This Week Only. There was a photo of a blonde woman with a phony smile, head tilted, pen in hand, and a neat stack of screenplays under her elbow.
"Some screenwriter I've never heard of is giving a talk?"
"That's Carol Denver. She's judging short films made by guests at the CineMotel."
I looked more closely at the photo. Someone else's silhouette was cast against the white wall in the background, a feminine shadow, maybe the photographer. "Are you going to submit something?"
"Well," Jack said, "this place isn't just for people who like big air-conditioned rooms. I want to do something like The Last Village Girl. I've sort of started already. Not sure if it's worth anything, but I figure that's for Carol to decide."
I studied the silhouette on the wall, locked into the photo like it was a book of puzzles. "We're on a first-name basis with her already?"
"Hey, I've been watching her forever. I just wanted to see if you think I'm good enough."
I thought back to meeting Jack in the elevator, about the hyperbolic nature of time in the CineMotel, how a night with someone here could create a string of memories that felt like a year.
"I don't think my opinion matters," I said. "Just do your thing."
Jack swashed the dregs of the drink, then set the cup on a star-shaped coaster. "Okay. Thanks."
I set the schedule on my lap. Jack leaned over to look with me, didn't detach our legs.
The CineMotel's drive-in was showing a double-feature of old animation, but again, no car.
"The Phantom Tollbooth," Jack said, "then lunch, then Les Adieux à la reine."
I guessed this meant we would be a team until the CineMotel opened its gates again. Not that any of it would help me sleep. I rubbed my eyes, imagining bleaching away the redness.
"Hey," Jack said, touching a fingertip to my knuckle, gently pushing my hand away from my eyes. "Try this. Breathe in for eight seconds, hold it for seven, breathe out for six. Do it until you fall asleep." I looked back down at the schedule. "But that means you have to actually try to sleep, not go out and see more movies after I drop you at home."
Watching the post-Tollbooth credits, I realized how lightheaded I was, how soaked with projector light and saturated with Hollywood glitz. I may have forgotten my other life if I could have passed out for a full night in this one.
Next to me, Jack was curled into the cushion. "I've wanted to make a movie for a long time," Jack said in a whisper. "Do you ever think about that?"
I hadn't. But in the short time I'd known Jack, I hadn't heard such softness, such vulnerability, in that voice. My friend had a dream. I couldn't even sleep.
How would shooting a movie work in the CineMotel, though? Did they rent camera equipment to guests? Did they expect people to stay here long enough to make a feature? Where were the editing machines?
At lunch, Jack took a salty mouthful of French fries and said, "How can I keep you from disappearing?"
"You know what I'm here for. What can I help you with?"
I mentioned the shadow-woman in the background of the screenwriter's photo. I'd been studying silhouettes all morning, examining the outlines of the guests who passed between me and the screen.
Jack slurped soda from the bottom of a plastic cup. "Why?"
"Because that photo isn't like a photo. It's like a movie poster. You get little clues by looking real close."
A pause. A gesture to the waiter. "You're right," Jack said, "you need a good night's rest. Did you try that breathing thing?"
"You only told me about it three hours ago."
As a child, even when I could sleep, I'd have to fixate on something in order to drag myself into unconsciousness. I'd think of a cow grazing, or a funny face my sister Rachel had made that day. Or I'd press my eyes shut and get lost in the amorphous blue-white constellation of light behind them. I called it "dream goop." Sometimes, I'd replay entire movie plots in my mind. Other times, I'd think of shadow puppets.
That night, the burning in my eye sockets was all I could think about, the heaviness in my shoulders. As I lay in the CineMotel bed, Ullman and Anderson judging me from the Persona poster, I fixated on the shadow-woman, traced her outline in my mind. When I filled in the outline, she became Artemis, artist and goddess, long russet hair and high cheekbones, lips ready to unfurl a spool of film knowledge moviemakers thrice her age couldn't touch.
My Artemis trance lasted about 20 minutes. I slipped in and out of sleep until midnight, caught the first half of Alien on my room's television, then stretched out on my stomach, slid my arm under the pillow. How long was I supposed to breathe in? I tried eight seconds, held my breath as long as I could, spat it back out. Rachel's funny faces. That French movie's end credits. Jack's narrow feet roosted on the seats in front of us. Shadow puppets. Shadow-woman. Artemis.
