Some Old Movies, Without Pictures
Max E. Keele
Above his antiseptic bed, a television mocks his dying. Scenes from his life merge with the ghostly images. Low volume. Black and white. Old, like the man. Old, and flickering, monochrome grim.
* * *
Take One: There's this guy, see, and he's running cattle down the old San Raphael swell, just him and his busted up dog and his grey sway-back pony. He's slapping great clouds of red dust off his coat with that old limp felt fedora, clouds of that grimy dried-up blood he's been breathing, eating, and squinting against for the last fifty miles. Another cloud, a black one of nasty little bugs, hovers just outside the dust waiting to get back to their dinner, waiting to dig into the thick layer of dirt on the cowboy's neck, maybe to dig into the dark leather skin there and suck some more of his tired life out. One more cloud, a gross malevolent bruise against the late sky, rears up on its hind legs from atop the sawtooth ridge to the west, paws at the air ahead of it like it was planning to charge straight down into the swell and blast the entire land to hell with one mighty thunderclap. "Yo, dog." The cowboy whistles through two glove-stained fingers. "Hold 'em tight, you stupid bastard!" He slaps that poor old pony's rump. "Le's go, girl. We gonna catch one helluva rain, less we git it up." He clucks like a chipmunk. "Hee-ya, you cows, hee-ya!" The gnats swarm around his head; one shoots into his ear with an awful whine. He shudders and cringes and jams his little finger in there after it. There's a rumbly blast, like a sawed-off shotgun in a long tin cave and the rains come sluicing down. The cowboy crawls up inside his hat as far as he can go and sings a low dirge to the pony. He clucks a few times more and together, the three of them follow that herd of scrawny cattle up the wash, just about a mile ahead of the deadly flash flood to come.
* * *
The nurse, starched white and linen stiff arrives, hypo in hand. "Medication time, Mr. Lewis." She puts two strong fingers on his skeletal wrist, counts against her watch. "And how are we feeling today, hmm?"
He can feel the crab sucking on his brain. He decides to tell the nurse about the television, how it's showing his life. He moves his lips to speak, but all that comes out is a dry rattle, the sound of wind and fallen leaves.
* * *
Take Two: There's these guys, see, and they're both doing time up at the big house, hanging out on the same cell block in the same section in the same wing in the same lousy fix. The big one of them, the one with the cowboy boots, he's in for an accident, really, for busting a drunken buddy's head in a fair fight. The other one, the skinny guy with that tattoo viper coiling around his arm, he's doing hard time in a hard way for raping a teenage girl and cutting her soft throat with a razor and then keeping the corpse under his bed until it smelled so bad even the rats moved away. They're playing cards in the rec room, betting with cigarettes and neither one's got the balls to bluff. The cowboy bumps two smokes against the viper's bet of one. He's showing an ace and a ten and there's a marriage in the hole, all spades. The invincible royal flush, missing only the Jack. "See your one and raise two more." His worn-out eyes look straight at the viper, right through that violent sneer, right into that rattlesnake brain. The viper squints hard, lights a Pall Mall, looks at his hole cards by bending up the corners. He spits a tobacco flake onto the floor and flicks two cigarettes into the pot. The cards come around twice more, a red trey and a club deuce for the cowboy, a pair of sevens for the viper. A thin smile oozes across the viper's face. No trace of emotion leaks through the cowboy's apathy. "Bet's to the pair," he says. "What're they worth?" The viper looks into his hole again. He holds up five scarred fingers, deliberately rolls five cigarettes into the pot, one at a time. The cowboy sees it but does not raise. The last card comes flapping in, face down and dirty. Eager, the viper takes all three hole cards into his hand. He grinds a smoke out on the table, crushes the butt to death. That thin smile curls back on itself, unsheathes a row of yellow teeth. He slams an unopened pack of Pall Malls into the pot with so much force that the previous bets run for cover. The cowboy stares across the table for several seconds, finally looks at his last card. It's the spade Jack. He shakes his head slowly at the unbelievable hand, the wet-dream of poker players everywhere, the paragon of blind righteous fortune. "Too fucking strong for me," says the cowboy, shuffling his cards back into the deck. "Just my lousy luck." He shuffles back to his cell to the rest of his long, hopeless life and only smiles once, when he hears the viper's gloating laughter rattling through the bars.
