He arrives in the dream already begun. Before, many times. He takes his place.
On a beach, in Italy or Spain. He is unsure about this, no matter he has dreamed it before.
Suddenly, the beach disappears. He’s elsewhere. He sits in a darkened theater where no one else is present. A private showing is how it seems. He is watching an obscure film, sepia toned, and the screen curls at the corners.
The film, which he knows by heart, is about a man whose life has gone off course. He does not know this man even though he has seen him before. But he realizes, maybe for the first time, that the film, which has no sound, could be autobiographical. Obscurely, perhaps, but it could be.
The film bores him. He fears falling asleep in a vacant theater. He could be robbed, or worse. He sits up to awaken himself.
“Keep walking, you bloody bastard!” he screams at the man on the screen. The man in the film is walking along a lonely stretch of beach. In Italy or Spain. On a screen in an otherwise empty theater.
He is afraid, no getting away from it. Often dreamed of being stabbed to death in his sleep. Someone, a random phantom, sneaks into the empty theater and sinks a long knife into his chest. Many, many flesh plunges.
That dream is inside another film. It is one he watches in a different theater, in another town entirely. In that dream, there are other people in the theater. Even so, they do nothing. So enthralled by the story on the screen, they do not notice his being bludgeoned.
That theater is also in Italy or Spain, he imagines. It is a mystery to him.
For now, in this theater, he is bored. And another thing. Wherever he is, in whatever provincial town, the theater seems to be falling down. It’s an old, crumbling pre-war affair. He must wipe away pieces of plaster from his hair and clothes.
The large dark room smells of sheep. The floor is littered with fruit rinds, chocolate bar wrappers and cigarette butts. All of this rests on a field of broken plaster. The screen itself, curling at the edges, is tattered in many places. It seems to ripple. The film appears to be an underwater adventure.
Closing shot. The man, coffee mug and staff in hand, walks along the beach. This way or that, it doesn’t matter so much. But there is another thing. The man, his mug and staff, even the sky all seem to be underwater. The film ripples with ocean currents. A peculiar thing.
It’s a rippling kind of day.
When he is tired of watching, and thinking about this, what he deems aquarium cinema, he looks around the dark, musty cavern of the sad theater for amusement. Only a few feet away, he discovers an old woman also watching the film.
He has not noticed her before, but there she is.
The old woman sits with two children. He is sure the old woman is not their mother. Probably a nanny, she is with the children of someone wealthy.
One of the children, a young girl, is wandering through the darkness, coming in his direction. He rummages frantically, turns his pockets inside out for candy. If he had some, he would give it to her.
His fingers claw his pockets, many cloth caverns. He is searching for a lemon drop, a stick of gum, a stray green mint. His search is not futile. He produces two green mints.
One is for his dragon breath, and the other for the little girl pushing the seats up and down noisily, creaks in the darkness. She disturbs the sleeping spiders and rats, he is certain.
Now she is almost next to him. He waits.
“For you, my dear,” he says, offering the mint.
“No sir, but thank you.” Her English is perfect.
For a moment, the girl seems to waver. She looks back through the gloom at the old woman, who is still mesmerized by the rippling walk of the man with mug and staff. The old woman is unaware that her charge has wandered off in the darkness.
Seeing that she is quite on her own, the girl quickly grabs the mint from his hand and places it on her tongue. Reverently.
She does not take the candy and run. She remains there, in the rippling half light, studying him. He wonders if he looks so unusual. Not really. Approaching seventy-five, nearing the void, in fact. The girl’s grandfather can’t look that much different.
He looks at himself on the screen for reassurance, for validity. Gray hair, but the skin, a least what is not rippling or floating, is clear. No ruddiness.
Still, when he feels his face, he knows that the skin is beginning to turn leathery. And his heart? Approaching the void, he knows. It’s common knowledge in his neighborhood of years.
Speak to the girl, he admonishes himself. He has nothing to do until the watery celluloid is finished. There will be another showing in another hour, in Italy or Spain, so he has nothing to lose. He wonders if the little girl is from Barcelona. Or, on vacation in Italy.
Talk to her, you old fool, he thinks. Go on, hope for the best. He would like to speak to her in her native tongue. He fears that his Spanish, or Italian, is too rudimentary. It exists only on a stone throwing level. His language ability is a primal thing, a language for those still living in caves in a much earlier time, creating the first tales beneath stars in dark skies.
“I am American,” he tells her.
“What can I do about that?” she replies in English.
Indeed. What can she do? When she is much older, he thinks, she will understand that she can do very much, or very little, about most things.
Those yet to be born, or in their graves, do not have to decide these things. No, this stuff is for the living. The older the girl becomes, the better she will realize that doing one is never very far from doing the other.
Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to life we go.
“I’m cold.” He pretends to shiver to accentuate the business of being chilled to the bones.
“Whose fault is it?”
He is amazed. Until this moment, it had not occurred to him to place blame. Did it always have to be someone’s fault?
Maybe it was his own. No, that wasn’t true. Anyone was fair game. This child,
in a theater in a town outside Barcelona or Milan, could be at fault.
This child might well be the ice mistress. The queen of passage.
He has always hoped that his last waking thought would be of peace. But he cannot stop thinking of the ice mistress. How she will appear. A beggar woman at the Parthenon. The one-eyed girl selling lilacs on the Isle de Paris. Polish black Madonna. This girl with moist brown eyes, standing before him. She sucks the green mint between small molars.
“Whose fault is it?” she asks again. Her tone is not without an impatience that reaches well beyond her years.
She begins to dance in the dark space between rows of seats. She could be anywhere.
Perhaps, in her own film, she is skipping along a beach. He watches her dancing in sand, her small hands stuffed with seashells she has gathered at the water’s edge.
She dances and dances and does not have a worry in the world. Her nanny sits lazily beneath a bright orange umbrella, sipping lemonade, reading a photo novella. Another child, younger and a boy, lies asleep on a small pallet lodged against the nanny’s foot.
In his own rippling vision, he walks along that same stretch of beach now. He sees the nanny and the children, but he also sees the beach houses. They are blue and red and yellow. He tries to imagine the tales of beds in those sandy houses.
He thinks of the weary songs of beds, the prayers of sheets, the soft, ever so soft sound of dark brown feet leaving the cool white tile floors and sliding into the seas of linen, against the cliffs and valleys of sun warmed flesh.
He passes the painted houses behind the dunes. Hears the wandering songs of wind breaking apart, each song disappearing in peace on the hot salt air.
He sees her again, the girl dancing on the beach.
Her hands are full of shells. He rummages in his pockets, looking for yet one more green mint. Miraculously, he finds one. He hands it to the dancing girl in the sand. She places it on her tongue. As if the mint were a host, as though her dance had been one of supplication for manna.
“Thank you, sir.”
The way she smiles, how she looks at him, makes the world new. He cannot resist.
“May I have this dance?”
They begin dancing in small circles at the water’s edge. The sea breeze, the sun, the day itself all a kind of peace.
There is no music but the tune the girl hums on the salt air.
Suddenly, from a few rows away in the dark theater, the woman calls to the girl. At the same moment, the nanny looks up from her photo novella.
The girl pulls away from him. Smiles as she backs away. She returns to her seat in the theater.
She returns to her blanket beside the nanny.
The underwater film fades to black.
The old man goes in peace in the huge, empty room.
In Spain. In Italy.