by Vincent Barry
Tires spit gravel, the sports car screeched backward over the cliff, killing Angel Face and the family chauffeur.
THE END appeared on the big screen and a familiar voice beckoned. Bernie McBurney set out, toward the harsh white light, leaving Viv behind in the Henry J.
He’d heard that voice at drive-ins before—many times. Even before that, on the radio, that fruity voice— every Wednesday night between 9 and 10 on the Fred Allen Show. His mother’s favorite program—
brought to you by Ipana toothpaste for the smile of beauty and Sal
Hepatica for proper nature calling function.
On his part, young Bernie favored The Shadow, which that same silky, low voice introduced with the foreboding words:
Blue Coal brings radio’s strangest adventurer, The Shadow.
Mystery man who strikes terror into the very hearts of sharpsters,
lawbreakers, and criminals.
The destined snack bar still but a spectral fluorescence in the vaporous air, Bernie flashed on how as a lad he had pestered his mother to use the lustrous anthracite that brought him his favorite show.
The color makes it burn longer, he had pleaded, and safer than the glossy black stuff we use.
It wasn’t true, of course. They painted it blue, the coal, the company did—as a marketing ploy. How he found out still stung.
So, tell me, Bridget McBurney said at breakfast one Saturday morning to her son, how do you like your Blue Coal now, little mister?
The words rang a bell. Or was it the way his mother said them? . . . They reminded him of the last line of a poem about the death of Buffalo Bill he had read in school. How do you like your blue eyed boy Mister Death—that was the line.
The narrator is being sarcastic, the teacher had said.
He didn’t get it. Why would anyone belittle Buffalo Bill that way? Was that what his mother was doing—putting him down like that?
His head low, like a doughboy’s in trench warfare, his nose almost touching the cereal box, he was poring over a cartoon depicting a bedraggled boy dressed like a soldier tied to a tree and a like-dressed boy wearing a saucepan on his head for a helmet. The boy with the metal headgear was holding up a box of the cereal and saying to a girl, who appeared to be a noncombatant: We’re gonna play torture chamber—we have this box of Wheaties in front of Johnny but we won’t let him have any.
Bernie frowned. You think this is funny, he said, extending the cereal box toward his mother.
She ignored it. When she did a chore, Bridget McBurney always gave it her undivided attention. At present she was doing the dishes. With Colgate’s Octagon Soap. She always used Colgate’s Octagon Soap on the dishes, Bridget McBurney did. She also used the product for washing hands, teasing out clothing stains, removing oven grease, and repelling ticks; and, failing the latter—repelling ticks—she used the product for treating bug bites. She never used it, though, did Bridget McBurney, for washing clothes or bathing.
If you have to ask, it isn’t funny, she finally said without considering the box.
Hmm, Bernie said, studying the ad. Then he said, I think I’ll send for the mechanical pencil anyway . . . . It’s shaped like a big league bat.
You don’t play baseball, she said.
Still an’ all—
You don’t even like baseball, she said.
Well, I can write, can’t I? He examined the box further. Then he said, It says here the pen’s “streamline curved to fit your fingers.”
“Streamline curved”… What does “streamline curved” have to do with the price of pork?
It sounds cool is all, he said.
Hmph—“cool”—what are you like, she said. If you ask me it sounds like—like a strip of licorice, that’s what “streamline curved,” what rawmaish! . . . When was the last time you wrote with a piece of licorice? Answer me that. . . . Then she said, is there a picture of the bloody pen?
He scanned the box but couldn’t find a picture. It only costs a dime, he said, adding, I already have the box top.
His mother continued to busy herself at the sink. Then she stopped abruptly, turned to her son and, wiping her hands on her aproned hips, said, Bernard, don’t be so gullible. She said it like she knew what she was talking about, Bridget McBurney did.
What do you mean—“gullible”? he said.
You know very well what I mean—“too trustful,” “easily taken in.” If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you—
No you haven’t.
When? When did you tell me? he said.
Lots of times, she said.
She sighed, Well, let me see . . . the first time . . . the very first time was years ago—when you were four, I think—and insisted your father was coming back—
He could have, he said.
And why? she said. Because he said so. “I’ll be right back. I’m just going for a walk.” . . . . I don’t know how many times you quoted him. And no matter what I said, you’d say, He said he’d be right back . . . . Don’t be gullible, Bernard. Don’t be a greenhorn . . . don’t be a sucker, she added, turning back to the sink.