* * *
Scenes from the old man's life dance across the tube without precision, without any devotion to accuracy. But remembered scenes, all the same. No sense of chronology guides them. No emotion, no feelings accompany them, no smells, no twinges of pleasure or of pain. Just scenes, images of his life. Things he has not thought of in many cold and lonely years.
He reaches toward the nightstand for the remote control. One finger brushes it; it dodges, slow and deliberate. He makes one more attempt, and fails.
Very well, he thinks, and with a gritty sigh, relaxes back into his pillow.
* * *
Take Three: There's these guys, see, and they're sitting around in this trench full of cold mud cleaning out their rifles and smoking, and waiting for some officer to tell them what to do next. They're all three of them tired and bitter and soaked clean through. The youngest of them, only a year out of school, has grown a thin mustache to cover the trembling that sneaks like a burglar into his lip. His pimply face is absurdly out of place beneath the haunted shadows in his eyes. He hands his canteen to the one with the livid scar canyon running the length of his stony jaw. "You know," the kid says, "I hit two of the bastards, for sure. Maybe a couple of others, too." The scar takes a drink, passes it over to the third guy. The kid pulls back his M-1's bolt, jacks in a live shell. "Man, when they came screaming down that damn slope I thought we was dead meat. But I just kept blasting away and I just know I hit a couple of 'em, at least." He takes back his canteen, screws on the lid. "Either of you guys get any of 'em? There was sure plenty to go around." The scar shakes his head, blank-eyed. The third just shrugs. A call comes down the line, prepare to move out and the kid passes it on. "Where do you think we're going, huh? I'm getting pretty goddamn' tired of taking these stupid hills, one after the other. If it were up to me, we'd just march right on into China and fix the whole fucking lot of 'em." A cold wind blows across the trench, listless snow swirls amid the ghosts of their frozen breath. The third lights a fresh smoke from a short butt, lobs the butt out and away as if it were a live grenade. The scar grins but the humor in it is as black and putrid as gangrene, as stiff and dead as a fly-blown corpse. "Hey guys," says the kid, "betch'a fifty bucks I get me a medal before this's over, just see if I don't." They pull themselves up and gather their gear and stamp their icy feet and look at each other with cold dead eyes. And even though it's buried beneath a downy ruff of hair, all three of them can feel the trembling lip.
* * *
He watches with a patience only old dying people can know. The scenes flicker on. With a small twitch of his eyebrow, he wonders why there are no commercials. No lame ads for denture adhesive, no embarrassed ads for hemorrhoid salve, no insensitive ads for funeral homes. It seems peculiar, but he cannot form the appropriate questions.
Faceless orderlies wheel someone down the hall, past his open door. Someone on a squeaking gurney, someone covered with a crisp green sheet.
Clock ticks from the nightstand fall like rim-shots, counting out the beat of his tired heart.
