Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Late Night at the La Playa ~ By Seana Graham

Late Night at the La Playa
By Seana Graham

It had been a summer of dares. I’d been staying with my cousin Estella’s family in the Central California coastal town of Puerto Seguro all that summer. She and I were the same age, thirteen, and not exactly bad girls, only slightly bored and sometimes provoked by each other into taking bigger steps than either would have taken on her own. We’d started by getting our ears pierced at the mall one afternoon. This had caused havoc in the household, which was gratifying, and we were under surveillance for awhile, but it didn’t really change anything. Then, Estella had wanted a tattoo for a long time—it was the kind of community where everyone had one—but hadn’t gotten up the nerve till I came along. We dared each other to the tattoo parlor, and got matching blue swallows, which adorned our right shoulder blades, discreet enough to hide from prying eyes, which mainly meant Estella’s parents. We showed them off self-consciously at the beach, where no one noticed but ourselves. 
We were interested in boys of course, though when we said ‘boys’, we actually meant men. That might have gotten us into trouble—real  trouble, I mean, the kind that didn’t blow over, but neither of us was exactly Lolita, which protected us from our own absurdities. There were boys our age who hung around, there always are, and though we sometimes bummed a cigarette or a hit of a joint off them, or a swig of lukewarm beer (which was the only kind they ever had) in the end they seemed babyish and we could only tolerate them for so long before either sending them off or running away ourselves. The truth is, we found their company less interesting than our own.

Estella’s older sister Alexandra was nineteen and still living at home while she attended the junior college in town. Zandi was all that we aspired to be. She already had a car, a boyfriend and a piercing through her navel, which looked scary as hell to us but also unspeakably intriguing. She also had a job at the movie theatre. It was a low rung, low pay job, but to us, it was the height of glamour. The theatre itself was fabulous in its own right. The La Playa wasn’t one of those cineplexes at the mall, but a real grande dame of a movie house, built in a more imaginative era. It had fallen on hard times for awhile, but then the city and some local business people had gotten together and made it a kind of multipurpose venue. They still mainly just showed movies, but there was a stage when they needed one for a big event, and also a real mezzanine where people sometimes held morning weddings and other events that didn’t interfere with the movie show times.

We’d seen some of these events because Zandi could get us in to just about anything, but the thing we liked best were the late night weekend shows, which were cool and retro and more importantly to us, brought out guys from the university. Even now, before the school year began again there were a few of them lurking around town. They were all either aspiring film makers or perhaps vampires, because few of them could even be seen in the daylight hours and none of them would have been caught dead on the beach, especially now, at the height of the summer season.

Zandi usually worked these shifts because it suited her schedule, and if the films weren’t too adult, she would bring us along and give us popcorn and give us a lift home as well. So we would watch, say, “The Princess Bride” or “The Godfather”, and Zandi would work and not pay us too much attention till it came time to go home.

It surprised me at first that Zandi usually had no idea what the movies were about. She wasn’t in the job for the added perk of movie going—wouldn’t have had time to go if she had been, and so the film geeks from the UC didn’t really interest her at all. She was dating a guy who was learning to be a bartender. I think all along she saw the student population as merely a captive commercial opportunity—I forgot to mention that she was a business major. She would dismiss them derisively from time to time as hippies, although they rarely were. They were just film nuts, who couldn’t be bothered to get their hair cut, or add any new installments to their wardrobes. We loved them all passionately and they ignored us to a man. In truth, I think we would not only have had to be grown up to register on their consciousness, we would have had to be blown up to about ten times our true size. For them, anything that wasn’t on the big screen didn’t really exist.

When they happened to attend an early show (which for them meant no earlier than ten PM) we would sometimes drift out after them and go to the little café next door, which stayed open late to catch the after movie crowds. They would have their espressos and we would order hot chocolate, and grab a table near them if we could, I suppose hoping to achieve membership in this inner circle by a kind of osmosis. It’s a wonder that they never told us to just get lost, but the truth is that they were too indifferent to us to notice. Much of what they said was communicated in an incomprehensible form of university film class argot. I assume they could have spoken with clarity if required, though it’s possible that this skill had atrophied from disuse. I remember once being surprised to realize that a lengthy discussion of ontology—whatever that was—was in fact referring to The Wizard of Oz.