If I ever meet her, I thought as I drifted off again, I'll thank her for this gift.
I ate breakfast alone in my building's little cafeteria. Each table had a centerpiece featuring a famous movie prop in a plastic case: Humphrey Bogart's hat from Casablanca, the soda cup Sam Jackson slurps from in Pulp Fiction, Burt Lancaster's red sash from The Crimson Pirate. My table had that model ship Luke waves around in Star Wars while he's dreaming about being somewhere else.
A woman walked through the arched entrance. Flowery dress. Black pumps. Following her came a younger man, curly hair and thin-rimmed glasses, rolling a camera, closing in on her face.
"And you shall all be extras in my great drama!" she bellowed.
The man called, "Cut!" The woman spun, the hem of her dress revealing a quarter-sized mole before settling back over her thigh like a blanket. "More heart," the man said. "Make them understand you are the star."
I didn't know much about Carol Denver, but I could guess this dude wasn't going to be winning the white carnation.
Next to me, another scene began. A couple, middle-aged, arguing in front of a camera while a script supervisor mouthed the lines to herself.
"Marsha, you told me they had water here. My head is killing me. I can't travel another 50 miles in the desert without a drink!"
"We'd best watch our backs. The water may not be the only thing they're lying about."
"Cut! Check the gate."
I poured a cup of sticky breakfast syrup over my English muffin and bit into the crust.
I wandered into the courtyard. Around the transplanted aspens, directors chased their actors, threads of one film weaving into another, dialogue shouted between performers from separate stories. A woman in an astronaut helmet blew kisses to a vampire. The vampire recited a Shavian monologue. Natural light dripped from a sky, rushing over the whole scene like watercolor. I licked a dab of syrup off my fingertip.
My phone buzzed, and I realized I hadn't checked it since meeting Jack for the first time. I let it go to voice mail when I saw someone familiar in front of one of the cameras: Wade, the caretaker of my building. He was wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, throwing shadow-punches like he was prepping for a boxing match. "Bring him on," Wade was saying. "He ain't no match for the King of Kanazawa."
When the director called cut, I tugged on Wade's sleeve.
"Pretty sure Kanazawa's top fighter shouldn't sound like he's from Burbank," I said.
Wade turned, and his expression flickered back to the professional who'd told me the CineMotel was now my temporary home.
"Good to see you," he said. "Gretchen, was it?"
"I'm afraid you're right, but I'm all the filmmaker could scrounge up on short notice. That's show business."
"I'll take your word for it."
"Not a thespian, then? More a spectator? Nothing wrong with that. There's something to be said for being a staple at your favorite movie theater, feeling like you always have a seat waiting for you."
"Wade, do you really work here?"
He straightened up. "Of course, Miss." He was serious. "My job is to serve the guests. Since the Carol Denver competition is running this week, taking on roles in guests' original screenplays is part of my daily duty."
"Sounds like kind of a shit deal."
He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Well, as I'm sure you know, state law dictates one's supervisor may decide what one's work for the day will be. All I can do is give it my best effort for the sake of the craft."
"I don't suppose you can tell me when I'm getting out of here."
A sigh. A look of urgency, like he needed to get back to what he was doing, even though the cameraman was crunching a granola bar and staring at some actress's butt.
"I get it, Wade," I said.
I dropped the subject, and he got back into character.
I returned to my room at three in the morning. Two men were kissing in front of the door across the hall. They stopped when I wiggled my key into the lock.
"As you were," I said. "Gotta pass the time somehow until we get out of here, right?"
They looked at me like I was drunk.
I collapsed onto my bed. My suitcase was empty now, open like a drooling mouth, jeans and bras and knee-socks trickling across the carpet.
I spent the entire next day trying to nap. I'd drift off for a few minutes, wake up, drift off again, blink awake, flip on the CineMotel's 24-hour movie channel and catch part of The Maltese Falcon or Down to the Sea in Ships, drop my body into the mattress again, sandwich my head between pillows. The one time I fell asleep for more than an hour, I saw Jack's green hair bursting into a nebula glimmering with silver studs, weaving back and forth through space. Jack, a pendulum.