He considered that a bit, then said, He’s defunct. Is that what you mean?
“Defunct”? Where did you pick up a four-dollar word like “defunct”?
Oh, nowhere . . . in a poem we read about Buffalo Bill.
Yes, defunct—that’s dead on, so it is. Gone for good.
Him, too, she said.
Then Bridget McBurney rinsed the remaining dishes and placed them carefully in the crimp wire dish dryer on the linoleum countertop.
He wanted to ask his mother, young Bernie did, if she was being gullible in buying Ipana and Sal Hepatica. And if she wasn’t, how come he was with Blue Coal. He thought better of it, however, and secretly hoped that Ipana caused cavities or that Sal Hepatica turned out to be some guy from Hackensack. Either one, or both. He had never been to Hackensack, but he knew it was in New Jersey, where they lived, although not exactly where in New Jersey. Still, he was certain that Hackensack was an underworld inhabited, in the main, by “sharpsters, lawbreakers, and criminals,” among them the notorious Sal Hepatica. . . . And he wished his mother would stop calling him “Bernard,” which sounded to him like someone Sal Hepatica would be dispatched to rub out.
As was her wont, Bridget McBurney dried her hands briskly with the blue striped cotton dishtowel. Then she picked up the cereal box and looked down her glasses at the cartoon on the back. She was still trying to get used to them, her new bifocals.
I don’t find anything amusing about torture, she finally said, handing Bernie the box, adding, especially when it’s used to sell breakfast cereal.
Hmm, Bernie said, you think maybe we were—gullible to buy it?
His mother gestured toward the back porch and reminded Bernie that it was washday.
Bernie’s job on washday was to fetch the two galvanized tin tubs and rub board from the back porch. Bridget McBurney always did the wash on Saturday, unlike her neighbors, on Monday. And she always used Linit soap, Bridget McBurney did, which she’d adopted for bathing, some years before, after succumbing to the seductions of that same watersmooth-silver voice, on The Linit Bath Club Revue. . . . She also used to listen to Nora Drake, but she didn’t believe in perming her hair. As she liked to say, Bridget McBurney, Nothing lasts forever.
The gravel crunched under Bernie’s shoes. Funny, he thought, Viv likes Nora Drake, too. Viv, in fact, never missed an episode of the afternoon soap, which began with that same orotund voice announcing over the thrill from a pipe organ:
Tony, Tony, Tony Home Permanent presents This Is Nora Drake, a
modern story seen through the window of a woman’s heart.
Bernie’s mind flitted to the white sack on the back seat of the HJ, the package Viv said contained the makings for perfect neckline curls. He liked Viv’s lissotrichous black hair the way she used to wear it, sleek and shiny, neck-length or ponytailed. He told her so, too, lots of times, Bernie did, but she ignored him, as with the perfume.
The bag in the back that held the box that held the perfect neckline curls also held a mephitic secret: a skunky scent that Bernie knew would fill the house for days after Viv had made use of its contents: A Toni Home Permanent, source of the oiled smell. Six Midget Spin rods, for those aforesaid curls. Toni Crème Shampoo, for soft water shampooing even in hard water, (which they assumed they had, Bernie and Viv, given the impenetrable fogginess of their glasses and their itchy, dry skin). A $1.50 value, all for $1.33, purchased at a Rexall moments earlier, along with a perfume, which, though popular during the war, Viv hadn’t bought when it first came out.
He liked the perfume’s bottle, Bernie did—squat, half-moon, cobalt blue, glass-stoppered—but not its scent, of boiled celery stalks. He’d never had them, boiled celery stalks, but he imagined that that was what they must smell like, like the perfume. Viv brushed off his opinion like dandruff.
You lack, she said, or something of that sort, you lack the requisite nose to distinguish subtle cedar and musk and sandalwood scents. He remembered what she said when he asked her what she meant by “uncouth.” You know, she said, “unrefined,” adding, Face it, Bernard, you have no nose for eau de cologne.
He thought back to when she had started using it, the perfume. Six months ago, he guessed, about when she started to perm her hair. Now she always kept a bottle in her purse. She wasn’t wearing it this night—he was sure of that.
