But no sooner was one surf-stranger gone than you heard the sandpiping children’s voices crying, “Look, Mommy, oh, look!”
“Git away! Get!”
And you heard the rush of feet running away from the still-warm landmines on the shore.
Walking back from Crumley’s I heard about the unwelcome visitors, the drowned ones,
I had hated to leave the sun which seemed to shine forever in Crumley’s orchard.
Reaching the sea was like touching another country. The fog came as if glad for all the bad shoreline news. The drownings had had nothing to do with police, night traumas, or dark surprises in canals that sucked their teeth all night. It was simply riptides.
The shore was empty now. But I had an even emptier feeling when I lifted my gaze to the old Venice pier.
“Bad rice!” I heard someone whisper. Me.
An old Chinese imprecation, shouted at the edges of crops to guarantee a good harvest against the devastation of the envious gods.
For someone had at last stepped on the big snake.
Someone had stomped it down.
The rollercoaster was gone forever from the far end of the pier.
What was left of it now lay in the late day, like a great strewn jackstraws game. But only a big steam shovel was playing that game now, snorting, bending down to snap up the bones and find them good.
“When does the dying stop?” I had heard Cal say a few hours back.
With the empty pier-end ahead, its skeleton being flensed, and a tidal wave of fog storming toward shore, I felt a fusillade of cold darts in my back. I was being followed. I spun.
But it wasn’t me being pursued by nothing.
Across the street, I saw A. L. Shrank. He ran along, hands deep in overcoat pockets, head sunk in his dark collar, glancing back, like a rat before hounds.
God, I thought, now I know who he reminds me of.
The famous photographs, the somber portraits of Edgar Allan with his vast milk-glass lampglow brow and brooding night-fire eyes and the doomed and lost mouth buried under the dark moustache, his tie askew on his untidy collar, over his always convulsing and swallowing throat.
Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe ran. Shrank ran, glancing back at a swift fog with no shape.
Christ, I thought, it’s after all of us.
By the time I reached the Venice Cinema, the fog, impatient, had already gone in.
Mr. Shapeshade’s old Venice Cinema was special because it was the last of a series of night riverboats, afloat on the edge of the tide, anywhere in the world.
The front part of the cinema was on the concrete walk that leads from Venice down toward Ocean Park and Santa Monica.
The back half of it stuck out on the pier so that its rear end was over the water.
I stood in front of the movie house at this late hour of the day, glanced up at the marquee, and gasped.
There were no films listed. Only one huge two-foot-high word.
It was like being stabbed in the stomach.
I stepped forward to the ticket booth.
Shapeshade was there smiling at me with manic good will as he waved.
“Goodbye?” I said, mournfully.
“Sure!” Shapeshade laughed. “Ta-ta, toodle-oo. Farewell. And it’s free! Go in! Any friend of Douglas Fairbanks, Thomas Meighan, Milton Sills, and Charles Ray is a friend of mine.”
I melted at the names from my childhood; people I had seen flickering on ancient screens when I was two, three, four on my mother’s knee in a cool movie house in northern Illinois before the bad rice came and we steamed west in an old beat-up Kissel, ahead of the Okies, my dad looking for a twelve-buck-a-week job.
“I can’t go in, Mr. Shapeshade.”
“Look at the boy who won’t!” Shapeshade threw his hands to the heavens and rolled his eyeballs like Stromboli, irritated by Pinocchio and itching to cut his strings. “Why not?”
“When I come out of movies in daylight, I get depressed. Nothing’s right.”
“So where’s the sun?” cried Shapeshade. “By the time you exit, it’s night!”
“Anyway, I wanted to ask you about three nights ago,” I said. “Did you by any chance see that old ticket office man, Bill, Willy, William Smith, waiting out front here that night?”
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