There was a classic unit in the window. The old girl seemed to sparkle despite being made out of plastic and vinyl. The wheels hooked up to the chassis looked good, looked like they might be able to handle a reel. And what would you know, there was one right next to it. A classic in fact. The days when they had used anything solid were long gone, but the remnants littered the windows and shelves of hundreds of different stores such as this scrappy monstrosity all over the world. This store sold them all, from Essence of Arcadia to The Island in the Swamp. Hell, they even had that shitty, old horror movie The Lonely Dead. But none stood out like The Patter of Reign, an artsy piece from over two decades ago. It was a wonderful piece and he had to have it.
Chaz Waterston had his nose against the glass, a wan smile creeping over his face. The projector was a classic piece, and the films were some of the last on film. He could not believe the deal either, they only wanted a measly $45 for it. A wave of sorrow swept over him as he looked at the price, but it was one he would be able to afford and at least there was that. And they had his favorite film. Providence shone out of its own ass sometimes, and thank the gods for that.
The little bell rang as he swung the door open and stepped in. Some things never truly change, but others change drastically. The kid in front of him was your typical teen; slit tongue, modified eyes, and one of those awful blueish-black hairdos that involved shaving half your head while the other grew out. His feral, yellow eyes gleamed out from under it. He waggled the ends of his tongue idly up and down as he watched Chaz wander around the store. He glanced at other curios in an effort to force himself not to buy anything at all. The newfangled eye drive was particularly enticing. It came with over five terabytes of video file, all of it twenty minute pieces of larger stories or even just little things unto themselves. You could binge watch, but most people switched around between things. Anymore that was all the span things took. It was fast and easy, and you could tell a good story, but he was nervous about hooking anything up to his eye.
“You gonna try it, Scruffy, or are you just gonna fondle the thing?” Chaz turned to the kid at the counter, baffled. “I was just curious about it, son. I’ve never actually tried them.” The kid (whose nametag identified him as ‘Ricky’) rolled his eyes and lifted the hinged board to step out from behind the counter. Taking the drive from the shelf, he held it out to Chaz. “This is the D-ReemR RX8, last year’s model.”
“Ok…” Chaz urged, curious despite himself.
“This thing can record yours as well as let you see the ones that the pros make.”
“Wait, wait. You can record your own with this thing?”
“Yee, the node hose is inserted directly into the hippocampus where it copies the DMT and translates it to a visual oration. Basically it makes a little video.” ‘Ricky’ turned the thing over in his hands to point to a small, silvery box on the bottom of the eyepiece. “This thing here is the transmitter that connects you to the ‘Net. It gives you the option to show other people your dream and to watch theirs.” He placed the thing in Chaz’s hand, taking him by the wrist to raise the thing up in front of his eye to display the eyepiece. The heads up display showed a trio of people in what looked like a spaceship bridge. In the visual it seemed that two costumed characters, not unlike those you would see at theme park, were double teaming a young woman bent over between them. “So was the dreamer the woman or one of the furry guys?” Ricky turned the headpiece back towards himself to take a look for himself. “Dude, I think the one in the purple is a chick but I might be wrong. Anyway, this thing has been owned by about four people so I don’t know which one recorded it. The Anonymous System keeps it from recording who uploaded the file. There aren’t any saved on these things anymore, they all go to the cloud and if you remove yourself as a user it deletes your history. This is just what popped up when I turned it on.”
Chaz slowly pulled his hand back, wiped it on his pant leg, and put it behind his back. “Don’t think its for me, son.” Ricky grunted and put it back on the shelf. “Mostly,” he said, “The old timers like to use them. Gives them an escape.”
“I think this is more my speed,” Chaz replied, indicating the projector and film reels in the window. “They’re from my era, I think I’d rather take a look at these.” Ricky laughed a little. “I don’t even know how the thing works, man. We had an older gal trade that in a few weeks ago. She swapped it out for one of the television things and some old disc movies.” Chaz smiled at the boy. “Maybe she thought it was time to upgrade.” This drew a louder burst of laughter and what looked like a genuine smile from the kid. “Yeah, guess she decided that instead of farming all that corn with a scythe or whatever she’d rather get with it and catch up on the last decade.”