Artemis, or what I thought Artemis would look like—ropy hair, face perpetually focused on what she was making, but also half-daydreaming—sat cross-legged beneath, capturing all of this on a boxy old camera.
Then I was in my room again, sun going down outside, Anne Francis on the TV screen, doing a come-hither dance for Leslie Nielsen.
Muscle-car clock: 8:30 PM.
No need to move.
My buzzer rang as I was about to haul a tin of butter cookies and caramel popcorn to the art deco theater for a night of old movie trailers. Through the peephole, there stood Jack. No camera, no actors, just a yellow tent dress and nude heels, green hair with black roots starting to show, a little hoop in one nostril.
I heaved the door open. "Milady," Jack said. "To the drive-in, shall we?"
"I don't have a car."
"Neither do I. The drive-in is a permanent fixture here. They have old cars with working radios just sitting in a field. Movie magic." Jack looked down at my schedule, which was flipped to the directions to my screening. "You were going to watch a history of movie trailers? Isn't that like having a bunch of singles but no albums?"
Jack's lips opened in a toothy grin, dimples creased, eyes smiling. Probably been waiting to use that joke all week.
I offered my arm, and Jack took it.
We sat curled in the shell of an old Cadillac. Jack's feet were planted on the passenger seat, shoes kicked into the corner of the wheel well. The stars of an independent Iranian film flashed across the towering metal screen. Salty-sweet fragments of kernel sat wedged between my molars. Now and then, I thought I saw Jack look over at me, and I'd look over at Jack, but our eyes kept missing each other.
"Why didn't Artemis make any more movies?" I said. "You'd think she would have, considering how many people still talk about it." I wasn't sure if Jack could read subtitles and chat at the same time, but the silence inside the car made the air feel soupy and dense.
"I don't know," Jack said. "She was young. Maybe it's not what she really wanted to do. I thought I was going to work on car engines."
To our left, a couple was making out in a Maserati. I wondered how many times they'd been to the drive-in this week.
On the right, just past Jack's head, an old man sat in a roofless Mustang, bristles of snowy hair dancing off his scalp. Behind us, the snack bar glowed under florescent coins of light. This was why I came here: not to see a movie I could have rented, but for that moment during any movie when I forget where I am, when my body floats in that space between artificial light and actual darkness.
The sound of a slamming door brought me back to the moment. The passenger seat was empty, pushing Jack's thigh-prints back to normal, and outside the window, Jack's elfin frame smoldered under the steady moonlight, slowly moving away from me.
No answer. The heels were still flopped on the floor.
I lurched the driver-side door open and followed my companion into the trees behind the snack bar, shuffling past other cars, ducking in front of them as if it would make me invisible.
We were in a small, near-black clearing. The chatter of car radios grew quiet. I felt mud squishing beneath my shoes.
"My movie needs a scene in the woods with someone beautiful." Jack was aiming a tiny phone camera at me. I felt my cheeks flush, my toes curl.
"The scene should probably star someone who can act," I said.
"It needs a scene in these woods. With you."
I tried to focus on Jack's eyes, tried to see what they were saying. Too dark.
"Tell me what you're thinking, Greta. But don't look like you're telling me. Tell one of those trees or something."
An old spruce stood inches from my head. I turned to face it, snagging some hair on a burst of needles, then pressed my forehead against the bark. I said I wondered what it was like to rest. Jack gave a soft sigh. I said I couldn't stop worrying. I said I wanted to go home. I skimmed my fingers over the spruce's trunk, the bark flaky and rough. I said this tree was a goddess. I didn't know if Jack's camera was even rolling yet.
Jack lowered the phone and stepped through the mud toward me. Then a warm hand was on my cheek. When Jack's face was inches from mine, I smelled caramel and hotel sheets.
Arms linked, we walked through the open elevator doors to my hallway, another couple trying not to stare at our giddy, silent forms. I looked down. Jack's feet were now slick with mud, striding over the lilac carpet toward my room. My blood rushed. I fiddled with the key, shaking it into the lock when we finally reached my door.
We didn't embrace as much as fall into each other. First, Jack was underneath me. My lips touched Jack's foot, ankle, thigh, then I was tumbling into a stack of pillows, then Jack was above me, fingers fumbling over my neck and chest, body and face lit and darkened by piles of clouds passing across the plate of moon, the light sundered by the mullions of the window, unified when Jack rushed in to kiss me again, and the grating of the bedframe was like the click-pop of a film projector.