DIG OUR BERETS! pic ala albany_tim

After awhile we realized that this was all just another form of masculine competition, one in which we had no hope of vying. We did get some rather charming black berets, hoping to fit in better, but that was because the one book on film theory we’d been able to dig up at the library was on French film after World War II. These guys had eaten all that up and spat it out already, so this had no effect. I did notice one of them smile bemusedly at us, which meant he at least noticed our existence. Still, it was not a compliment. 
In the daytime, we were free enough to get into trouble, but at night, we were pretty well reined in. Someone always knew where we were. This began to chafe a bit. After all, we were practically grown women! In a lot of countries, as we told ourselves often, we would have been married by now, ignoring the further facts of what such a marriage might have been like. We wanted to do something at night that was illicit and out of bounds. Since rendezvous with mysterious men seemed to be out of the question, we hit on another plan. It was Estella who came up with it.

“Why don’t we stay in the theater all night?” she asked. We were sitting on the beach, time was lagging, and in the bright light of day the spookiness of such an idea was far enough away to make this sound almost plausible. 

“How would we do that without Zandi knowing?” I asked. She wouldn’t approve, that was for sure.

“It’s just a matter of orchestration,” Estella said confidently. “She’ll think we’ve left, but we won’t have.”

“Oh,” I said uncertainly. I had no idea what she was talking about. 

“Look,” she said in some exasperation. “On the late show nights, it’s only her left to do all the closing, right?”

This was true. Zandi had complained about the responsibility of making sure that the huge building was truly empty on more than one occasion.

“She’s good, but we know her routine. All we have to do is be where she isn’t.” 

“Okay, it’s possible, but why would we want to?”

Estella looked at me as if she suddenly didn’t know me.

“Because it’s a challenge, Vic.”

And just for a moment I looked back at her from some place in the future, where something being a challenge wasn’t enough anymore, maybe wasn’t even the point. 

“Like haunted houses?” She was looking at me as though I’d turned into an idiot before her eyes. “You know, people dare each other to stay the night and all.”

“But the theater isn’t haunted. Is it?” She knew more of the building’s lore than I did.

“No, but that’s not the point.” She gave a big sigh of exasperation. “Look, you’re going home again in just a few days.”

“A week,” I corrected. “Really more like a week and a half.”

“The point is, it’s not long. Not long at all. And then we go back to school and the rest of it and how are we going to get through all that? We need something to remember. Something big.”

I realized guiltily that I did not actually need something big. “Big” was the life ahead of me. I lived in the city, and there was always something happening. My parents had big plans--for me, for themselves, for everyone. But Estella would stay in this quiet coastal town and it would be on her alone to make big things happen. Without me. 

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

As it turned out, we didn’t have to go through all the rigmarole of evading Zandi after all. A couple of days before our adventure, Estella had noticed that there was a large storage space with two wide doors right under the stage, and though closed, they weren’t locked. She had even managed to discreetly open it and had found it empty of everything but a couple of old cans of paint. It seemed unlikely that any other use would be put to this cabinet before the big night, which was only a day or two away. 
We had also developed a plausible alibi for our late night excursion. Estella’s friend Kim was going to cover for us by pretending to a sleep over, should anybody call. She even came with us to the early show, which Zandi witnessed. We watched the show and then snuck back into the theatre, where we took seats way up front and watched the late show with the usual film buffs. They did not seem likely to rat us out, given that they were way too busy being on alert about their own contraband substances.

It was a bit unfortunate that the late night show that weekend happened to be Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. Perfect for the late night crew, of course, as they could hold forth on old Hitch for hours without even seeing a movie, but perhaps not quite the best thing for two young girls to watch as they were preparing to spend the night in a movie house alone. As the college kids cleared out, we looked at each other with big eyes before making a mad dash for the storage space. In other circumstances, we might have been anxious about Zandi finding us, but when she eventually came in and cleared out the popcorn containers and empty soda cups, we found the sound of her presence almost reassuring. She did one odd thing, though this was so small that only because we had been observing her schedule scrupulously did we even notice. She walked across the stage. She never did this. She normally scanned the stage from the floor and pointed a flashlight into the wings. It was not a true stage with full wings, and everything could be discerned from the ground. But tonight she climbed the stairs and walked around on it, checking all the alcoves. It took her, in fact, a good long time, though usually she was in a hurry to get out. 

“Maybe she’s on to us,” I whispered from the spot underneath her feet. 