And now, the butter-tongued announcer said, before the next show starts, let’s enjoy an intermission. You’ll find our snack bar full of good things to eat and drink.
His back to the screen, Bernie couldn’t see the circle that had appeared on it, framing the image of a girl with straight, shoulder length blonde hair, perfect white teeth and full cherry lips. But as he traversed the fenced-in field, which was large and paved with gravel-and-oil in a cosmetic attempt to keep the dust down and the bugs at bay, he could clearly detect the dulcet tones that were nakedly geared to heighten the visual allure of the film running behind him:
Thirst quenching soft drinks; fresh, crunchy popcorn, a complete assortment of delicious candy, and a full line of cigarettes. The voice reassured him, wouldn’t you know, about missing the start of the upcoming feature:
You’ve plenty of time, so visit the snack bar now. A tasty treat will double your enjoyment of the show. For your convenience we shall keep you informed of the remaining intermission time.
With that, the face of the pretty girl dissolved into a countdown clock, which then shared the screen with a barker in a straw hat standing beside a sign that read “Our Ice Cream Is Delicious.” The well-modulated voice spoke for the open-mouthed barker, who was pointing at the number 3 with a little striped cane:
Three minutes before the next show starts.
Precisely sixty seconds afterward, a larger timer appeared with a single hand pointing to the number 2, and the voice said:
Our next show will start in two minutes.
Sixty-seconds later, the voice repeated the message:
Our next show will start in one minute.
He took his place, Bernie did, at the end of the long line, and regarded, just outside the fence, a gathering crowd, restless and fretful. They seemed to be waving pickets, the crowd.
About then his leg began to ache—the one with the deep, indented scar. Stress, the stress of worry, always aroused the pain like a reunion that awakens a bad memory; and at present he was feeling tense as a mouse trap, Bernie was. For it was as plain as the bulky nose on his worried face that he wouldn’t have “plenty of time” to get back to the car by show time, the avuncular reassurance of the velvety voice notwithstanding.
The longer the wait, the more strident the picketers, the thirstier the bombinating bugs—the more he sensed within, Bernie did, a rising tide of bile toward that disembodied voice, at once reassuring and disquieting. And it wasn’t as if this were the first time, either, that those honeyed words, both comforting and alarming, had misled him. No siree!—not by a long shot. Why, just the week before, when he and Viv were over at the Crescent, the same thing had happened, only with High Noon. He had barely reached the Crescent’s snack bar, had Bernie, when he heard Tex Ritter singing over the opening credits:
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
On this, our weddin’ day
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
Wait, wait along . . .
I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave…
Oh, to be torn ‘twixt love and duty
S’posin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon . . .
I’m not afraid of death but oh
What will I do if you leave me?
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
You made that promise when we wed
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
Although you’re grievin’, I won’t be leavin’
Until . . .
Well before Bernie could scuttle back to the car, ole Tex had sung his last haunting plea:
Wait along, wait along
Wait along, wait along
He was beginning to feel as he had then —jumpy and jittery.
He’d gotten so rattled at the Crescent that, incredibly, he forgot to get popcorn. They always ate popcorn at the movies, Bernie and Viv—and candy—a Big Time for him, a Butternut for her. A movie’s not a movie without popcorn, for Pete’s sake!—that’s what he told Viv when he made his way back, and in a lather he was—A movie’s not a movie without popcorn, for Pete’s sake! Look at you, Viv said, you’re all hot and bothered, and she added, Don’t go making a federal case out of it. He told her how he hated to miss the beginning—of a show, you know. Granted, he said, it’s not as bad as knowing the ending, I’ll give you that, but bad enough, missing the start. Don’t have a cow over it, she said. And, don’t go ape, Bernie. And, don’t flip out. And, you know, you’re becoming a real square . . . I mean it, Bernard. . . . Things like that he remembered she said, on the line.
He stuck on the forgotten popcorn—forgotten because of his high dudgeon at missing the opening of High Noon, all because it had assured him of having plenty of time, that slick voice. And now here it was again, that same nectarous voice, the voice of that same oleaginous piece of work, he was sure of it, setting him up again, it was.
It just isn’t right, he thought, this, this—what? He searched for the right word to express his feeling.
Ever since returning from the war Bernie had been having a bit of trouble with words—finding the right ones, so to speak. No big deal, but he had mentioned it to the VA docs. Before serving, he had been indifferent to his word choice, so long as he pronounced it right and it got his point across—you know, in a general way. Indeed, Bridget McBurney used to admonish her son, she did, about being “word lazy,” as she called it.
