a short story by Jerry Zinn
Bill pulled his forest-green, ‘99 Camry lopsidedly into one of the numerous free spaces in front of the Trumbull strip mall. The lot was nearly empty, surprisingly so even for a Wednesday night. He switched off the engine and wiggled the key from the ignition. Bill looked up in the rearview mirror from behind his thick, black, Clark Kent frames, a tuft of his silvery gray hair curling on his forehead, and winked at his reflection. The condition of the polished man who emerged from the car was a stark contrast to the condition of the vehicle. Bill wore charcoal slacks and a tailored hound’s tooth jacket with reasonably thin lapels. His black necktie was fastened perfectly to his crisp white shirt by a silver clip and his loafers were soft from use. If it were still the 1960s, he’d easily have been mistaken for Dick Van Dyke arriving at the set to film the next episode with Mary Tyler Moore. But as it was 2004, he was simply a well-groomed senior citizen.
He approached the Athena Cinematheque’s small ticket counter, with its glass opaque from sun and deferred maintenance. The operation housed three screens that each sat thirty, uncomfortably, but usually entertained less than ten, with moderate comfort. Nestled between a family-run grocery store and a watch repair shop, the Athena’s façade was decorated in a cheap and fading, but undoubtedly charming, Grecian Art Deco style. When it was built in the 1980s it was meant to mimic the themed movie palaces of yesteryear, the name to evoke a similar sentiment. The Athena ran independent, limited release films on two of the screens and rolled through a large library of classics on the third. At any given time there were between one and two people working, and on that night they were at full staff.
“Good evening sir,” the teenager manning the booth said through the shower drain.
“Hey, I’d like one ticket to the 7:15 ‘Paris on Holiday,’” Bill replied.
“That’ll be $6.50.”
Bill pulled out his thin bifold of supple calfskin tucked into his inner breast pocket. He handed the boy a ten-dollar bill prompting him to fish through the disorganized cash drawer.
“Sold many tickets to this showing?” Bill asked.
“You’re the first,” the kid said sliding the ticket and the $3.50 change back through the small watermelon-shaped opening. “Movie starts in just a few minutes, so you may be the only one sir,” he added.
“Thanks,” Bill said pressing his lips tightly together and nodding. He pulled open the heavy glass door and approached the snack counter under the management of the other half of the night’s staff. “I’ll take a small popcorn and a Coke.”
“Do you want butter on your popcorn?” the man asked.
“Oh,” Bill said looking over the equipment and finding the pump labeled “butter.” The image fastened to the side turned his stomach against the idea. “No thank you.”
“And did you want regular Coke, Diet Coke, or Coke Zero?”
Bill furrowed his brow overwhelmed by a further follow-up to his seemingly straightforward request. “Just a regular Coke will be fine, thank you.”
“Have you seen ‘Paris on Holiday’ before?” the man asked.
“Just once, when it came out, all the way back in ’59.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy it tonight. We just got that print in the other week; a friend of mine who works at the Film Foundation sent it over. It’s a copy of a new restoration they just finished for the 45th anniversary.”
“Forty… fifth…” Bill mumbled to himself. “I can’t believe it’s been that long.”
“They aren’t lying when they say time flies,” the man joked back.
Bill chuckled under his breathe. He collected his concessions and entered the dark hallway of theater 3, its door bearing a taped piece of computer paper that read, “Paris on Holiday (1959).” Bill looked through the collection of empty seats in the dimly lit room for the one that looked emptiest, back row center. When he sat down, the padded chair unfolded noisily, creaking the way his grandfather’s rusted supply shed doors used to. For a whispering second he remembered his grandfather the way he had known him best, sitting in his leather chair, scotch and soda in hand. It was nearly half a century since he’d seen the man, but the image materialized in vivid Technicolor for the brief moment it hung around.
As his memory faded out, the projector flickered on, and the lights dulled. After a bit of crackling and some bright spots, Bill heard the film begin to pull through the machine with fluidity, and a majestic peak reared its head against the vibrant powder-blue backdrop of the sky. “A Paramount Picture” materialized as the clouds rambled behind.
The opening credits rolled, giving top billing to the film’s stars, William Cooper and Joan Andrews, and transitioning to the opening scene as, “Directed By Edward Fairfield,” faded out. Bill took a satisfying sip of his regular Coke and shifted his weight on the cushion until he was content, right leg crossed snugly over left. The film was a classic of its genre, a paragon of the romantic globetrotting comedies of the 50s and 60s with two of the period’s most adored stars. Cooper played an architect stressed out to the point of being hostile and withdrawn. Andrews played his gorgeous wife, unimaginatively employed as an advertising secretary. The story began with her convincing her husband, with great effort and antics, to agree to a holiday in Paris. Just as it had so many decades ago, the picture transported Bill from the couple’s nondescript home in suburban Chicago to the picturesque and bustling streets of the “City of Lights.”
It took the first half of the movie for Cooper’s character to thaw from his thick, frigid shell under the intensifying heat of Andrews’ charm. Ultimately the two danced and fell in love all over again under the glow of the Champs-Élysées. Shots filmed on location were mixed heterogeneously with those of the Eiffel Tower and traffic of the green screen. The wind blew perfectly in the strawberry blonde hair of the actress as the actor drove a convertible down the street, an impossibly close Notre Dame Cathedral ringing in the background. Innocent and light-hearted moments like ice cream melting from cones onto their clothes, Cooper knowingly overpaying for flowers and newspapers, and their battles with French cuisine were all montaged together to the lively song carrying the film’s title.
Bill was so engrossed in the simple if not simplistic plot, that his unbuttered popcorn went untouched. He laughed when the characters laughed, felt his feet tap along with the music, and even neared tears at the more emotional moments, even if they were only skin deep. It was a fine example of escaping in escapist fashion. For the two hours the film ran, Bill forgot all about the 21st century and rediscovered the golden era, the better days of his youth. At the end, William Cooper took Joan Andrews forcefully in his arms and uttered the famous line, “Paris… what a cliché!” before planting a kiss on her lips. When the final credits rolled, Bill refused to return to reality. He stayed and ate his popcorn as he watched until the very last name was shown and the projector powered down, returning the lights to their original intensity. He brushed the salt off his fingers and onto his pants as he stood up, the chair recoiling to its resting position with a shriek. Bill felt markedly lighter of foot as he practically danced back through the short hallway.
“Enjoy the film?” the man who’d sold him the concessions asked, sweeping the floor.
“Very much so. It felt almost like I was back in 1959 and right up there with them.”
“Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Have a good night.”
“Goodnight,” Bill answered as he went back out into the night. He climbed into the Camry and sat with his hands on the wheel, motionless. Bill turned on the overhead light and reached into his pocket for his wallet. He drew out his license and held it gingerly, appreciating the strong smile he’d worn when the picture was taken a few years earlier. As he brushed his thumb over his name he thought back to his past life, before he became just Bill. They were exciting years, those long ago and far away. He wondered when the last time was that someone recognized him or shouted to him, back when he was known as William Cooper.
“Hey, Mitch,” the man sweeping said, stealing the kid’s attention from his phone.
“That guy, he had sort of a familiar face didn’t he? I feel like I know him from something.”
“I’ve never seen him before,” Mitch answered, his eyes falling back to his screen.
The man looked up from the broom for a moment and then shook his head, dismissing his idea with a laugh. Outside, William Cooper drove his forest-green, ‘99 Camry out of the lot and back into his life as Bill.