He stuck his hand out. “Rick Vaughan, nice to meet yee mister.” Chaz took it and gave it a firm shake. “Chaz Waterston, pleasure’s all mine.” The kid’s eyes bugged and his mouth hung open. “You’re Chaz Waterston?” he muttered. His eyes flicked to the reels in the window display. “Yeah,” came the reply, “That’s me.” The kid’s grip on his hand tightened and his other hand came up to grasp the wrist. “Dude!” he exclaimed, “You’re so fucking cool!”
Chaz laughed a small, defeated laugh. “Its been awhile since anyone said that. Going on forty years now.”
“No, no, no, my friends and I have some of your disc movies. We fixed up an old television set from the dump and we watch them sometimes with beers. You’re crazy, man.” The kid ran over and grabbed one of the reel tins, blowing the dust off into a cloud that glistened in the light from the window. He held it up. It was Tank of Mine, an old movie about a man with a drinking problem who desperately tried to find a way to help his estranged wife and daughters. The character, Austin Kane, jumped through a series of hoops to make money and worked several small jobs. He had decided to try white knuckle sobriety and was struggling with it. After finally convincing his wife and daughters to move back in (one of the more emotional scenes in the film) he lost control when driving by an old dive bar and had wound up going inside for a simple beer. He awoke the next morning to find himself in a random home with two young girls no older than eighteen. It had been a fraternity house, and after the boys who lived there had thanked him for an awesome night he had slipped out and gone home to find his own home once again empty, a note on the table.
“You seen that one?” Chaz asked “Its really depressing.” Ricky shook his head fervently. “No, its not,” he said, “Its a beautiful film. That last scene where he kills himself so they can collect the insurance policy was beautiful, how did you find that in yourself? Your portrayal of Austin Kane was a revelation, it was what convinced me to avoid alcohol.” Thank god for small miracles, Chaz thought. He smiled his ‘leading-man’ grin and grasped the kid on the shoulder. “I’m glad I could help kid. I did the alchy thing for awhile, it doesn’t end well.” The kid was beaming at his good fortune. “Was that part of what helped you? Firsthand experience?” The kid’s got no tact, Chaz thought fondly. He reached down the front of his shirt and pulled out a small object attached to a chain. He pulled the chain over his head and handed it to the kid, who took it with awestruck shock and held it up in front of his eyes to study it.
“A sobriety chip?” he asked.
“My first one. The one-day chip.”
“Oh wow, this is so cool! You actually had to go to AA?”
“Yeah. Had a bit of a problem. It influenced the way I wrote the movie too.”
“You wrote it too? Holy shit.” Professionalism was out the door, Ricky was too caught up in the awe of meeting a screen hero to worry about it anymore. “Yeah, I did the whole shebang on that one. I co-directed it with Owen Collins. He got tossed out of the DGA for it, they don’t like it when you share credits for some reason. Some by-law or another.”
The kid held the chip between his fingers, almost caressing it. With visible reluctance he maneuvered it into his palm and held it back out to Chaz. “Nah, you keep it, kid.” Ricky’s eyes were going to fall out if they bulged any more, he was sure of it. “You sure?” He smiled and reached up, closing the kid’s fingers around the chip. “Its yours.” Ricky’s face broke out into the biggest grin. He put the chain around his neck and looked at the chip. He continued to touch it and twist it in his fingers as he looked back up at Chaz. “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever given me. Thank you so much.” A wave of feeling washed over Chaz Waterston as he looked at the kid. “You’re welcome, no problem at all. Now sell me on this projector.”
The kid looked up at the clock, then rushed over to the door. He threw the latch and twisted the sign around to aim the ‘Closed’ side at the world, a barrier between humanity and his hero. “The shop just hit closing, Mister Waterston…” Chaz cut in. “Just Chaz, for the love of gods. Keep calling me ‘Mister Waterston’ and I’ll just age faster.” The kid nodded his head in acknowledgement and moved over to the projector. “I’ll let you take it, fair trade. Just one favor first.” Chaz looked at him, bewildered. “Ok…”
“Will you help me set it up in the back and watch Tank of Mine with me?”