* * *
Take Four: There's these guys, see, four guys that played backup for this chick jazz singer and they're all sitting around this stinking old apartment holding down the tail end of a wake. They're all pretty wasted and even though they swore on her death-bed that they wouldn't get maudlin, everybody's kind of down. One of the guys, the drummer, is white, wearing snake-skin cowboy boots, and a tiger's-eye bolo tie. He seems marginally out of place, but no, he fits in all right. The drummer clutches an empty tequila bottle with both hands, stares across the room at the microphone that lies atop an altar of sheet music surrounded by burned out candles and withered flowers and an assortment of offerings: guitar picks and sax reeds and drum sticks. The rest of the band circulates a gaudy hookah; the vile odor of opiated hashish intertwines with sandalwood incense to strangle in the depressing atmosphere. "Damn, she had a set of pipes," says the drummer. The others nod and chew at their lips; the saxman strikes his thigh with a hard black fist. "She was our ride, cats, our ticket to the charts. Like, you dig, what my horn got to sing about now?" The drummer sighs. "Without the lady," he says, "My skins ain't got no beat." The drummer tries a hit from the empty bottle, lets it drop through his calloused hands. The crash startles the guitarist out of his nod; he jumps up and staggers back and leans against a doorway breathing hard. "Hey," the guitarist moans, "you cats remember the way she wailed on 'Moondust'? Man, I dug that scat bit after the second bridge. She could'a put that lady Fitzgerald a-way." One by one they stand and weaving slightly they make a semi-circle around the altar. "Hey," says the drummer, "let's jam on 'Moondust' one last time, for her. Okay?" Tight lipped, they exhume their instruments; with numb fingers they find their tunings. The drummer counts it out like an incantation and the music pours through them in a rush. The saxophone cries with joy, the guitar sings ecstatically, the bass dances in a frenzy. And even without her, the drums pump a crystal-perfect beat, one last time.
* * *
Even though the old man gets no recalled feeling, no remembered emotions from the scenes, he begins to notice an accumulation of sadness. It's not like an overpowering pathos, or a pathetic diatribe against his fate, it's just . . . a nameless, blameless sorrow. At having lived an entire life without pictures. At loving and hating and fearing and hurting without documentation, without physical reminder of the passions. At remembering the awful without pain, the beautiful without joy, the sadness without tears.
There on the television, random scenes from his life revive, and slide chaotic past him. Not real, but produced in some surreal studio, dressed up and glossed over and smoothed until they glowed with meaning. In fiction, truth.
And right now, without announcement, the epiphany.
The old dying man sees one final scene, this in vivid color, displayed across the cathode tube in his mind.
This scene, different from the others, does not portray an event from his life. This scene does not star a man named Harris; this scene merely points out the single cause of all his regrets.
That if you close your eyes to pain and the repulsive, joy and beauty disappear as well.
One magnificent tear springs into his eye. A tear filled to saturation with every emotion he ever forgot, every last feeling ever felt, good and bad, well and ill. And covers his cold staring eye with contentment.
* * *
Take Five: There's this guy, see, and he's all knotted up under the flat wing of this old busted up rocket ship listening to a giant thrumming rain make steady drum rolls against the shattered metal. It's just him, him and this grinning dead robot and the unseen host of bizarre and dangerous alien beasts that he knows must be lurking in the limp purple forest surrounding him. He shifts his weight and tries to sit up, but his knee is a twisty Gordian knot of pain. He yells a curse; the sound gets nowhere before drowning in the solid wall of rain. The rain has not let up, not one bit, in the hundred hours since the crash. "Damn if I ain't about half crazy," says the spaceman. Lately he has taken to conversing with the dead robot, dead instantly from a fractured battery, a hundred hours ago. "I never did think you was worth a rusty nail, you dumb bastard. For six years you was nothing but in my way and now that I could use you, you ain't worth a good goddamn." The spaceman drags himself over to his meager pile of salvage and digs out the five remaining pain pills, enough for a few more hours of surcease, probably not enough for a deep eternal sleep. He takes all five, leans back against the pile. "They'll never find us under this cloud cover, not even if they look." He throws a tin of potted meat product at the poor robot, at the arc of optical sensors that makes that simpleton's grin. The tin slams off its head--leaving a cute little dimple in its cheek--and rolls out into the sodden jungle. "That'll teach you to show some respect for the dead." The spaceman struggles into his helmet to shut out that horrible drumming noise, drops the black visor to blank the awful violet light and lays back to sleep, with any luck, forever.
A few minutes later the rains die, the clouds part and the sky blossoms in wondrous prismatic colors, revealing an Eden saturated with beauty and life and light. But the spaceman's mind has retreated to dark stormy jungles of its own making and his senses are as blank and lifeless as that robot's silly grin. As blank and lifeless as. . . .
Fade to black.