Going to the movies was my most exotic thrill as a child. It happened so rarely that stepping into any theater was an event, the closest thing to real magic that I could imagine. The gilded ticket booth out front, popcorn geysering forth inside a glass-walled machine at the concession stand, the rich velvet curtain parting just before the newsreels and cartoons and previews—it was like the church had run off and joined the circus. And you never knew when you were going to get to go or if you would ever be allowed to go again. So you didn’t miss a single detail of the experience.
Even when Disney movies came to town, no one I knew got to go to every one. After I saw “Snow White,” I returned home and acted it out for the other kids in the neighborhood and then we played “Snow White” for days. Other kids taught us the plots of “Toby Tyler” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” (None of us had the guts to re-enact “Old Yeller,” our first encounter with tragedy.) Bible movies were the best fodder for backyard epics. My mother donated a threadbare beach towel that served as a costume for Moses parting the Red Sea, Ben Hur racing in a chariot and Samson before he lost his hair. No one liked playing the blind Samson, because the rest of us just ran away and hid, but pulling down the temple on the Philistines did cheer us up.
In the years before I started school in 1957, our apartment complex was crawling with kids my age. After that, our stock company drifted away one actor at a time, as parents saved up enough for down payments on new houses and departed for neighborhoods a notch above ours, leaving me without companions: that exodus was my first lesson in the realities of a semi-broken home, since unlike everyone around us, my mother and father and I weren’t going anywhere. By the time I was nine, the neighborhood was nothing but families with tiny babies. Even then, for a little while longer, I trooped out to the back yard and acted out scenes from old favorites, but with no one to play with and the weight of my years on my shoulders, I soon gave it up.
In the summer of 1959, everything changed about the way I looked at movies. Mother and I spent July living in the house where she grew up in Kershaw, a tiny mill town “just a little bit South of North Carolina,” she always sang as we approached the outskirts (passing the sign that said, “The Ku Klux Klan Welcomes You to Kershaw”—when I asked what the Ku Klux Klan was, she made a face like she had smelled something rotten and said, “White trash”). Mother loved Kershaw because it was always home in her mind. I loved it because it was nothing like Winston-Salem. Both town and city were products of the industrial Piedmont South. Kershaw had a cottonseed oil factory on the north end of town, complete with a mill village where the white factory workers lived (black people lived on the south end of town and everyone else lived in between). Winston-Salem had tobacco factories and textile mills, and it was big enough to boast two modest skyscrapers when I was a child (the Reynolds Building was designed by the same architects who designed the Empire State Building). But the apartments where we lived, post-war constructions thrown up as affordable housing for GIs coming home from World War II and Korea, seemed a thin and depthless world. What few trees stood there were barely taller than I was. Going to Kershaw was like stepping into three dimensions. The houses weren’t all alike. The towering trees, pine and live oak, cast everything beneath them in deep, green shadow. Even the soil was more interesting. Winston-Salem was all red clay. Kershaw, riding the cusp of the coastal plain, had soil so sandy white that it reflected the noon sun like a mirror, although in the shade, it was always cool and a little damp, and it gave off a pungent odor, sharp and sour, that hung in your nostrils like bleach. I should have hated it but I didn’t. Mother’s family home, an old one-story wood frame house with a wraparound porch, stood across the street from what was once the train station and was now a welding shop. I was cautioned constantly not to stare at the welder’s torch, so I sat in the porch swing and closed one eye when I stared across the street, having decided that it would be worth it to go blind in one eye. From the same spot, I could spend hours monitoring the diesel train engines shuttling their loads of cotton bales and pulp wood back and forth on the track that ran between the house and the stores uptown. Behind the house lay an unmown field that my mother told me had once been a garden that she worked with her daddy when she was my age. There was also a chicken coop without any chickens and an empty garage covered in wild grape and honeysuckle. Inside the garage I found a rusty slingblade that I took into the field, where I mowed—or pretended to mow—the weeds, without visible effect. The best thing about Kershaw was that you didn’t need a car to get anywhere, except the town swimming pool and the graveyard, and by the time I was nine, I was allowed to roam wherever I wanted. Mostly this meant going uptown to the drug store for a Coca-Cola at the soda fountain. The drink became of secondary importance once I discovered that if you had purchased something, they didn’t mind if you sat down at the magazine rack and read comic books all afternoon. Even the small chores I was assigned—bringing in the newspapers twice a day and hauling in wood for the kitchen stove—seemed somehow more grown-up than the sweeping I had to do at home. And once, after the smell of death had hung in the air for two days, I was the one sent under the house to drag out the maggot-ridden carcass of a cat that had gone there to die. I had never had the nerve to go under the house before, and in the gray light of the crawl space, I had to feel my way, crawling on my belly and trying not to bump my head as I navigated toward where the smell was the worst. The crawl space, with its shadows and spider webs—a place where even dirt, pale and powdery, seemed to have gone to die–frightened me more than the cat, which I located with no trouble and hauled out like a trophy. Standing there in the blinding sun, holding the cat by the tail, I was delighted and still a little terrified, but I had no time to savor the moment, as my mother swooped down and stripped me bare right there in the yard and then hustled me into the house for a bath. I never dreamed about the cat, but that crawl space crept into my dreams for years.