Chaz helped the kid set up the projector. They had two other models in the back and he knew the kid would start hunting down more old film movies and screening them with his friends. He placed the reels gently and slid the film into place. The kid swung the couch around and then turned to a small mini fridge. “I got a few ales left in here if you want a brew.” He pulled them out and extended one to Chaz. “Its my favorite.” Chaz took the beer, twisted the cap off (never a good sign, cheap beer always had twist-off caps) and took a long pull. He was nowhere near fond of it, but a lifetime of drinking had taught him not to grimace. He didn’t want to hurt the kid’s feelings. “That’s awesome kid,” he said with a smile. “My first beer in forty years, and its perfect.”
Ricky’s eyes went wide in horror. “Shit man, they’re non-alcoholic. I told you I didn’t drink, I should have mentioned that before. Its not going to cause a relapse or anything is it?” Chaz barked out a laugh. “Kid, that’s no problem at all.”
They watched the movie. Ricky was quick to point out all of the things he loved about it, and he did indeed know film. They chatted about cinematography and the parts of directing they both loved. Chaz told the kid about the challenge, about being forced to make a creative decision every minute. He told the kid about portraying the character, and damn it all if the kid didn’t cry when Austin Kane swung himself off the chair and the rope pulled tight. He had no idea that the fake rope had not functioned correctly, that the struggle for air in the film had resulted in a trip to the hospital for Chaz. That part of the production was just too dark, and the kid could look it up himself later if he wanted to. “Always leave some mystery,” that was what Owen had told him. It was a motto that had always stuck, and Chaz tried to build his career on that phrase. It had tanked him, of course it had. They had been part of a thriving industry that thrived on bright, fun pictures while mysterious, open-to-interpretation pictures had been left by the wayside. The kid got it though, he felt every bit of it.
As Chaz left that night with his box he set it down and turned back to Ricky. “This was fun kid, I’m glad we did this.” He pulled the kid to him before a reply could be mustered and hugged him. Ricky threw his arms around Chaz and hugged him. “There’s no way my friends will believe this happened.” He pulled back and looked up at Chaz shyly, a smile on his face. “Yeah, they will.” Moments later he was off down the street towards his car, leaving Ricky standing with the tin containing Tank of Mine. Chaz’s signature was scrawled across the cover.
* * *
He got home late, much later than expected. That was ok, the evening with the kid had been worth it. He smiled as he let himself in the door and moved his new projector into the house. He had spent a lovely evening reliving what he considered a personal triumph and there was an excellent cut of steak thawing in the sink. Things were pretty good.
He grilled out in his backyard. The night was crisp and the coals glowed brightly in the dark. The smoke billowed as he uncovered the thing and turned his steak. He had wrapped it in bacon because fuck it, why not? At his age it would sit anything but well, but it bore no matter on his mind. His greens sizzled on the edge of the grill and his mashed potatoes were covered inside and waiting for him.
He ate his meal alone, as always. The music blasted, a grungy old garage group from out of Michigan. He had always loved that crunchy sound, and sometimes one could have the best time just listening to the music. The album, DeLong’s You Make Me Swoon, had been Darla’s favorite and he liked to put it on when nights like this one came around. The atmosphere was perfect, it made him feel like he was back in his prime. His career beginning, his creative juices flowing, and his leading lady at his side all felt like they were still constants. The crickets could be heard over the music and it completed his mood. He might as well have been having iced tea on the back porch with his girl curled up in his arms.
He left his dishes on the table to get cleaned up later and went to set up his new projector. After tearing the white sheet off of his bed, he took everything down to the basement. He nailed the sheet up against a wall, pulling it as tight as he could. Standing down to admire his handiwork he smiled. The projector went up behind his favorite chair, which he had drug from its usual corner to the center of the room so he could watch his movie. Placing the reels into place, he flicked the switch and watched the sheet light up. He went to his trunk and opened it.
Inside was a bottle of Talakour. It was a twenty-five year old whiskey at the time of purchase, by now it had to be over thirty. Like a smoker who has quit he liked having it around just in case he felt the need to fall off the wagon. He grabbed a tumbler that he had stashed down next to it and took it over to the chair. “Fuck,” he said. He set it in the seat and drug over a small side-table. He poured himself a glass, crushed his tablets and scooped the dust into the whiskey, and plopped down to watch his film.
