Jul/Aug 2001  •   Fiction

W.C. Fields and the Arc de Triomphe

by Christopher Harne

A man who bore a striking similarity to W.C. Fields stood on a ledge of the capitol dome, waving a pistol wildly above his head. My people, my people he sobbed, like a fat, blubbering baby not getting enough attention. He faked like he was going to jump, then pulled back, then faked again. When he noticed that the gawkers below were becoming bored and going back to their business, he sat down, pulled a shiny flask from his coat pocket, and took a half-hearted swig.

I watched for about as long as anyone, I guess. If it weren't for the blinding reflection of the sun off that silver flask, I'd have watched all day. What could beat that? I wondered. Not a helluva lot, except maybe the nickelodeon. The land of make-believe! Pictures of damsels in distress carried away by masked banditos, or lovers entwined in a bed of flowers. That sure beats the same old faces on the streets. I had a pocket-full of coins and a full day to myself: no commitments, no appointments, no work. Hot dog!

I stepped inside the closest picture house, the one tucked away off Spring Street, and paused to let my eyes adjust to the low light. It was cool inside, like a shady glen in the forest, a welcome retreat from the blazing streets outside. I removed my hat and fanned my neck with the refreshing air. The silhouettes of captivated men, hunched over metal contraptions, lined the walls of the small room. I remember thinking that it looked like a hall of gargoyles, and my heart palpitated slightly.

I chose a machine, completely at random mind you, and slid a nickel down its throat. Pressing my eyes against the cold metal was exhilarating, like placing that first foot in the icy ocean waters. What would I see?

I was amazed from the opening scene—a glowing woman, with a rose in her teeth, batting her wondrous eyes. She was strikingly beautiful, and I was forced to catch my breath momentarily. Where is this woman from? I wondered. Morocco? Tunisia? Algeria?

A dashing sheik in full regalia crept into the scene behind her and seized her milky arms. Oh my! She collapsed in his grasp like a sail that has lost its wind, and he took that opportunity to kiss her passionately on the mouth. I stepped away from the machine and wiped my brow with my sleeve. Needless to say!

After several jumps in the picture, the couple was eating dinner at a long table in a great hall. They ate grapes and bread and cheeses, and drank from unwieldy flagons. Servants brought food on opulent trays, and the sheik kept ordering more and more. He smiled across the table at his lovely companion…she smiled back.

And then it was over. Damn.

I fished in my pocket for another nickel and walked to a different machine. What could be next? As the picture came into focus a dashing cowboy, with a black hat and dark eyes, materialized. He smiled, revealing a mouth-full of sharp, chiseled teeth, like those of a monster. The menacing cowboy sat at a wooden table, polishing his gun, before rising with a startled look on his face. What's going on? I wondered. At that moment, three haggard men entered, one of them carrying a knife with a long, jagged blade.

The dark cowboy lifted his arm and fired repeatedly at the men, killing all three with bullets between their eyes. After kicking them to make sure they were dead, he tossed his pistol back on the table and laughed. Several more cowboys entered, as if to see what the commotion was, and then they all began dancing around the bodies. So that's what the Old West was like!

I decided to watch one more, and looked around the room for something different. I spotted a machine that said "Travel Pics"—that sounded like a nice change of pace. I deposited my nickel and waited.

The first image was a black frame with white lettering heralding the "Arc de Triomphe - Paris, France - Magnifique!" It cut to a grainy shot of the famous arch, and I slapped my leg in amazement. Well I'll be! The Arc de Triomphe, I thought. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I'd ever see it, but there it was, glimmering in the sun. Tiny people, like ants, scurried below it. I remember thinking that those people probably spoke French, and I scratched my head in wonderment.

The next pictures were of the pyramids in Egypt. I had seen them in books before, but it was nothing like this. The Taj Mahal followed, and I tried to remember who lived there. A prophet? A king? An evil despot? Not sure.

That day I saw the Coliseum in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, Big Ben in London and the geysers of Yellowstone. I fed that machine all day, intoxicated by the beauty of a world I had never seen, shrunk to proportion in the belly of a magnificent universe.

With one nickel left, I sighed—one more trip. The coin left the tips of my fingers and plummeted into the machine, and I pressed my face against the metal a final time.

At first I couldn't discern what I was looking at—it seemed to be America, but I couldn't be positive. People walked along a bustling, dusty street, shuffling in and out of storefronts. As the camera panned to the left, a stately building appeared. White Doric columns encased a glimmering portico, which rose swiftly to the structure's grand mezzanine. As the camera continued panning, now tilting up to reveal the building's summit, I realized I was looking at the capitol dome. This was Spring Street! I squinted and looked harder at the picture, and detected a man sitting on the ledge of the dome, drinking from a sparkling flask. His legs dangling over the side, his hands resting on his rotund belly, he was the picture of contentment.