When I was small, my grandmother lived in the family home place with my mother’s one unmarried sister, Aunt Kathleen. Then, when I was seven, Grandmother was moved to a nursing home in Winston-Salem, where she died two years later. Now Kathleen lived in the house alone. I don’t know why we went to stay for several weeks, unless it was simply all my mother could afford in the way of a vacation, because she and her sister despised each other. Kathleen was nine years older than my mother, and as Mother explained it, until she was born, Kathleen had been the baby of the family (Mother’s older two sisters were old enough to be her aunts). When Mother came along, she displaced Kathleen as the favorite and Kathleen “never got over it.”
They conversed by quarreling. Most of the fighting concerned whatever small alterations Kathleen made to the house. Mother wanted to know what Kathleen had done with Mama’s gravy boat. Mother told Kathleen she was going to burn the house down when she bought a hotplate for the kitchen so that she wouldn’t have to cook over the woodstove. Mother thought Kathleen was obese, smoked too much and embarrassed the family by inviting men to the house do who knew what. I found these arguments hard to follow, because to my eye nothing ever changed in that house. Even the peppermints in the candy dish in Grandmother’s bedroom had been there so long that the individual pieces had fused into one big, rocklike mass of white and red stripes impossible to pry apart. Kathleen’s responses to my mother’s accusations were always the same: she was the one who lived there and she could do what she liked. Even I understood that in her mind, especially after Grandmother was gone, it was her house, to do with as she saw fit. This response only enraged my mother. She felt every bit as possessive about the house as Kathleen did, and to be reminded in this way that she was, in fact, a visitor, a guest, an interloper—that it was, in short, no longer her home—was, as she put it, like being slapped in the face. “I think there’s something wrong with her mind,” Mother said. “Mama and Daddy had her tested, and they say she has the mind of a 12 year old.”
I suspected that Kathleen didn’t like me any better than she liked my mother. One afternoon, when Mother and I were getting in the car, she sent me back into the house to tell her sister when we would be back. “Well, that’s just fine, Mr. Bullshit,” Kathleen said after I delivered my message. When I got back to the car, still giggling, because I had never heard that word but I knew it was dirty, Mother asked me what was so funny. When I told her, she raced back into the house and I could hear them screaming at each other in the kitchen all the way out on the street. They fought every day—the squabbling fading in and out like static from a radio as they moved about the house–and I did whatever it took to make myself scarce. For once, luck was with me. I only knew one boy my age in Kershaw, a kid named Bobby Parker. A friend of my mother’s had recommended him as a playmate. All my friends were vetted in this fashion. If I brought home someone from the ball field or school, my mother turned a cold eye on this new acquaintance and usually discouraged further contact. We didn’t know his people. We didn’t know where he came from. Did you notice that he didn’t use good grammar? It’s all right to be friends at school. You should be nice to everyone. But you have to choose your friends carefully. What this meant, in practical terms, was that she chose my friends. But Bobby turned out to be a great friend, and never mind the good references. Better yet, his grandfather owned the local movie theater, and we went almost every day.
The Kershaw movie theater—what Mother always called “the show house”– wasn’t much to look at, just a drab little brick building that anchored the two-block business district on its northern end (you could walk that district, from the car dealership to the diner, in the time it took to drink a Coca-Cola). The only colorful things about the theater were the movie posters beside the front door, the same posters stapled on telephone poles all over town. They were printed in rainbow colors that bled from top to bottom and the movies that would be shown that week were listed in descending order. Bobby’s grandfather showed three or four movies a week. You could see a western for a couple of days, and then it would be what they used to call a woman’s picture—something with Lana Turner or Susan Hayward having a hard time of it–for what seemed like an eternity. But no matter what it was, Bobby and I went, and we stayed all afternoon. We memorized our way through repeated showings of a Gidget movie, a Doris Day comedy, a piece of sub-Arthurian trash with a great dragon, and one about a circus with a terrific train wreck and Charlton Heston looking out of place in modern clothes and a clown who turned out to be the bad guy. We had no scruples. We’d watch anything.
Every day, Bobby called my grandmother’s and asked what time I wanted to go. I always said as soon as we could, which meant right after dinner, which was what they called lunch at my grandmother’s. I’d wait for him in the big green porch swing where I sat every morning to read the funny papers. As soon as Bobby came into sight, I’d dash down the walk to the front gate flanked by a fence sagging under a scuppernong vine. We’d each grab a fistful of the bronze-colored, grape-like fruit off the vine. Some of it we ate; the hard, unripened ones we just used as ammunition on each other. Then we’d head uptown. “Head uptown” sounds strange, because “town” was only a block away, just on the other side of the railroad track, but that was how my family said it. At the end of the block, where you turned right and crossed the track, the big live oaks stopped and everything turned white and gritty—the sidewalk, the buildings, even the sky. It was like walking through the desert, but in less than five minutes we were inside the brick movie theater, basking in the air conditioning. I don’t know what made me happier, the movies or the air conditioning. In the early sixties, it was still a rare thing for families to air condition more than one or two rooms with window units, and my family had none at all. At night, I slept with my head at the foot of the bed to get closer to the little oscillating fan whirring on my dresser. The fan didn’t do much more than move the hot air around the room, but at least it sounded like it was cooling things off. The only store in Kershaw I remember having air conditioning was the big grocery store, and once you got cooled off, it wasn’t much fun. But the movie theater—like all movie theaters in my youth—was an oasis of cool. Air conditioning was still such a novelty that the theaters advertised it on banners that hung from the marquee. “Come In! It’s Cold Inside,” and icicles dripped from the word “Cold.”
