Tuesday, April 04, 2006

70. Wonder

In some fond dream I'm back on Mifflin Street in Philadelphia, where I was born, but it's the 1930s and my father is my brother, and I'm his little brother--have to be: my father's nickname was "Big Chief." And was it his size, or the size of his nose? One or the other, or both. We make our own rough world, naming each other like Adam did the animals, as judgment and certitude: There goes Big Chief and his little brother--and my nickname is "Butch"--oh yes it is, because that's what my father called me when I was little; this is the same man who named our dog "Spike." What a good big brother he would have made--makes, as we walk up the street. Where are they going?

"Where you going?"

"Taking my little brother to see King Kong."

And I follow him through what we do not know is the Depression--and even living in it, we saw it only second-hand, with both parents working--one sewing clothes in a factory, the other mending suits for Captains of Industry stripped of their medals in the fitting room at Brooks Brothers. My grandmother--my mother, now--told us she was at the butcher in front of a woman she knew who bought three pork chops, but there were four of them at home, so my mother bought the lady another chop. Still, many times our own lunch was just fried onion sandwiches--but no complaints here, fat and toasty-sweet, dripping from the roll a little, softening the waxed paper.

When my father took us to the movies, my little sister would go for free, sitting on his lap, and he saved a dime; as he figured it, they were selling the seat. But today it's just my brother and me, off the trolley and walking toward Market Street, the day hot, the sun coming up at us from the pavement like bars of lead against our temples. My brother says that's why we're going to the movies, for the air conditioning--"20 degrees cooler inside"--because he's seen King Kong already, and I'm such a baby I'll stay in the lobby through it. My protest and denial are automatic, as heartfelt as the insult itself, which isn't saying much. It is his duty to give me the business, and mine to complain about it; always following the rules, I shoot him a small Bronx cheer as we arrive at the theater, the Mastbaum.

He buys me a Coke at the counter; later we might get an ice cream from one of the guys wandering around the theater, hawking stuff as though we were at a ball game. The empty Coke bottle would come in handy during a quiet spot in the movie: You just roll it down the aisle, its grinding music clear in the still dark.

But there is no still in this dark. The movie barrels at us like the great ape himself, one breathless sequence after another. It's like all the chapters in a serial run at once, with no stop, just a moment or two of wide-eyed panting before it's off again, tearing down through the centuries until the dinosaurs arrive, and then back again, swooping up to catch the sun on the biplanes as they bear down on Kong, who has scared me plenty--but I admit it's a small, dark part of me that's glad he topples; that arm reaching in through the window, those sliding eyes in closeup above the frozen grin, some fur-rippling mechanical bank that eats you up like coins: This is no Eighth Wonder of the World, but a real nightmare drawn out of the spot not on any map; it makes sense that Kong is taken from a place called "Skull Island," because that's where he lives, you know, underneath. So I was scared, as much as I ever was--or would be--by Frankenstein and Dracula in their endless re-releases throughout the '30s and '40s--or by all the rest of them in my waking life, the Blob and the Saucer Men, the Living Dead and little Regan possessed. But another part of me, with my brother, with Kong, feels--well, not safe, but not simply terrified: Kong shows me that the movies are beautiful because they ask me to love a terrible monster, to want him to get back to the island, the lonely king on the cliff. But I also know that loving Kong drags him to the top of the Empire State building, just as his own love has done to him, cornered by impossible desires. This dream follows me until I'm myself--or the dream leads me to myself, willing to suspend my disbelief over yawning chasms so that I can see all the way down.

Leaving the Mastbaum, cold and shivering and shocked in the July heat, I turn to Peter Jackson's King Kong, and the promises he keeps. A dream starts again on the trolley as I lean against my brother, still young enough to nap after all that.

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