Don’t be word lazy, Bernard, she’d say. Words are tools. You wouldn’t just pull the nearest tool out of the tool kit to hammer a nail, would you? No, you wouldn’t. You’d look for a hammer. Words are no different. Don’t be using a wrench word for a job that calls for a hammer word. That’s being word lazy.
The war had changed all of that for Bernie, you could say. Repeated exposure to artillery explosions and the like, with nothing but cotton wool stuffed in his ears, gave him what one resourceful VA doc had called “an appreciation of your mother tongue.” He encouraged Bernie, the doc did, to view his auditory phenomenon as a kind of miracle, “albeit perhaps a minor one,” the doc said—even if it did come with tinnitus in both ears. And it never stopped, the tinnient, not until he discovered just the right word tool for the job, as it were. That’s where he figured the miracle part came in, Bernie did. . . .That’s the ticket! The doc told him.
This time the tinkling quit when he found “deception.”
Deception, he thought, that’s what it is—and at a drive-in, no less!
That he should be hoodwinked and hornswoggled at a drive-in really galled Bernie. Geez, it’s like having your pocket picked in a church, he thought, although he wasn’t what you’d call even an irregular churchgoer. He left all the churchgoing to Viv, Bernie did. She went for both of them, you could say, or used to. She’d stopped going regularly, to church, a few months back—about when she took up the perfume and the perm and “Viv” instead of “Vivian.”
At the one-minute warning Bernie had reached the rim of the bar’s garish white light, just enough of which illuminated the signs some of the protesters were waving. The signs read:
DOWN WITH DRIVE-INS, MORE WORK FOR BABYSITTERS.
UP WITH BABYSITTERS/DOWN WITH DRIVE-INS.
One or the other.
Then—wouldn’t you just know it?—the line stalled. A slope-shouldered man up front couldn’t make up his mind. He silently bet, Bernie did, that no one would tell the guy to shake a leg, because he was supporting himself with a cane, the man was, and wearing an Eisenhower jacket.
Geez, Bernie thought, rubbing his heavy-lidded eyes, which were really starting to burn, I could pull my jacket outta mothballs if I wanted special treatment, and there’d be no trouble acquiring a cane, that’s for sure. Why, he could even yank up his pant, Bernie could, and show everyone the hole in his leg, if he wanted, and tell them how he got it, the hole, and how he only made it through with morphine and sulfa powder. But, of course, he’d never do such a thing, dress up like this fella, with a Purple Heart and a cane and all, and try to exploit a war injury— at a drive-in no less, hassling everybody this way. And even if he did, dress up like that, it certainly wouldn’t impair his— what? choice making. No, sirree Bob! It wouldn’t impair his choice making the way it had with this fella, for crying out loud!
Somebody then shouted at the demonstrators, “Goon squad!”
Soon others joined in, forming a nagging chorus of “Goon squad! Goon squad! Goon squad!”
Bernie wasn’t sure what direction the menacing voices were coming from. They seemed to encircle him like the new stereophonic sound that was all the rage.
He peered through the blue haze, through the wire-mesh fence, to see if he could spot any goons. He had never seen a goon, or met a goon, union or otherwise. But he’d read about them, well enough, and seen pictures of them, goons, on the Hoboken docks—big, mean looking men, they were, the goons, with missing teeth and baseball bats. He scanned the crowd for anyone fitting that description but all he could see were women, young women mostly, some shaking babies. He supposed they could be goonettes, which made him think of the Rockettes, and he tried to recall the last time he was at Radio City. It was a long, long time ago—maybe never.
When the bell tolled thrice and the voice said, “Enjoy the show, folks!” Bernie was certain he detected something downright sinister in its tone—you know, as if the voice added darkly under the breath, “if you can.” “Enjoy the show, folks, if you can.” Like, “Enjoy the show, suckers!”
“Geez,” Bernie mumbled to himself, fisting his eyes some more, for they were really burning now. He wondered if the burning had anything to do with the acrid, fuliginous air, which reeked of rotten eggs. He looked around to see if anyone else was similarly affected.