The interior of the Kershaw theater epitomized what Gloria Graham meant when she walked into Glenn Ford’s hotel room in “The Big Heat”: “Oh, early nothing.” It was just a box with seats, with none of that Arabian Nights décor that filled the majestic old movie houses in big cities, although it did have a curtain that parted when the previews began. It could have been the template from which all those cramped multiplex shoebox theaters would be cast a decade or so later. But the theater was not the point. It was only a transporting device that took us out of the town, out of ourselves for hours every afternoon. The destination was all that mattered. We looked past the theater to whatever was on the screen, and whatever was on that screen was not life as we knew it but something bigger and better. We were deliberately cavalier about getting there on time—just because we could be—but then, so was everyone else in those days, when you could still come and go whenever you liked while the movie was in progress. I don’t remember when theater owners began clearing the theaters between shows, but throughout my childhood and for several years thereafter, we often arrived well after the credits and then, when it was over, we sat through the previews and the start of the next show until we got to the part where we’d entered. Then someone always had to state the obvious: “This is where we came in.” If it was my mother, that was the signal to leave. As far as she was concerned, we had done our duty and there was no point in lingering. But on those rare occasions when I was with my father, it meant we had a decision to make. We might stay if we liked what we’d seen, especially if a good scene was coming up. He liked westerns to the exclusion of almost everything else. He never took me to a kid’s movie and he quietly but adamantly refused to go to war movies. He never said why, but I always figured it had something to do with his service in World War II, because he never talked about that either, except when he came home drunk. Then he would fall back on the sofa, grab me so hard it hurt and sing a song, or part of a song, that he had learned while stationed in North Africa. “The cigarettes are ranka down in old Casablanca, but the girls are ooh la la.” My mother hated that song. She hated all my father’s songs, I guess, because he never sang unless he’d been drinking. The song she hated most was “Good Night, Irene,” because one night down in Kershaw, she and Daddy had gone over to the Clyburns and Daddy and Cotton Clyburn got drunk and sang “Good Night, Irene” for three hours straight while Mother and Carrie Lee huddled together on the front porch.
Once Bobby’s grandfather had nodded us in, we ran behind the concession stand in the tiny lobby, grabbed some popcorn and candy and headed inside. More often than not, we were the only customers for the first show, so we changed seats as often as we could, just because we could. We sat in the back and down front, looking up the nostrils of the actors on screen. We sat together and apart, throwing popcorn at each other if no one else was around. Sometimes we left and walked around town and then came back. Sometimes we came in late, and sometimes we left early. It was the first time in my life where for hours at a time nobody knew where I was, and as far as I know, no one cared.
What else did we do to fill those long, hot days? Played cards, watched television, walked all over town, up to the mill and back, out to the graveyard and then into town. Sometimes on sunny days I fetched the big magnifying glass from its spot beside the phone book at my grandmother’s and we used it to set fire to scrap paper and dead leaves on the sidewalk—we tried igniting ants, but they were too nimble for us. If it rained, we went up in the Parker’s attic, where someone had long before abandoned a miniature pool table with child-size cue sticks (I ripped the felt when I missed the cue ball and was shocked when no one cared). Once in a while we talked an adult into driving us out to the town swimming pool, where the concession stand sold frozen Zero bars and I finally managed to go off the high dive when a yellow jacket chased me off the diving board. Mostly, though, we went to the movies. With Bobby Parker that summer, I learned for the first time about doing something purely for the fun of doing it. Until then, everything in my life, from church to school to movies, was about learning a lesson. Morals and messages were, as far as I knew, tied to stories like strings to kites, and living with my mother was like living with Aesop. I don’t remember my Presybyterian kin ever doing anything just for fun. Even when we played games at home, Parcheesi and Rook were turned into lessons about how to be a good loser (I wasn’t). Those hours Bobby and I spent in the dark were something else, something more carefree. We never acted out what we watched. We liked some things better than others, and we talked about what we saw, mostly to debate if we wanted to sit there and watch it again. If we decided to stay, and we almost always stayed, we’d dash back to the concession stand, grab more popcorn and then settle in for the next show. That summer, the movies were, for the first time in my life, not just a treat or a diversion but their own reward. Bobby and I had no goals, no purpose. We never tried to figure out what lessons we’d learned from what we watched, and there was no arguing about what was proper or unworthy. We did what we did because it was there to do—and because there was air conditioning. I don’t believe it ever crossed our minds that we were experimenting in the esthetics of pleasure, of savoring something for its own sake. There was a lesson here too, obviously, but I was blessedly spared the awareness that I was learning it.