I'd dreamed of this, hadn't I?
Stay awake now, Greta.
Morning came. I rolled over, and instead of a Jack-shaped divot in the mattress, there was Jack, snoring. I took it in: the quiet of the room, the stillness, the sense that this was somehow reality and not scripted, and the drip of regret I'd have to leave it behind.
I lay on my back, wondering if I could drift into the onset of a dream again, and before I shut my eyes, Jack's burst of green hair scattered over my face. My hand shuddered into the whole gorgeous knot of it, still hoping it was real.
We said we'd meet for lunch at the Monroe dive. For breakfast, I melted a hunk of butter, stirred it into a bowl of crushed graham crackers, and curled into the Jack-shaped divot. I closed my eyes and tried to float back into the moment Jack left: standing in the doorway, last night's dress, a half-smile. I leaned in for a seeya-later kiss, Jack turned as if looking at the time, and my lips hit nothing but cheek.
I didn't know anything about Jack. Not even a phone number.
I padded into the little kitchenette, set the bowl in the sink, and ran some warm water over the crumbs.
When I started getting hungry for real food, I stood under the showerhead for a few minutes, shrugged into jeans and a tank top, and wandered to the restaurant. No Jack. I approached the takeout bar and made eye contact with the server, a 20-something rocker girl with brown curls bunched under a net. I ordered a sandwich, asked if she'd seen someone who matched Jack's description. Her eyes darted around me for a second, maybe looking for a camera.
"I'm not shooting a noir or anything," I said. "Just looking for somebody."
She smacked her gum.
"Unless you're shooting me," I said. "It's getting hard to tell who's going about their day and who's about to receive an award-winning kiss."
She cracked a smirk, then pointed to the wall-screen behind me. The Searchers. John Wayne was standing off with his brother in those famous first 100 seconds. If I thought I'd get anything out of this conversation, I'd have told her that the film's Comanche chief is played by some German dude named Heinrich.
"Filming's mostly done," she said. "Most'll be editing today. Deadline and all."
"So they're all crouched over laptops in their hotels. Great."
"No. There's an editing room."
A steely-bearded man sidled up alongside me, maybe waiting for me to order a coffee so he could do the same.
"Alright," I said, "where is it?"
She shrugged. I turned for the door and left the server, the man, and John Wayne to their routines.
I munched on banana chips from my purse stash and walked into the sun, the lenses of my own eyes like blurry glass. Ahead: a billboard with an original Dirty Dozen poster, alongside another with Where Were You When the Lights Went Out. Ahead: transplanted cypresses with fat cones. Ahead: the cold trickle of a stream. Funny; I thought the backhoes had torn that stuff up to remake Hollywood here.
Ahead: a building I hadn't seen yet, a two-story cardboard box with no windows or lights. No doorman waiting to make sure I didn't get my prints on the handle. I touched the glass, peered into the darkened room inside. When no one shooed me, I opened the door just wide enough for my body to slip through.
I stood in a dark lobby, warm emergency lights glowing in the corners. A wooden stairwell twisted to the next floor. Alongside the stairwell hung a gray felt letter-board. I stopped in the center of the black floor tile, touched my fingers to the felt.
01 << Lobby
02 << Viewing Platform
03 << Home Theater
X << Editing
I took the first flight of stairs to the viewing platform, which boasted none of the CineMotel's usual luster. No nostalgic posters, no marquee bulbs, no pop of color to draw me to the nearest cushioned seat. This place was warm with recycled air, roaring with the blast of the HVAC, as inviting as a boiler room, but a phantom thread pulled me by the wrist. The viewing platform was deserted. Old computers with box monitors sat racked around an O-shaped table with a hollow center, screens lit smoldering blue. An oak bookcase hugged the wall, racked with worn copies of Lauren Bacall's and Ingmar Bergman's autobiographies, "Coming Soon" flyers for The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange, and a single volume of Ebert's Little Movie Glossary with torn-out pages piled together inside the cover. The walls were lined with identical mauve doors, all with swatches of scraped-away paint where motel room numbers had once been.