“Well, she will be if you don’t keep quiet. Shh. She hasn’t found us yet.”

She did not find us. She left the main theater and didn’t return. After awhile we could hear her footsteps in the odd little corridor above the back of the theater that led to the offices, and which staff had to actually tiptoe through during a show. After this, she would soon be out. We thought we would have to be generous in our timing, but we actually heard her leave through one of the big glass doors in front. Heard it shut, even. It was that quiet. 

We came out of the blackness of the closet and into the blackness of the theatre itself. I had never seen it so dark. I soon realized that this was because usually, even when no film was playing, there were the little running lights helpfully outlining the aisles, and these were now turned off. The only illumination came from the green exit signs. It was not much.
Estella turned on the flashlight she had brought. “Come on,” she said and pressed forward. 

I was already regretting having been talked into the whole thing. What were we going to do all night? True, it was now nearly two in the morning, and so there was not much night left. We had agreed to leave at the first crack of dawn, which only left us about five hours. We had not planned to sleep, but I was both jumpy and tired, a bad combination. And Estella and I seemed strangely out of sync. Our twin intentions of the summer had separated. I was cranky, she was gleeful. Let’s get this over with, I thought. Whether I meant the night or the summer itself, I didn’t know. 

Estella pushed the door to the theatre open and we went out into the lobby. After the theater, the lobby seemed bright as day. We could see the street through the glass doors, and even now there was some activity, though mostly drunks let out of the bars, or homeless people still looking for a place to sleep for the night. We went behind the counter and poured ourselves some Cokes. The candy in the glass case would be inventoried, but there were cookies in a jar, and Estella had learned that some of these were written off as expenses, due to the inevitable breakage. She took out a chocolate chip one and an oatmeal one. She offered me my choice. I took the oatmeal and bit in. It was slightly stale, which seemed in accordance with my mood.

“Oh, I wish we could make popcorn!” she said. Though we had already had a bag each, the giant popcorn machine stood as a temptation to her, since Zandi had showed her how to use it once. A couple of bags of popcorn wouldn’t have been much of a rip-off, but what was the point of popcorn without a movie? The popcorn machine would have given off light, however, which would have been visible from the street. In different moods, then, we turned away from the counter.

"Let's go up to the mezzanine," Estella said.

 This was the best idea she’d had. We walked upstairs and came out on the floor where people waited for their show, for their friends or lovers to arrive or to be done. It was by far the most romantic part of the theatre to me. We looked out across a little balcony area to where the neon sign announcing the LA PLAYA in glowing letters still decorated the night. I wondered if and when they ever shut it off. 
“Let’s go out,” Estella said. 

There was a little door that gave on to the balcony area. Zandi and the other theater staff used it every Thursday night when they changed the signs, which was done by hand with a long pole attached to a magnet gizmo from above. In the night air, Estella breathed in expansively and surveyed the main street.

“My town,” she said happily. She didn’t even bother to whisper. 

Yes, I thought. But not mine. We went back inside. Estella did a few cartwheels on the mezzanine. It had a deep, lush carpet, which made it excellent for this kind of thing, but I had never been very good at cartwheels and did not attempt one.  I sat down by the wall. After a few somersaults and a failed handstand, Estella came over and sat beside me. 

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked. 

“Nothing.”  I said. I was only a little homesick, only a little sad. Summer was coming to an end. As all things did. And do. 

Estella looked at me, not knowing what to say. It was at that moment that we realized something. There was someone else in the building. 

“What is that?” Estella asked in a high pitched whisper. 

“I don’t know. They must have come in while we were outside.” We listened more closely. They were just below us. We were hidden by the mezzanine itself. We shrank into the wall, but anyone coming up would see us in an instant. “It’s probably Zandi,” I said. “Maybe she forgot something.”

Estella listened for a moment, then shook her head. “That’s not Zandi,” she said. 

Well, she would know. We sat there frozen. And then we heard it: the sound of the elevator. 

I don’t think the elevator could have been there in the original building—it was probably a contribution of more recent laws for the disabled. In any case, it now took the theatergoer up the short journey to the mezzanine and then made one more stop on the level of the two small upper theatres. Therefore, it might just go past us. But equally, it might stop and its occupant find us immediately upon the doors opening. 

The smart thing to have done would have been to run down to the street, not up.  But we didn’t know if someone else might be down there waiting. Besides, some idea of hiding was uppermost in our minds and that took control. