By Michael LeBlanc To him it was magic. All of it: The projector cutting through darkness luring flies into the spotlight. The rows of chrome bumpers polished so bright he could watch the towering screen that presided over the lot in their reflections. The sound of the night’s feature, Shane, played from car radios and it gave the movie an indistinct quality something like a whisper. It occurred to the man, as he turned back to face the screen, that the strangers listening in their cars were like old pals huddled together to listen a shared secret. It was a sad movie, but the thought had him smiling.
He didn’t belong with the laughing families and kissing couples in their bright cars. He knew that, but for a short for a time he forgot he was out of place. He forgot that the rust in his wheel wells and the peeling red paint made his truck parked at the end of a row of handsome Cadillacs look like a punchline.
No, tonight his windows were rolled down and cool air flooded the truck’s cabin, making him glad he’d snatched a blanket from its usual perch on the chair by the television. Out of habit he reached for the soft pack resting in his chest pocket. Struck by an impulse, he returned the loose cigarette to the pack and stuck his head out the window to enjoy the night air like a dog might. It was funny to him that a lifetime of smoking made cool air assault the lungs in the way smoke should, but he supressed a cough and continued to appreciate the night despite its distinct lack of nicotine. He was rewarded by the faint smell of the popcorn waiting for him at the concession stand.
The girl’s eyes drifted back to the truck parked diagonally in the row ahead. The red paint peeling from the rusted body of truck, and the knotted mess of gray hair surrounding the driver’s otherwise bald head stank of neglect, and struck the girl as somehow sinister. As the girl went to turn her attention back to the movie, the man stuck his head out the window to probe the air like a dog. She watched the man’s nose, gin blossoms visible even in the low light, and imagined for a moment he was trying to catch the scent of her perfume on the air.
“Creepy.” She’d said it without really meaning to, forgetting for a moment the man was well within earshot.
She shook her head, horrified, hushing her date with a hurried pat on his shoulder. He turned back to the screen with a shrug.
Had the man heard her? He’d retreated into his truck as though burned by the cool night air, whacking his bald head against the door frame. Why would she say anything at all? With a twinge it occurred to the girl that her mother would attribute her rudeness to the “wild imagination” that had plagued her since grade school. She cursed under her breath.
It was apparent Shane was captivating her date by the way his jaw hung a little slack, but even more so by the fact that the effort he’d made to explore the boundaries of what was allowed on a fourth date had felt cursory. This would’ve annoyed the girl most nights, but tonight she was occupied, catching only snippets of a brawl or gunfight before her attention was drawn back to the bald man in the red truck.
The girl watched the man, hoping to see some sign she had invented the man’s overhearing her. An hour into the movie and the man’s window stayed firmly shut, opening only a crack when the man smoked two cigarettes in quick succession before rolling the window back up again. With that, the girl abandoned hope that the man with the gin blossomed nose hadn’t heard her, and instead she set her over active imagination on the task of setting it right. After a short while staring at the screen without really seeing, she decided on cornering the man at the concession stand at intermission.
She waited, her eyes flicking to and from the bald man and Shane. When the intermission came, the girl hopped out of the Chevy with a word to her date about popcorn. She’d only just closed the door when the rusted red truck started with a rumble and a cough. The bald man pulled his truck out of the row of cars and drove off into the night.
The girl didn’t watch much the second half of Shane either, not until the ending. Shane was wounded, shot in the gut. Little Joe stood at the corner of his cabin pleading with Shane to stay, but Shane rode on limp on his horse into the sunset. Little Joe’s cries of “Shane, come back!” echoed feebly into the barren landscape and went unanswered.
“Can we go?”
The boy looked deflated at the girl’s suggestion. Wondering if he should have paid her a little more attention, the boy started the car taking note of the tears in the girl’s eyes.
It was four months before the girl spotted the truck again. It was parked outside B & G Hardware on Main Street, hiding is plain sight. She hadn’t been looking for the truck. Not really, anyway, but she had turned whenever she spotted a red pickup out of the corner of her eye, and her heart had skipped a beat whenever she heard somebody start a particularly guttural engine. When she’d confided her interest in finding the truck and her reasons behind it to her date from that night (now her boyfriend), he had called it an “obsession”. The word echoed in her head as she pulled the family dog by the leash to the entrance of B & G Hardware, but she took small comfort in the fact her boyfriend had also said persistence was part of her charm.
She braved the cold December air out on the sidewalk until her hands shook and had taken on a blue hue. She reconsidered the wisdom of keeping her dog out in the cold for so long, but when she decided to speed things along by going in to find the man, the bell above the entrance to B& G rang. There he was. The bald man with the gin blossomed nose, his gray hair matted as ever, with a load of lumber under his right arm, a paper bag in the other.
“Can I help you with that?”
The man looked over at the girl, but kept walking apparently convinced she must have spoken to somebody else, despite the fact the street was empty on account of the cold. The girl tried again.
“Need a little help?”
The man stopped. “No.” His voice was deep and when he spoke it sounded like his mouth was packed full of cotton balls.
“I think I’ve seen you around.”
The bald man looked around, as though sure he’d find the second party to this conversation standing behind him. Seeing there was no one, he nodded once before loading the lumber and bag into the back of his rusted truck. She looked down at her dog shivering at the other end of her leash.
“Do you like dogs?” Do you like dogs? The girl felt blood rushing to her face.
The man reached for his chest pocket and brought out a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. The wind had started blowing and he struggled to light the match. The girl stepped closer and cupped her hands to block the wind. She caught a whiff of alcohol before the smell of the cigarette smoke drowned it out.
The man looked a little embarrassed himself as he reached for the truck’s door handle. He went to sit down, but paused. “What’s her name?”
It was a moment before the girl realized he was talking about the dog.
The man reached down and patted Ruby’s head. Ruby went to lick his hand, but the man was back in his car before she had the chance.
“She’s a good dog.” With that the truck coughed, rumbled, and for a second time the girl watched the man’s bald head as he pulled away.
It was not the satisfied ending she had hoped for. The girl’s “wild imagination,” as her mother called it, had constructed a scene in which the bald man joined her family around the dining room table for Christmas dinner. Over the years, maybe they would share a correspondence. She would tell the bald man all about college, her career, and family (when it came time for that). Again, the girl was forced to confront the fact that her imagination was in fact capable of taking enormous liberties. She wondered, as her and Ruby retraced their steps home, what else her mother might be right about.
The following July, and the girl and her boyfriend were back at the drive-in, the bald man long since forgotten along with much of last year’s curriculum. They’d arrived early to claim a spot for Rear Window, after the boy had spent nine long months convincing the girl that it wasn’t a horror film. It was a good thing they’d come early because even nine months after the movie’s initial release, the lot was filling fast. The boy was admiring their view of the screen when the girl spoke.
“Should we move back?”
The boy looked at her, bewildered, until he followed her gaze and spotted a rusted red pickup truck in the back row. He shook his head, laughing, but started the car.
The rusted red tuck’s window was only open a crack and the man with gin blossomed nose sat inside staring straight ahead in silence. It was hardly inviting, but the girl tried once again to speak with the man nonetheless.
The man seemed at a loss for what to do, but apparently saw no other option but to roll the window down. Still, the man didn’t answer.
The girl looked over at her boyfriend, and his eyebrows were raised. The boy turned to the spot the couple had just vacated, which had already been filled, his meaning clear. The girl ignored him, turning back to the truck.
The bald man’s voice was so low the girl struggled to hear him. She laughed. “Jack would never let Ruby in his car.”
At this Jack leaned forward in his seat and waved at the bald man. “She’d chew up the seats.”
The man gave a small nod before pulling a cigarette from his chest pocket.
“Do you have a cigarette for me?” She wasn’t sure why she’d asked, she’d never smoked a day in her life and had no plans to before this very moment. If the girl was confused by her new habit, it was nothing compared to Jack.
Without a word the bald man pulled a second cigarette from his pocket and held it out the window. She took it and it hung awkwardly from her mouth for a moment.
“Right,” the bald man grunted and fished a book of matches from his pocket. The girl was careful not to inhale, but couldn’t help but let out a small cough anyway. The man didn’t seem to notice.
“Thank you,” she said, reaching back out across the gap between the truck and car to hand him back his matches. “My name is Judith.”
The man preoccupied himself carefully replacing the book of matches to his pocket. His gaze then dropped down to his feet. Judith had all but given up hope for a response when the man spoke. “Charles.”
She smiled and the lit cigarette fell from her mouth. She returned it, her eyes squinting against the smoke and she made a wordless apology to Jack, patting his lap, before turning back to Charles.
“Hi, Charles,” Judith said.
Charles’ nodded, his eyes trained on his feet, as though afraid they might take off without him if he did. “Hello, Judith.” Then he rolled his window back up, leaving only a crack for the smoke to escape into the summer night.
The sun dropped in the sky, and the shadows on the dirt lot grew longer and longer. Charles sat quietly in his rusted red truck watching the lot fill one bright car at a time.
Judith tried to catch his eye when the movie began, but by the time the ads were playing she could see through the window that Charles was enthralled.
In the end Judith loved Rear Window, though she could never admit it to Jack. Not after making the boy wait nine long months to see it. She watched, bringing her knees up on the seat when the suspense of it all got to be too much. When she saw Charles move in his truck out of the corner of her eye, she turned and found him holding another cigarette out the window for her. Judith’s chest still hurt from the first, but she didn’t hesitate in reaching out. She didn’t want Jack to see her taking another in case he protested, however, so she whispered her thanks, and gave Charles a small wink. It would be their shared secret, like they were old pals.
When Rear Window played out its dramatic conclusion, Judith couldn’t help looking over at Charles. The man with the gin blossomed nose was staring at the screen, but his face reflected none of the fear or apprehension Judith saw on the faces in all the bright cars. Instead, a grin had taken over the man’s face. When Judith turned her attention back to the movie, she found that she, too, was smiling. About the Author:Michael LeBlanc is an emerging writer whose work has appeared in the Queen’s University literary anthology, Lake Effect. He lives in Morristown, New Jersey where he work as an editorial assistant.