Everyone Goes to the Movies
When the cherry pulled up beside him somewhere off of I-9, wheels flattening the twigs and gravel behind him, Johnson welcomed the lift, even if it was just to the cooler. It was raining. Nineteen inches had fallen outside of Topeka a few days before, someone had said at the bar. His feet hurt. He should have stayed in Kansas City, and he would have, if he hadn’t gotten so drunk and decided to walk it off, winding up miles south on a road that didn’t look to be heading anywhere good.
“Where you goin’?” The officer stood before him, tapping his nightstick in a fat palm. Four light-colored eyes from two ruddy faces squinted at Johnson. The sky, the stars, and the rain danced a slow jig behind them.
“Don’t know.” Johnson shook his head, his muscles filled with wet sand. “Just walkin’.”
The cop turned each way, eyeing the blacktop that ran from them in both directions. Johnson wondered how the officer had seen him at all, knew to stop, could even stop without hitting him.
“You walked pretty far. In the middle of the road, at that. What are you doin’ walking in the middle of the road in the rain?”
Johnson leaned over, put his hands on his knees. “I’m a vet.”
“Is that why you were walking in the middle of the road? Cause you’re a vet?”
“No, just sayin’.”
“We don’t give vets no preferential treatment, although we do respect their service.” Johnson felt the length of the nightstick across his gut. It moved upward, and he stood up with it. “Come over to the car here, son.”
Johnson put his hands against the hood while the officer patted him down.
“You know what day it is?”
“It’s June 29th, 1951. You got a job?”
“Just passing through.”
“Where’d you serve?”
“First Division Infantry.”
The officer opened up the back door of the patrol car. “Come on.”
When Johnson woke up, a man stood on the outside side of the cell. He looked like half a man and half a marionette. A hook where there was once a hand rested leisurely on the cell bars. A stiff leg propped up the rest of his slouched frame.
“You the vet that got picked up last night?” The man spit into a tin cup that rested in his good hand. Johnson got up. The cell throbbed against him, and he sat back down. “You want a job?”
“I’d really like some coffee first.” Johnson dropped his head in his hands. He’d heard about the amputees at the hospital in New Jersey, the men with wooden or plastic arms or legs. But he’d had never actually seen a man with an arm and part of a leg missing.
“All right, then, you sombitch.” The man winked and pivoted away. Johnson stood up again and pissed in the urinal, looking at his watch. 9:15 am. It was possibly the longest he’d made it into any day without thinking about Kate, who was always why he got drunk in the first place, why he was hundreds of miles from home. He’d lost his truck somewhere in Missouri; who knows how he’d even wound up in Kansas last night. A roadhouse, whiskey, cops.
The man pivoted back, holding the coffee in his good hand, the dip cup squeezed into the front pocket of his flannel shirt.
“Name’s Elvin Haas.” He held the coffee through the bars. “Like the avocado.”
“I hear you seen some action, Johnson. Although you look like you made it back in one piece. You ain’t left part of yourself overseas for Uncle Sam, now did ya?”
“Not any part you can see.” Johnson drank the coffee. His stomach cramped as its hot staleness made its free fall down his throat. He’d had much worse in the Army, he knew. The body forgot so easily, so hopeful for the best of everything.
“Yeah, I’m hearing it. Now, you either got a gold bar stuffed up your ass you ain’t told nobody about or you need money to pay for your fine for the drunk tank, am I right?”
“I’d say you’re right, although I ain’t had a shit in days. Maybe you’ll come back later and we’ll both be surprised?”
“Get him out.” Elvin jerked his head toward the bailiff. “He’s ready.”
It wasn’t unusual that Elvin drove a truck, it was how he drove it. He hooked his hook to the stick shift and jerked the truck into gear with his shoulder.
“It ain’t so bad,” Elvin explained, letting some dip fall from his mouth into the dip cup wedged between his legs. “I just gotta jack off with my left hand.”
Johnson looked out the window at the field. Sunny, for once — the officer who booked him at the jail said 19 inches had fallen outside Topeka the day before. But today, gold wheat brushed blue skies. When he was in Europe, when the snow collected in his socks through the holes in his boots and the rain dripped down his collar and he shat in his helmet in the foxhole, he often thought about the plains, got drunk on the memory of the sun-baked earth, the wave of the corn, the flies on cow flanks. Now, he was tired of tractors, of red farmhouses, of grain silos, of white churches. Some of the boys in C company were from Washington State. He thought he might go look them up, get a job cutting trees, be a forest ranger.
“What kind of job is this you’re offering?” Johnson lit a cigarette.
“I run the drive-in. You want a beer?” Elvin nodded toward a paper bag on the floor of the driver’s side. Johnson reached inside. The bottles were cold, beginning to sweat. He popped off the cap and the beer went clean down his throat.
“I need to shave,” Johnson said, rubbing his chin.