That’s one heckuva message to be giving women and children, he thought, clearing his scratchy throat. He hadn’t seen any children, though, except for those babies—or perhaps they were doll babies. It was hard to tell in the blue dun light. Maybe it was because of the films they were showing. They weren’t really for children, the films.
He wondered why—regretted really—why he and Viv hadn’t seen Sunset Boulevard when it first came out—you know, before they were married. He figured the Church must’ve had something to do with it. Back then, when she was “Vivian,” Viv was always taking her cues from “Holy Mother the Church” about what movies to see, and mostly not to see. The Church had probably told her not to see it, Sunset Boulevard. He wondered why.
Funny how things work out, Bernie thought, as the line inched forward, just before the first stone flew, if it weren’t for the Church, I wouldn’t be stuck in this line, listening to that, that. . . . He searched for the right word, Bernie did—to describe, you know, what he thought he’d just heard. This time the word blackheart stilled the tinkling in his ears.
He couldn’t remember ever hearing the word before. Was there such a word? He wasn’t sure. If there wasn’t, there should be, he decided, because that announcement was downright black-hearted. “Enjoy the show, folks, if you can.” Imagine. He couldn’t believe it. He should complain to the management, that’s what he should do. He looked around for someone in charge, but by now it had faded to pitch, the place outside the splash of the bar’s gruesome luminescence, which was attracting battalions of skin-piercing mosquitoes, despite the counter boy’s spirited swatting.
“Next,” the boy said in a defeated voice, squashing a prodigious pest that was sucking from a hemorrhage on his arm.
He felt sorry for the adolescent, Bernie did, what with the hideous light magnifying his raging acne that way. He was wondering, was Bernie, whether the lad was going to rub the insect into the bite when the first stone struck. It looked flat and not particularly big, the stone, but it did catch the boy square under his white cap, right in the middle of his forehead next to a rosy zit. Gamely the boy again said to Bernie, this time with audible aspiration, “Next.”
Before Bernie could respond, even before the boy could blot the wet blood on his forehead, the atmosphere exploded with tense, suspenseful music and police sirens, as if someone was being chased and desperately trying to escape. He first thought, Bernie did, that it had to do with the goonettes, the wails of the sirens, you know; but then he heard a baritone voice with a world-weary lilt of cynical amusement saying:
Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the homicide squad; complete with detectives and newspaperman. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses on the Ten Thousand block.
He couldn’t place the voice, but it definitely wasn’t the schuckster’s.
“Next!” the boy snapped at Bernie.
Then someone behind Bernie with a nasally voice said, “Let’s go, nosebleed, the flick’s on!”
Bernie’s throat was burning and his eyes were watering, they were, when the baritone said something about the news hitting the streets, and then:
…maybe you’ll like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you’ve come to the right party.
The adenoidal voice then said, “Who’s that guy?”
Bernie thought he was referring to himself, and just as he turned his head to acknowledge, wouldn’t you know, a pointy stone struck him right above the temple, just hard enough to make him wince.
Then a girl popping gum at ear splitting decibels flippantly answered the high, tinny inquiry. “A stiff in a pool, nimrod,” she said. Their cachinnation, the popper’s and the nimrod’s, didn’t quite swallow up the baritone, who said:
Nobody important really, just a movie writer with a couple of B-pictures
to his credit.
“It’s really him,” the popper said, amending the movie’s narration in a low, conspiratorial tone, but loud enough for Bernie to hear.
“You mean the guy talkin’?” the nimrod said.
“Uh-huh,” the popper said. “William Holden.”
Mosquitoes buzzed and droned around Bernie McBurney’s head.
“Cool!” the nimrod said.
“She shot him,” the popper said. “Gloria Swanson did. . . . And she gets away with it in the end,” she added.
“So, what’ll it be, mister?” the boy said.
Bernie didn’t answer.
“I didn’t know you seen this,” the nimrod said.
“Uh-huh,” the popper said, “when it first came out.”
He couldn’t decide what to order first—popcorn or candy.
“Cool!” the nimrod said again. Then, jerking his thumb toward Bernie, the nimrod said to the popper, “Can you believe this geek?”
“Well?” the kid groaned.
He said nothing, Bernie McBurney. He felt crowded and breathless. He thought about Viv—Vivian. He wondered, he did, if she was—what? what? And his ears started up in a cacophony of whooshes and roars and screeches that kept time, this time, with the beat of his heart—lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.