The movie was over, the credits still rolled. We all moved towards the exit with just enough light in the theatre to scroll over the darkness. No more movie magic, no more colorful faces, no dialogue; we were only a vast quiet of hesitant voices and shuffling shoes, a sleepy movement brushing against a dirty and drab carpeting.
My brother was ahead of me in the double file, momentarily paired-off with one-half of another couple. He eventually slowed down to join me, but we exchanged no words, no look. I was eight, he was eighteen. I could feel a sudden chill from the outside coming from the open doorway, sucking us out of the dark and spitting us out onto the sidewalk. I turned my head, but not quick enough. The theater had already transformed itself into an imposing concrete wall. The night air hit us. We were on our own.
My brother spoke.
“Boy, that was something!” He spoke to the ground as he lifted his head towards me, finding me, his smile widening, engaging me. He was shaking his head back and forth, kind of laughing, as if a joke had just passed between us.
“That was quite a film!” His face and hands, his voice, jumped out at me as he repeated his enthusiasm. His mouth was open, joy.
I was closely following his joy. I had been waiting for my older brother to give me a sign, to let me know how to feel or what to say about a film I didn’t really understand.
So I chuckled, “Ha!”, my head nodding back.
It was an early evening in this indistinct suburb on an overcrowded island. The sky, and its changing dark blue and gray, was crushing the two-story buildings of the strip mall. We were making our way through the theater’s run-down parking lot. On the bordering avenue, the fast-paced cars were racing past each other. They were kicking up pebbles. We walked and smiled together. It was an old theater where movies came second hand for a few bucks only after they’d played in the first-run theaters.
I had been unable to meet my brother’s eyes. I was wondering what we – or he, more likely – would do or say next. Our heads returned to face the ground; our eyes followed each footstep. The pebbles continued to jump all around us and the cars continued to hum. In the comfort of my brother’s silent chuckle, I was sure he would find the next words. The sky by now had fully flattened the landscape. No heights remained, everything was surface and everything was paved with cement. We were making our way through this flat world.
“Boy!” he repeated, insistent. He continued to shake his head and laugh. He said boy in a way that included me. We were buddies. We reached his car, an old gray four-door beat-up dodge that used to be my dad’s. I was always glad that his boy was never spoken in a condescending way. We were ten years apart. We still are.
The film? Two strangers, prisoners, two men getting on each other’s nerves. One passive, the other aggressive. Two who try and fail countless times to escape their imprisonment, who are finally outcast onto an island prison, a paradise locked away on some unknown ocean. Two whose final escape was to jump off a cliff with a makeshift raft on the seventh wave. One of them dies while the other succeeds.
Why would they try to escape from such a beautiful island? This I didn’t know to ask. Instead, I asked about the woman in the movie and the sex scene. I felt I had to ask this question, as if my brother had secretly encouraged me to do so. I could also feel something inside me, lying dormant, an intuition of sorts pushing me to speak about sex, my voice and lips merely transmitting the sounds of this hidden force. My brother remained calm, and his smile changed, becoming more reflexive, knowing. This too seemed planned. He was going to teach me something with this smile. He was going to take me in and hold me in his knowing words and grace.
“That’s right. She was pretty, wasn’t she?” He confirmed. I guess I was still waiting for his next words when he opened the car door and quickly disappeared inside.
We joined the busy avenue but headed in the opposite direction of the traffic. We drove as far as the road went, and then continued further, finding a smaller set of streets to connect the lines. The road got increasingly lonelier. It was nearing midnight. We entered an area of junkyards and factories. I was no longer thinking about what I’d do at home tonight – what to watch on TV or what game to play – because I knew it was too late to do anything other than go to sleep.
It was mostly just the two of us on these smaller streets. There were lots of stop signs and dead ends and parked trucks. The streets would straighten out, then curve, then darken. There was nobody, nothing, except increasingly only those junkyards and factories. Sometimes a large truck would pass and disappear into one of the deserted parking lots along the road. Then another would appear from within, lights momentarily blinding. We passed the time together talking about the family.