“Shit, ain’t no one gonna look at ya.” Elvin’s left arm dropped between his legs. Johnson grabbed the steering wheel until Elvin came up with a beer. “You’re gonna be pickin’ up trash and cleaning toilets.”
Elvin turned onto a road lined with hickory trees, past a sign that read BOULEVARD DRIVE-IN. Johnson held up his beer as the truck wheels bounced in and out of ruts. At the end of the road a massive white screen met them. Rows and rows of little gray boxes guarded it.
“So, you round up all the drifters at the jail, then put them to work?” Johnson picked at the split vinyl on the armrest. The yellow inwards mushroomed out through it.
“Just the vets.” Elvin wiped his mouth with his good hand and lurched his shoulder forward, putting the truck into first. “No vet should be jobless. Look at me — those brains at the hospital said I wasn’t goin’ to be able to do nothin’.”
Elvin walked him around the drive-in — the snack bar, the bathrooms, the projection booth, where Elvin worked, the hole in the fence that needed repairing before any more kids snuck in.
“Once you’re finished with picking up the trash and cleaning the bathrooms, come up to the booth and take a nap.” Elvin spat on the dirt. “This place is gonna explode tonight. I mean it, man — we got fireworks after the show if it don’t rain again.”
“The rain seems pretty bad in these parts — ain’t anybody worried?”
“Well, maybe if you’re out in Topeka or somethin’, but we got the levees here.” Elvin squinted at the sky. “Don’t worry, buddy — everyone goes to the movies, rain or shine.”
Johnson collected wax hot dog wrappers splattered with mustard and French fry boats and stuffed them into a trash bag. He kicked dirt over the cigarettes and ketchup pools and lollipop sticks and hauled the bags over to the dumpster. The bar in Kansas City had been close to the bus station. When he’d stopped at Kansas City, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was a town with the same initials as Kate. He wasn’t even sure which side of Kansas City he was in, Kansas or Missouri. But if his luck got worse, he figured he could try the other one.
From the ground he could hear music up in the projection booth before Hank Williams blared at him from all directions.
“Hey good lookin.” Elvin’s voice boomed through the speakers. “Check all them speakers, make sure they workin.” Johnson walked up and down the rows, listening to the little boxes, their mechanical choir. Then he found the mop outside the bathrooms and swabbed the piss off the urinals, the shit off the bowls. At the mirrors he combed his hair with his hand, pushing it away from his eyes. When Kate left for NYU, his hair had been shorter. She would be home in Ohio now, on summer vacation, but every time he had found a post office he didn’t have the money for stamps or maybe he needed it for a bottle or maybe he started to write a letter but he threw it away. He wanted to tell her how her smile made the hair on his neck tickle, how he lay awake at night remembering her face case they found him and called him back up for Korea.
In the booth Johnson found Elvin between two projectors on one end and a table on the other. A sofa ran the length of the wall between them. Elvin sat at the table lining a strip of film in a machine. Some girlie pictures had been tacked to the wall, along with a few black and white photos of soldiers in Pacific-theater Marine khaki, palm trees and coral behind them.
“This is how we splice the trailers together,” he said, holding one end of the film in his teeth as he pulled it through the splicing machine. “Uncap that cement for me, huh?"
Johnson handed him the opened bottle. With his left hand, Elvin painted the strips of film together that were locked in the splicer.
“You wanna be my second projection man?” Elvin nodded toward the cement bottle. Johnson capped it. “The movie comes on two reels. I’ll show you how. It’s so easy, an amputee can do it, right?”
Johnson sat on the couch. Now that he was sitting, he was exhausted.
“Just think, when we were getting our tails shot at overseas, people were still seeing movies.” Elvin spit into his dip cup, which rested to the left of his good hand. “And they saw newsreels of how brave we were. Even though it wasn’t nothing for us like what they seen.”
“Where was your tour?” Johnson leaned back and closed his eyes. It had been five years, and he remembered everything about the war. Every blitzed city, every bruise, every starved child, every dead mother. But he constantly forgot Kate’s face, the wiggle of her eyebrow, her little crooked tooth. He constantly forgot his own face. He’d ceased to remember his mother’s face years ago.
“Pacific. Took a mortar in Okinawa. Not exactly a million-dollar wound.” Elvin leaned back. “Shoulda died. Wanted to. But now I’ve got the movies. Not everybody went to war, but everybody goes to the movies.”
The cars came after dusk. Johnson watched them roll in from the tree-lined road — Cadillacs and Thunderbirds and Bel Airs and rusted farm trucks. They navigated into their spots like ships docking. Girls and boys laughed, their arms pretzeled, as they hurried to the snack bar under the drizzle. Broiled hot dogs and hot butter wafted over the booth like a gauzy curtain, and Johnson was hungry again. Soon the lot was packed with cars. People wandered through mazes of rows. He wondered how many drive-ins were lit up all over the country, little ant farms under the stars.
Elvin threaded the first reel of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train into the projector. It wormed up and down in the open cross section of shell before slithering out the opposite end. He closed the shell and flipped the switch to the xenon lamp, then the projector. The room baked from the lamp, a white bolt of light concentrated before traveling two hundred feet to the screen. Johnson mopped his face with his shirt.
“And now the magic happens.” Elvin grinned. “In about an hour you’re going to see some dots on the top right of the machine. Don’t do anything then. That means there’s eight seconds on the roll. But after seven seconds, it happens again. And when it does, you got one second to flip the switch on the second projector, okay?” Elvin pointed at the second projector. “You think you can do that?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Good, ‘cause I’m taking a nap.” Elvin squeezed past Johnson and sat on the couch. He laid his rubber arm over his eyes. “And a lot of people are gonna be unhappy if you screw up.”
“What is it now, Johnson?”
“Don’t you take those things off when you go to sleep?” He nodded at Elvin’s fake parts.
“Do you take yours off?” Elvin flipped him the bird with his good hand, snored a few minutes later.
By the 8th of July, Johnson had seen Strangers on a Train 10 times. It had rained so much, he figured he and Elvin had seen it more between the two of them than the whole town put together. He danced with Anne Morton in his dreams, wrestled with Bruno Anthony on the carousel on the way to work. He played tennis with Guy Haines while he picked up drink cups and damp napkins off the ground and cleaned the fryer in the snack bar kitchen. He imagined watching it with Kate. He wondered whether she had gone to the movies back in Ohio, whether there was a drive-in there, what she had seen. Who she had seen it with.
“Everyone has somebody that they want to put out of the way. Oh now surely, Madam, you're not going to tell me that there hasn't been a time that you didn’t want to dispose of someone. Your husband, for instance?” Johnson said to Elvin, putting two slices of bread in Elvin’s mother’s toaster.
“Jesus, how can you remember all them movie lines?” Elvin broke one egg, then, another, then another, into the frying pan. “That shit just goes in one ear and out the other.”
“I dunno.” Johnson put a cigarette in his mouth. He rattled the butter knife against the inside of the jelly jar. “Got nothing else to think about.”
“What, no girl broke your heart? No kid sister with polio?” Elvin scrambled the eggs with his good hand. “Elvin’s poor mother who’s gotta wash your one pair of pants while you’re sleeping?”
“I told you I’d buy another pair, soon as you paid me.” Johnson pulled at the popped hot bread, tonguing his burned fingers. He sat down at the table with his shirt off. The window was open and the breeze blew the rain in, cool on his back, the curtains waving ghosts. Elvin came over with the plate of steaming eggs and sat across from him. The thought came to Johnson to invite Kate to come and visit. Most likely she would say no, not answer him. Maybe she was even married now. Those girls go fast. But if he asked, it would be out of his hands for good, his life his own again.
“You gotta promise me once you get paid you ain’t just gonna run off like that last vet.” Elvin ladled half of the eggs on his plate with his fork. Johnson tossed him a slice of toast. “Shit, forgot the coffee.”
“I’ll get it.” Johnson stood up and retrieved the pot. “If I’m stayin’ awhile, I gotta let folks know. You mind stopping at the post office?”
“It’s a free country.” Elvin twisted the cap of the tobasco with his mouth and sprinkled some on his eggs. “Last time I checked.”
“I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you,” Johnson said. He poured the coffee into Elvin’s mug. Elvin peered at him out of his right eye before taking a sip.
“I think I finally know which part of you got injured during the war, Johnson.”
“Her friend good lookin’?” Elvin picked at his teeth with a toothpick. Johnson pulled the telegram again out from where he stuffed it in his pocket and opened it, half expecting the message to be different, to be from someone else.
“Read that.” Johnson smoothed out the paper and pushed it to Elvin. “So I know I’m not crazy.”
“COMING FOR WEEKEND IN CAR WITH FRIEND BETTY PLEASE ADVISE HOTEL KATE,” Elvin read. “I sure hope it’s Betty Grable that’s comin’ with her. And I sure as hell hope they bring the sun from Ohio.”
“You can’t be picky, Elvin.” Mrs. Haas put the pan of bread on the table. Johnson had only seen her once or twice in the two weeks he’d slept in the attic, under an oil and mildew-smelling car blanket. Usually he’d just heard her random, fractured humming as she moved through the rooms in the mornings, brewing coffee, calling up to Elvin not to forget something, to take the leftover roast for lunch. In person, she looked frail, a half-filled potato sack. Her neck and arms grew out of her dresses like thick, twisted branches, and her hair was the color of red velvet cake.
“Maybe you’ll stop that awful tobacco chewing,” she continued. “No girl’s gonna kiss you, with the tobacco dripping out of your mouth all the time.”
“JesusMaryJoseph.” Elvin pivoted to the kitchen and returned with a pitcher of lemonade. “Why you gotta be such a nag?”
“She’s a doll, Kate’s friend.” Johnson said suddenly, looking at Elvin. “I’m sure of it.”
“You can’t be picky.” Mrs. Haas put the pot roast on the table. Upon impact, the meat fell apart in some kind of resignation. “There’s a good hotel right in town, the Town House.”
Johnson held the folded telegram in his hand. Outside the rain filled the empty things scattered on the back steps and driveway: flower pots, a hobo’s shoe, a shovel.
“A girl like Betty Grable.” Elvin popped the top off his beer can. “Every vet deserves a Betty Grable, right Johnson?”
“You say this Kate’s your fiancée?” Mrs. Haas pulled her chair up to the table and stuck her fork into the roast.
He hadn’t said it, but because Mrs. Haas had, he nodded.
The Town House hotel stood, 12 brick floors, in the middle of downtown Kansas City, Kansas. Johnson pulled at the fabric of the button-down shirt he’d bought earlier that morning at Sears, along with a pair of grey flannel pants. Elvin drove them up to the lobby. Parts of Kansas had begun to flood. But it had been too late to telegram the girls, turn them back.
“I’ll wait for you in the truck.” Elvin spit a last hunk of dip into his cup and tossed it out the window.
“Why in the hell you want to do that?” Johnson lit a cigarette. He inhaled too fast and coughed. Mario Lanza was on the radio. In the uncovered parking lot rain spit and danced harder than a minute before. He thought of Kate, of dampness in her hair, a raindrop tracing over her lips. When he rested his fingertips on the doorframe, they shook.
“I’ll let Betty get a look good at my face before the rest.” Elvin smoothed his hair back. He wasn’t ugly, Johnson thought. Although his nose hooked a little and his widow’s peak dove deep into his forehead, like Count Dracula, his eyes were green like beer glass, his teeth straight. His hair was yellower than a baby chick’s.
“I’m sure Betty ain’t like that.” Johnson ground the cigarette into the ashtray. His armpits were wet, his feet. He glanced at the revolving door of the lobby.
“All the same — go in there and get the ladies.”
Johnson looked at Elvin’s fingers on the steering wheel, shaking too.
The girls sat on the sofas in the lobby, smoking cigarettes, flipping through magazines like women. They wore outfits the color of nonpareils — belted coats of lavender and seafoam green with white gloves — and their hair was cut short.
“Like it?” Kate stood up, bouncing the end of her hair against her palm. “It’s called a bob.”
“Sure, it’s all right.” Johnson’s hands found his pockets. He could feel Kate’s eyes studying him as he glanced at Betty. Betty was shorter and heavier than Kate but still someone he’d ask to dance, maybe. Her face was round but pointed at the chin, like a heart, her makeup hard like her face. She cracked her gum.
“Where’s the other one?” She asked Kate, her voice brassier than a trumpet.
“He’s outside.” Johnson pointed his thumb toward the door. “He’s a little shy.”
“Well, what’re we waiting for?” Betty stood up and tied her headscarf. “For the town to float away?”
“Give me your keys and I’ll bring the car around.” He felt Kate’s fingertips brush his as the metal pressed his hand. It wasn’t until he got to the parking lot, his shirt soaked through, that he’d realized he’d forgotten to ask which car. He jogged down the rows, searching for an Ohio license plate, before sliding the key into a Ford Fairlane. He pulled it up to Elvin’s truck.
“Get in,” he said through the window to Elvin. Elvin climbed down from the truck and hobbled over to the Ford.
“I guess you found it, then?” Kate smiled as Johnson then ushered the girls into the back seat.
It rained all afternoon, like someone had overturned a bucket over and over and over. The Kansas and Missouri Rivers bloated where they intersected, their brims licked by water, water ready to swallow the bridges and the earth.
“You ladies hungry?” Elvin sat half-turned in the front. He gazed at the girls like they were a mirage. “Stroud’s does some mighty good fried chicken.”
“Perhaps there’s a tea room in town?” Betty asked. Store signs leaked and people hurried from doorway to car, damp sacks of groceries or goods in their arms.
“Oh, come on, Betty — let’s let our hair down a little,” Kate laughed. “When in Rome and all that.”
“I’d think we were already playing it pretty loose.” Betty struck a match and guided it to her cigarette. She wagged it out and exhaled. “Kate told her family we were visiting my cousin Darlene, and I had to tell my family we were visiting Kate’s cousin Glenda.”
“So which one of us is which?” Elvin asked.
“Well, you can be Glenda, okay, since you’re so pretty,” she laughed, snorted, her head cocked back. “And strong and silent here can be Darlene.”
“You hear that Darlene?” Elvin chewed on his toothpick. “Betty ain’t no dummy.”
The girls had a fight. At least, after twenty minutes in the ladies room, it seemed like they had. Johnson smoked cigarettes and smelled the chicken that waited before them. Elvin’s hook rested on the table. There seemed no reason to hide it now, after he had offered Betty his arm for the walk to the restaurant.
“What’s this, a joke or something?” She had cracked at her gum and laughed, and when no one answered, her cheeks flushed and she took his arm in her two hands and held it carefully, away from her, like a dead cat.
When the girls came out they smiled big, too big. Their eyes shined. They dropped napkins in their laps and each selected a chicken breast.
“Did you have any trouble driving out here?” Johnson rolled up his straw wrapper. “We would have told you not to come if we’d known the rains were so bad.”
“Well, no one said you controlled the weather,” Kate answered. “Can you believe Mommy lent me the Ford? For years she lectured me on being a lady, but since I left for school I guess she figured all hope is lost.”
“How is New York?” Johnson spooned his potato salad. “The boys nice there?”
“Sure.” Kate nodded, smiling. “Nice as they are in Ohio, or anywhere.”
He wondered whether she was testing him. He kept his eyes on his plate, his breathing steady. The rain bathed the windows next to their booth. The town was grayscale, a watercolor, coming into focus seconds at a time.
“You think we’re going to show the movies tonight?” Johnson asked Elvin. “I heard some fella by the counter talk about the National Guard comin’ to evacuate the town.”
“Maybe we should beat it the hell out of here, too.” Betty shivered. She pushed her dark hair out of her eyes. “Sounds like trouble.”
“Let’s just stay the night, at least.” Kate looked at Johnson. “We can turn around and leave early in the morning. Let the boys give us a night to remember first.”
Johnson drove to the hotel later, after the girls had freshened up, leaving Elvin’s truck at the hotel and bringing them to the drive-in in the Ford. The rain beat the car like a hundred broomsticks as they rolled slowly through the darkened streets. Occasionally lightning zigged the sky, and the situation flashed before them — the puddles growing around storm drains, garbage sailing through the gutters like Columbus.
He turned up the radio to drown out the rain, and Betty sang along with Nat King Cole, but they could still hear it, like locusts, like static. It crawled on Johnson’s shoulders and forearms, and he wondered if everyone was thinking of what would happen that night, if things that perhaps only seemed dangerous would in fact become dangerous. After the war, everything had only seemed dangerous to Johnson, like it wasn’t real. He worried that this would be his fatal flaw, for him or someone else.
At the drive-in, he pulled up to the middle of the lot. One other car sat parked a few spaces to his left. He ran through the mud, the water finding the loose seams in his boots, to the snack bar to get the girls food and then up the wooden steps to the projection booth.
“Where’s the Betty?” Elvin turned his head from where he threaded the projector.
“The Betty is dry in the car.” Johnson pulled off his boots. They fell with a thud on the floor as he wrung out his socks.
“Well, invite her up for her own private viewing.”
Johnson ran back down to the car and slid in. Kate had moved to the front seat. Betty sat in the back, filing her nails.
“Hey Betty, how’d you like a tour of the projection booth?” Johnson smiled, handing over a tray with a misshapen, greasy hamburger on it, a specimen that looked slightly more dejected than Betty.
“Oh Jesus, Kate.” She threw her file on the seat. “You didn’t tell me I was gonna have to be alone with him.”
“Betty.” Kate hung her clasped hands over the seat. “Do this for me, will you? Please?”
“Kate Cooper, you are impossible.” Betty kicked open the door with her foot. “Just know I have your head in my own personal vice for the rest of your days.”
“She’s a sweetheart.” Johnson watched Betty run across the field, tray over her head, to the projection booth. “Where’d you find her?”
“We went to high school together.” Kate took a sip of her soda. “You must realize, by now, how much trouble it took me to get here. Of course, I guess not every girl would visit a fella who doesn’t write for four years.”
He reached over and wove his fingers into her hair. “I spent all that time trying to forget you. Then I gave up.”
Her breath quickened. Johnson could smell the sweetness of soda on it, a mint. It burned into some rabbit hole in his brain, safe and dark, and he knew on his deathbed that he would remember the smell of Kate’s breath and her hair and the mole on her neck and nothing else much would matter between now and then. The same way nothing had seemed to matter much up to now. The screen lit up before them, a doe-eyed siren, a revelation of mastery and technology and solace from the war, the rain, his dreams. But Johnson wasn’t looking. He smelled Kate’s breath once more before smothering it with his lips.
Johnson had just slipped his hand under Kate’s bra when someone banged on the glass.
“Tell them to go away,” Kate murmured, her voice buried in his neck.
Johnson turned his head to see Elvin, water flying down the hood of his raincoat. He pointed to the ground. Johnson glanced out the window. There was no ground any more, only water, as if they’d slid in the middle of a lake. He rolled down the window an inch.
“The levee broke!” Elvin shouted through the rain, motioning with his arm. Johnson grabbed Kate’s hand and they ran to the projection booth, the water splashing against their mid-calves. Inside Betty sat in the dark on the couch, hugging her knees, the flick of the reel dancing on the wall behind her.
“Didn’t you see the damn water rising?” She looked up at them. Her mouth was pinched, her eyes tired. “How are we gonna get back to the hotel?”