The film had opening credits. He had almost forgotten about those. They had been uncommon, even in his day. Most people just wanted a title screen, but he had promised Darla that he would use her favorite song in the film and he had made it the opening music. As the names flashed on and off across the screen he saw her name. Darla Hornby. The name of an angel.
He watched as he, in the clever guise of Booker Reign, attempted to woo the affections of young Vic Torneau. His leading man guise fell away and he became a man, years in love, desperately trying to win her back. He had let her slip away once, her career taking her to the East Coast and success as a clothing designer ashe whiled away his youth in a humdrum job writing instructional manuals in Northern Iowa. In a desperate attempt to kindle the fire under his ass he moved to Montclair, New Jersey so that he could be near the city and experience more of life. As the desperate writer just trying to make ends meet he took a job writing for a fashion magazine based in the city and (surprise, surprise) wound up writing an article about designer Vic Torneau. It was nowhere near his best plot, but it was beautiful due to the performance of Darla. She had sold the character as the confused woman trying to figure out her feelings for the absolute fuck-up who she had reacquianted with. He crushed more tablets and poured himself a double. Why not?
The film had come at a poignant time. He had written the script to deal with the frustrations of his wife as they both struggled with each other and the industry to stay relevant in a changing business. The film had found an audience that had not been large, but it had been strong. Eventually it became what the kids called a ‘cult classic’ and the home video success had brought enough income for he and his wife to steady themselves and get their feet back underneath them.
This was his favorite part, the moment where Booker stood in the park and poured himself out to Vic. Chaz muttered the lines to himself as he downed his whiskey. “I love you Vic. It’s all I have. I don’t even know who I am anymore, I’ve tossed ideas about that around since you left.” Vic stared at him, mouth agape and left speechless. “I’ve loved you since we were just a couple of fucking kids, stupid puppy love shit. I’ve loved you since you moved away. I could never get you out of my head. I can’t stop thinking about you. I don’t have anything else to give you, but I can give you that.” Vic’s eyes were watering. “What about Darren?” she asked, afraid of what would happen when her sort-of-boyfriend found out what had been happening. “I don’t care about that.” They kissed passionately and fell into bed together, making love.
Chaz drank through the rest. Or was he Booker? He could not remember anymore, he was too drunk on whiskey and tablets. He faded in and out of the rest. There was drama between Vic and Booker, with Darren jealous and angry. He came back into the picture fully when Darren threw himself from the balcony of his high rise apartment that he shared with Vic. That brought tears to Chaz’s eyes. He had loved Darren as a character, the torn man just trying to do the right thing and desperately in love with Vic as well. He watched the man struggle with the way he felt. The actor had been a close friend and one of the craziest success stories in the industry. ‘Ironclad’ Brad Aaronson the papers had called him. He had survived two tours of duty in two separate altercations by the skin on his ass. Most directors who cast him scrambled to make use of the bullet scars in his huge, strong chest. The man had taken three bullets and had never said a word to his commanding officer, continuing to pull the rest of his men out of combat before finally collapsing. The medics had pulled the shrapnel out of him, the army had discharged him, and at his first casting audition he had reduced those with the power of decision to tears and landed his first small role. He broke out a few years after that and had met Chaz. They had bonded quickly and Brad had been cast in every production Chaz was part of if he wanted it, putting his all into every part. Chaz watched as his friend leapt from a balcony onscreen, the character of Darren unable to handle his unrequited love. Brad Aaronson had died in a car wreck not two years after the release of the film. More tablets, more whiskey.
What he had really been waiting for was the final scene. The couple had been at the funeral of Darren (surname Colby) and had wept together over his grave. As they reached the apartment they went out to the balcony. Crying together, staring into each other’s eyes, they kissed and then held each other. Chaz whispered his lines along. “I’ll love you forever, Vic.” She smiled sadly up at him. “I’ll love you to, as long as I live.” Cheesy, yes, but heartfelt and sold by the actors. He had prided himself on being able to show just how in love he was with his wife. He had not been acting. He slipped towards unconsciousness, the tablets finally doing their full job. “I’ll love you forever, Darla.”
Charlie ‘Chaz’ Waterston closed his eyes for the last time.