“Did you know that grandma and grandpa lived near here after they left the city?” He was telling me the usual stuff about who was who and what was what before I was born. Everything that happened happened before I was born. “In fact,” he went on, “they lived only a few blocks from here, in the residential part. They lived here for years. I would stay with them sometimes on weekends and build stuff with grandpa. But then grandpa got sick. That’s when they moved in with us. Did you know that we built – me and grandpa – the table and chairs in mom and dad’s dining room?”
“Did grandpa die in our home like grandma?” I asked. I was thinking of her hands, wrinkled and spotted, and the darkness of our basement where she lived. I could still remember her faint voice and her shadowed figure, her hands always holding onto the railing at the bottom of the basement stairs, her slight, timid whispers calling my mom from beneath the floor. I didn’t arrive in this life soon enough to meet my brother’s grandfather but I knew grandma well, having lived with her until she died last year. She died slowly, quietly. Her death was still in me. I was wondering if my brother had felt the same thing about grandpa.
“No, he went to the hospital. He died only a few months after moving in with us, he was really sick.”
“And mom?” I interrupted his story again. “Did mom live here with them?” I wanted to know more about Mom. Her hands were slowly aging.
“No, mom grew up in the city, far from here. She moved out with dad to the city border. And then, when they had me and some of the others, they moved to the suburbs. That’s when grandma and grandpa moved here to help with the kids.”
“Grandpa, ah …” (There’s that smile again.) “Grandpa was a great man. Garrulous.”
“I didn’t know him,” was all I could say. I wasn’t really listening anymore. I was looking at the road and wondering where we were going, wondering if my brother was even paying attention to the road, to our destination, to me.
“… yeh, and so grandpa retired at that point. That’s really when I remember doing stuff with him, like building …”
I was wondering if my brother noticed the same things I did. I recall a kind of timid dark of almost nothing, just enough light to see the tall smokestacks, the monster factory walls, to feel their silence. There was a soft darkness, or maybe a hard darkness with a soft light, covering the junkyard’s stink and rust. Everything that was here, everything that gave this neighborhood its identity, was a shadow. And except for a few open driveways leading to who knows what, the rest was inaccessible, closed off from us by a messy mixmatch of metallic fences and chains and barbed wires that stretched the full length of the road. Deeper still within were dobermans and pitbulls, sleeping but drooling behind the gates.
Yet nothing, nothing could intimidate me here since there was no need to escape from the car nor to venture within the gates.
“… grandpa and me …,” he went on.
I was also wondering if he noticed the women who lined the street also forming a sort of chained fence. I would watch them as we passed, and they would look at me. I was also noticing more and more cars and trucks entering and exiting the open lots. It soon became obvious that my brother also noticed these women, because he too began to slow down and lose interest in what he was saying. He then abruptly pulled over to the side of the road across from where a group of them were gathered. He made a U-turn and slipped quickly into one of the empty lots. He stopped his car and turned to me, a bit more serious than before. He told me to stay in the car, that he’d be right back. He got out of the car and headed towards the small group. I watched as he spoke with one of them. There was no emotion on his face. There appeared some kind of secret agreement and he came back with one of them.
Did he know her?
The sound of his car was lost in the distance. He had asked me to wait, telling me that they were going to the store to get some stuff. There was a bench on the border of the parking lot. I found myself wondering who she was. Was she like the woman in the film, all pretty and all about sex? But I still didn’t understand that scene. Or was she my mom, married and moving out of her parent’s home to live with my dad? Who was my dad, anyway? Was he any different than my brother taking off with this woman, leaving me behind? Or was she my grandma? I cried for days when grandma died in our home. My brother, who had already had his special relationship with grandpa, was now going to take another woman away from me. I was too young to understand all this. I waited for my brother to return.
Everything that happened between my brother and the woman happened while I was benched in a deserted parking lot, waiting. I was a shadow surrounded by the towering shadows and stink of the factories and junk, locked in by chained fences, daring not to wake the dogs, and only hearing the voices of women who line the streets at night. I was eight years old at that moment, but soon I would be an adolescent, and then, now, an adult, always ten years younger than my brother.