“We gotta wait it out,” Elvin said. “At least we’re high up.”
“But what if this rickety old thing breaks away?” Betty asked. She tied her headscarf tight on her chin.
“It ain’t going nowhere,” Elvin answered. Although Johnson did not know whether anyone believed it. They sat in the darkness, the girls on the couch, Elvin at the projector, Johnson against the wall.
“I’m sorry it ain’t been such a nice trip for you.” Elvin held the cement bottle in his good hand. He turned off the projector, and the booth was dark before Johnson could make out everyone’s shapes.
“It’s not your fault," Kate said.
“Can we talk about something else?” Betty sighed. “Nobody’s apology is going to save us from drowning.”
“How’d you wind up in Kansas City, Calvin?” Kate asked. “You’ve got four years of explaining to do.”
“On my way to Seattle,” he shrugged. He didn’t admit he’d been on his way to Seattle for almost four years. After the war he met Kate at Bowling Green, where he signed up for classes on the GI Bill. He didn’t even know what he would study, whether he would finish. It was something, he figured, that kept his head out of Europe.
It hadn’t mattered to Kate. She had told him she loved him, but he didn’t know how to answer. He was a farmer’s boy living on $20 a week from Uncle Sam, and Kate was going places. She had always planned to transfer to school in New York and had only waited out the war in Ohio for her parents’ sake. And when she had left that fall, he did too, except he wasn’t going anywhere.
“What’s in Seattle?” She pressed.
“Ugh — that’s outside.” Betty frowned. “Weren’t you boys outside enough during the war? I want a guy with clean fingernails who works at a bank.”
“Nobody goes back inside after that,” Elvin said, lighting a cigarette. “If you know what I mean.”
The booth slid forward, accompanied by a groan from a two-by-four below, and everyone stood up, touching a wall for balance. Betty began to cry, and Kate took her in her arms. Johnson cracked open the door. The water swirled beneath them — five feet, almost covering the cars.
“We need to leave!” Betty cried. She pushed at Kate.
“You think anybody’s safer anywhere else?” Elvin looked at Johnson, who shut the door. If there were heroic measures to be taken, Johnson wasn’t sure what they were. He had been shot at, mortared, mined, blitzed, and he now was going to drown in some backwater town in a projection booth. And so was Kate.
The darkened booth moved slowly this way and that, like a ship in the grips of a tormented sea, and the girls lay on the floor, their nails digging into the narrow slats between the wood. After it was in danger of toppling, Johnson began to disassemble the projector, feeling around in the dark for the wheels, washers, and pins as Elvin guided him through it. He could hear Betty’s sobbing in Kate’s breast, and he wished he could curl around the other side of her, press his face into her neck, listen to her heart pulse through her arteries. They might die, the booth might break away and fill with water as they struggled by floating film canisters and tubes to escape, a foot might wedge in unseen debris deep below the oil-black waters outside the booth, pinning one of them to a watery grave. But Kate had come here because she loved him, and his heart swelled and he wanted to shout over the flooded plains that he loved her, too.
He would go to New York, after the summer, the cleanup, and he would ask Kate to marry him. If they survived. Johnson stacked the projector pieces in a corner, and he and Elvin sat on the floor and huddled over the ladies. Johnson fell asleep for seconds at a time, sometimes seeing the fireflies of artillery fire in his sights before shaking the shapes of the projection booth into focus. His legs fell asleep and then screamed awake as a cascade of pins poked at them.
Johnson’s hand moved through the planes of flesh and found Kate’s. She slipped her fingers into his. The fog of dark lifted, and they realized that it was no longer raining. Johnson stood up and opened the door. The water had settled halfway up the stairs to the projection room, almost seven feet.
They waited. It was a good two miles to the hotel, Johnson reckoned, and he doubted he could swim that far, much less anyone else. Frogs and popsicle sticks, a doll head floated by the booth. Canoes stuffed with people in woolen blankets stared at them, hanging out the door of the projection booth.
“There’s more coming.” A man in a canoe said. He meant boats. Wedged behind him, huddled a woman, two young children, a dog. A birdcage sat precariously on the back, anchored by the older child’s hand. “The National Guard will pick you up. Just be patient.”
The boaters wore the same shell-shocked expression Johnson had seen overseas, after the blitzes, bombings, attacks — the incapacity to understand how modern civilization could be crushed under an indifference or vengeance, an even greater incapacity to accept both produced the same outcome. But they couldn’t because they hadn’t fought in Italy or France or Germany or Guadalcanal or Pellilu or Okinawa and seen it like Johnson had, only in movies.
“Do you think your mom’s gonna give it to you about the car?” Johnson asked Kate as they all crowded the top landing of the stairs.
“Oh, you bet,” Kate laughed. “It’s all quite comical, when you think about it. I mean, when we think about it a few years from now it’ll be quite comical.”
“It ain’t so funny now.” Elvin reached out and snared a branch that floated toward them. He slashed at the air with it. “It ain’t ever gonna be funny to the one’s us that live here.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that way,” Kate blushed. “I just meant the cosmic ridiculousness of it — who would have imagined we’d drive to Kansas City and be stuck in a flood? I guess — I guess that sounds awful selfish of me, too.”
“I don’t care what it sounds like,” Betty said. “I just want to go home. This was a stupid idea and I’m sorry that I ever went along with it.”
“You folks need a lift?” A man in a rowboat grabbed at the stair rail. Everyone let Betty get in first.
“You should come up,” Kate said as they neared the hotel. In the parking lot cars had drifted at angles and bobbed into each other. The top of Elvin’s truck rested in a cluster of them like steer in a pen. As they neared the lobby they could see that the doormen had sandbagged the entrance from the inside. “If they’ll even let us in.”
“Hey.” Elvin banged against the glass. “Guests here!”
The porter came to the door and pointed to the side of the building, where a ladder stood underneath a second-story window. Johnson helped Betty, and then Kate, onto the rungs.
“You gonna be all right getting up?” Johnson asked Elvin.
“I’m gonna go home,” Elvin answered. “I got to check on my mom.”
“You want me to go with you? How are you going to swim?”
“I’ll manage. Someone has to take care of the ladies.” Elvin glanced up at the window, where Kate’s head had poked out. “Go on. Betty will be relieved, I’ll bet.”
“I’m sorry.” Johnson put his hand on Elvin’s shoulder.
“She ain’t the first.” Elvin shrugged. A paper cup floated by then, and Elvin plucked it out of the water. He fit it under his armpit as he put a plug of tobacco in his mouth with his good hand. He waved. “To whenever we meet again, soldier. God bless.”
“I’ll find you later — I promise.” Johnson watched Elvin wade through the water past the boats, up the street. Then he climbed up the ladder. Kate was waiting for him in the hall. Other guests moved back and forth through it like zombies.
“Elvin’s gone home.” Johnson leaned against the windowsill and undid his boots, rolled off his socks. “To see about his mother.”
“Betty’s trying to get through to her folks.” Kate nodded as Johnson padded up to her barefoot. “They only have a few lines working. You think, you think the car will be all right to drive, once the rain goes away?”
“The rain may not go away for days,” he answered. “And the car’s probably a goner.”
“I’m so sorry.” She wrapped her arms around herself. Her eyes filled with tears. “We should have left last night. I was so stupid.”
“Don’t say that.” He wrapped his arms around her. “I wouldn’t have let you go. I love you. Marry me.”
He felt it, so slightly, but it was there and it was his answer — the stiffness in Kate’s shoulders before she pulled away and patted his back, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Oh, silly.” She sniffled. “You’re trying to make me feel better. You’re right. Everything will be okay.”
Kate went down to the room to call her parents after Betty got through to hers. He stood by the window while Kate waited on the line at the desk. She ran her hand through her hair, her eyebrows thin, arched slightly.
“Unbelievable.” Betty sat on the bed and lit a cigarette from a pack in the drawer. She offered one to Johnson. “I shoulda never agreed to this.”
“I’m sorry you had a bad time,” he said, leaning over and pulling out a cigarette. Although he wasn’t. He spread out his toes, looked at them.
“I got a line.” Kate looked up. She smiled at him.
“You’d better call Bob, too.” Betty lay across the bed on her elbow. She blew smoke at the ceiling. “I bet he’s worried sick about you.”
Kate threw a glance at Betty. She tapped the cradle receiver. In the movies, it would have been different, he knew. But as it was, he walked barefoot down the hall, his boots slung over his shoulders, and Kate ran after him.
“Betty can be such a pill.” She grabbed at his arm. “Calvin, please. You don’t understand.”
“Why did you come?” He shrugged his shoulders. “I mean, if you’ve got a fiancé or something…”
“Because you asked me to.” They stood at the open window. Johnson stuck his head out. The city still drowned. He sat on the windowsill. “I was going to tell you, honestly.”
“Does he treat you well?”
“Of course.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “But that’s not the point. I wanted to see you, Calvin. Until the letter, I didn’t realize you still thought of me.”
“What do you think?” Her eyes searched his, but he couldn’t look at her. If he were Guy Haines he would have grabbed Kate by the shoulders and kissed her, maybe. But the hallway was crowded. A man was climbing up the ladder behind him. Inside, an older man wearing nothing but pants and an undershirt came up to them, his stomach stretching at his suspenders.
“You seen my wife?” He grabbed Kate’s arm, shook her weakly. “She was going down for ice. For my head. She should’ve been back by now, don’t you think? It was only ice — what if she drowned down there?”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” Kate patted the man’s forearm. It was wooly with white hair. “Where is your room? Are you on this floor? Let’s get you back to your room.”
Kate led the man down the hall. Johnson waited until she was out of sight, then swung his legs over the windowsill and climbed down the ladder. Maybe he would regret it, leaving them in the hotel, but the water was cool around his legs, a balm, and when he dove under, into the grit and oil and dirt, it washed away his tears.