A black door stood ajar beneath another emergency light, a red gem emitting half a watt. I nudged the door open the rest of the way with my shoe, and navigated the darkened stairwell to the floor above. A knife-narrow hallway, barren of decorations and unpainted for decades judging by the fist-sized swaths of exposed drywall, led to another door, this one pea-green and sealed tight, no window to the other side. The white linoleum bore a single purple footprint directly beneath the door handle.
The people inside didn't look up when I entered. The carpeted room was heavy with the scent of lavender, and its walls were lined with flowery, paling wallpaper. A couch sat in the center, worn and sunken from years of use. A young man in a tux rested on the cushion, alongside a barefoot blonde with her legs flung across his lap. Purple prints continued across the carpet toward the exit.
"There's a seat open," the man said, watching Rashomon play out on the black-and-white box TV.
"I'm just passing through," I said, nodding toward the door behind the TV.
The blonde made eye contact with me. I pointed at the prints and raised my eyebrows.
"Not mine," she said.
I crossed the room to the exit, the couple craning their necks to see the Samurai duel around my body. Something sucked a hole in my chest. Leaving this room felt like refusing an invitation I'd begged for.
The exit led to a drafty foyer, thundering with HVAC wind, and then to a sprawling, wide-open chamber where countless filmmakers stood at editing stations, poring over their creations, chattering orders to assistants, passing messages on paper cards, slicing spools of reel to pieces with hooked cutters. Every screen was its own world, its inhabitants huddled around it as if unaware of the rest. On one screen, Wade spoke to a CineMotel guest while scratching at a bleach stain on his clothes. A jump-cut later, he was speaking to another and another, until finally he was speaking to me. In front of the screen stood green-haired Jack in the Pulpit, hands clasped behind, lightly nodding as I said, What if I want to pay for the tickets?
Someone near Jack said, "It's like witnessing a battle. She thinks she's got him, and he doesn't even know he's fighting."
I approached Jack from behind, watching myself the whole time, absorbing the star-struck looks of Jack's adoring fans as they realized who I was. But I didn't tug a sleeve or stammer Jack's name. I backed away, passed by, stayed on the trail of purple prints. I didn't want to wait to find out whether our most intimate collaboration had made the final cut.
Jack's eyes never left the screen.
The editing room's side exit opened onto the coastline, where sapphire waves crushed through sand. At a white picnic table under a rippling umbrella, a woman sat, the string of footprints—now barely-formed dents in the beach—ending beneath her seat. Her russet curls whipped as she cupped a cigarette from the breeze, struggling to light it with the other hand. She was the feminine shadow from the Carol Denver brochure, the picture of the silhouette I'd been tracking.
She gave up on the smoke and motioned for me to sit.
I brushed some sand off the bench and settled down. The breeze seemed to calm, too.
I said, "Are you Artemis?"
She slipped the cigarette back into its original wrapping. "Are you? You're the one who's been hunting."
Maybe it was foolish to assume this woman was the mysterious creator of a cult film that had prickled the world's spine, but didn't it make sense she'd be here? In this place where blood pumped with camphor and nitrocellulose? I wouldn't ask her again. But I told myself she was Artemis, and it was a hill I would forever die on, because the thought of this loose end made the inside of my mouth feel like rust, and the resolution of my hunt was the one plot point I had control over.
"I was thinking of getting a date for the premiere," she said. "Platonic, mind you. But then I wondered: why is there such a stigma against going to the movies by yourself?"
"I've gone alone at least a dozen times since I got here," I answered, when I should have asked what was premiering and when.
Oh. The movies they're editing now.
"I thought I had a date," I said. "Somebody I met here. But I think our whole thing together was part of a movie."
I had her attention now. She squinted a little, as if having trouble seeing my eyes. "Go on."
"Did you get a warning about a dead girl on the premises? A police blockade keeping us in?"
"Nope. I got here two days ago."
So Wade was an actor. Everything had been part of Jack's film project. My throat started to feel like I'd swallowed a cupful of pencil shavings.
"Sounds like you're going to the premiere alone," she said, trying the cigarette again.
"Did you step in purple paint or something?"
Half a smile. "Yeah."
"Any particular reason?"
"Until they give us a Walk of Fame, we have to find our own ways of leaving a mark here."
"I like your style."
"Thanks. I haven't figured yours out yet."
Aside from The Last Village Girl, there was nothing left to bring up. I chewed the inside of my lip.
She said, "You a night owl?"
I pictured us traveling the length of the CineMotel, watching Artemis command the projectors with the wave of a hand, projectionists holding her favorite films on tap. The two of us crammed into four-for-a-quarter booths, me holding her purse, she affecting practiced poses, blowing kisses, signing photos and leaving them in little hiding places: under seats, tucked behind lamps, tacked into restaurant cork-boards. I watched my words get lost.
"Not tonight," I said. "Thanks for giving me some perspective, though."
"I don't feel like I did anything. But I will say, you know, just because you did some things on camera, doesn't mean they didn't happen. Know what I mean?"
"I think so."
"Cool." She tried for the cigarette again. Still no luck.
"I feel like I've seen a thousand scenes on this set," I said.
The cig was still pinched between her lips. "You think? I can barely remember the last movie I saw."
We watched another wave strike the beach, churning up chaos, then calming. I wondered what stories had begun and ended in those few seconds.
I said, "See you at the premiere?"
She nodded. The tip of the cigarette began to glow.
I spent an hour on my back with my eyes closed, then dedicated the night's remaining hours to Hoopla,Shock Corridor, and Rosemary's Baby. The opening of Barbarella got me antsy, so I ate breakfast in the lobby until the sun found its place and notifications for the premiere began buzzing on every monitor. I ditched my oatmeal bowl in a nearby sink and fell in line.
Most of the films were hot garbage, with the occasional could-have-been-an-art-house-legend who must have missed their calling when they'd been young, and were now tossing their pearls before a bunch of nodding hipsters and one wandering, sleep-deprived fool.
I found Jack among the throng of babbling admirers during the Q&A, and gave a quick shoulder-tap. Jack's fedora was back in place, tilted, green strands sprouting around the rim.
"I hope we win," I said.
Jack's forehead scrunched. Another heated knot found its way to the part of my stomach that Jane Fonda had twisted earlier. The feeling of belonging slithered back.
"Hey," Jack said. "You oughta be in pictures."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"What we were actually doing. What the whole thing was about."
"About?" Jack swiped an errant green hair away with a glazed fingernail. "That was all real, Greta. There was just the deadline. I needed time to—"
"Priorities. I get it."
A bespectacled man pulled Jack by the elbow. He reminded me of a red-shirt in Star Trek. Jack mouthed Sorry,and was dragged into the heap of bodies.
I packed my bag and waited for my phone to blip with the arrival of my shuttle, planning on spending the ride home thinking about dreaming while being unable to, about the nature of dreams and how similar they are to movies, dialogue versus subtext, what's there versus what I invent. But the bundle of wallet-sized cards on the nightstand made me stop.
At first, I thought it was a goodbye note from the building's manager (the real one, not that acne-scarred bit player, Wade), but I recognized the handwriting.
Just try, alright?
An advert for a sleep study about 45 minutes from my apartment. In the midst of all that editing, there had still been time, still a memory, still a slice of what was behind the scenery.
Before I departed for the bus stop, which would be completely free of posters, marquee lettering, and coming-attractions schedules, I closed my eyes and tried to supplant last night's Sorry with the final scene I'd really wanted: a dramatic dialogue under a rain-glazed streetlamp, in which Jack asks me to start over, and I say yes, but somewhere else. Not that place. The projector clicks like a machine gun, and now we're waiting by a departing train, black smoke swelling from the engine's head, and Jack is yelling something over the cacophony of tearful embraces with a brow like a sidewalk fissure. Click-click-click-click-click. We're stepping gently along a mud-mucked cemetery path, looking for a certain stone, Jack in a tux, pale fingers gripping a black umbrella, while I, snug in a paisley tea-length swing dress and saddle shoes, shield my face from the rain. We find the stone. The inscription is faded and smoothed over. Jack doesn't look at me. Click-click-click-click-click. A goodbye inflates in my sternum like a bubble in an IV. As the slate snaps, autumn-brown leaves whip past our silhouettes.
I tucked the cards into my purse and took one last look at Liv and Bibi before I remembered I could buy that Persona poster anywhere.