Elvin was not at the house. His mother paced carefully across the roof, like a pigeon, her hands cupped her mouth as she hollered, lest the rescue boats wouldn’t see her. Johnson tested his weight against the right column of the porch before shimming up. The shingles were crumbly like graham crackers.
“He’s not with you?” Her eyes widened and then narrowed in disbelief. She looked out at the water, which banged against the horizon like water in a glass.
“I’m sure he got picked up by a boat,” Johnson answered. He hoped. The swim had been exhausting even for him, and all his muscles pulled and burned.
“Where’s your fiancée?”
“Back at the hotel. The girls are safe.”
“Elvin’s been through so much.” She wiped her eyes with a used handkerchief. Johnson put his hand around her shoulder, and they watched the boats bob like toys this way and that.
On Monday, the town drained. Johnson hauled Mrs. Haas’ sofa and mattress out to dry while Mrs. Haas pulled apart old photographs, scrapbook pages whose painstaking comments had morphed into blue clouds. Johnson’s things had survived, miraculously, being in the attic, along with a dressmaker’s dummy, old suitcases, a child’s rocking horse, useless things.
“Old man Ferrett’s chickens drowned,” Elvin’s mother said as they lifted water-logged blankets, linen, to the clouds and hung them over the clothesline. They worked hard, to exhaustion, and didn’t talk about Elvin, stopping only to drink cold coffee and eat the canned beets, pickles, and tomatoes that had survived the flood. “They found the cow two miles away.”
“I ought to walk to town,” Johnson said. “See if Elvin is at the drive-in. See about some food.” He wanted to check on the girls, too, but he didn’t mention them. For all he knew, they had been ferried on the next National Guard raft out of town, their salvation only a wire away to Ohio. He got his other pair of socks out of his duffel bag and put them on, along with his boots, and walked through the mud to town. Everyone’s debris littered the farmland, the roads, everyone’s secrets open and yet anonymous by virtue of their displacement. Children poked through the rubble, hopeful of new, slightly damaged toys to bring home and claim were always theirs.
It was déjà vu. He had seen it all in Europe, only this time no one had looked at him with either relief or disgust on account of his uniform. He was a regular Joe now, not responsible for the death of someone’s grandmother or the mortar that had sliced a cottage like bread. He could feel relief or disgust, just the same as everyone. But he felt neither of those things. The sun baked on the earth, the breeze warm on his back. He longed to get on the open road, alone with the drizzled egg white clouds in the afternoon and shrieking trees in the moonlight. He appreciated the nonjudgmental, unapologetic brutality and tenderness of nature. It was unpredictable, but not personal.
He made it to the hotel first. He fished Elvin’s key out of his pocket and tried the engine, but it choked and shuddered like a head cold.
“All the guests got picked up yesterday afternoon,” the porter said. There were water marks on his dark pants at the mid-thigh. “Most of ‘em got taken over to the Missouri side.”
Johnson walked down to the drive-in. Its desertedness reminded him of the graveyard of some epic battle, lined with little radio headstones. He walked to Kate’s mother’s Ford and opened the door. Water sloshed out onto his feet. He reached over the overturned soda cup, wax wrappers and opened the glove compartment. He pocketed a compact, even though he was not sure whether it was Kate’s or her mother’s. Then he opened the trunk, fishing through the spare tire, maps. He slammed it shut and made his way over to the projection booth, testing his weight on the steps. The wood was wet but not soft, and he made it up to the hot, stale room. Traces of perfume still lingered. The projector pieces were safe. Sometime, perhaps later that year, even, people would watch movies again. The sky would darken. An enterprising gull would dive for fallen French fries. The crowd would settle in their cloth and leather seats as the projector opened its Cyclops eye and birthed the screen with light. New loves would blossom, and old loves would darken like the handle of a hammer, smooth and oiled and fitted to the hand. Minds would leave their overdue bills and loved ones in hospitals and pains and drink the ambrosia of adventure, of love, of mystery.
But Johnson didn’t think he would stay for it. His heart longed for the dirt under his feet, the breeze through his hair, a motion that was real and physical, even if his destination was vague, unrealized. A path that could cross paths with Kate again if he kept in motion.
All that mattered now was finding Elvin. He went to the Red Cross station at the high school gymnasium and picked up a sack of beans, eggs, coffee, a loaf of bread. Then he went to the drive-in and began to clean the debris off the lot. It would be ready for business, he promised himself, when Elvin finally surfaced.
Jen Michalski's first collection of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, is available from So New (2007), her second is forthcoming from Dzanc (2013), and her novella MAY-SEPTEMBER (2010) was published by Press 53 as part of the Press 53 Open Awards. She also is the editor of the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE (CityLit Press 2010), which won a 2010 "Best of Baltimore" award from Baltimore Magazine. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, and is co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore.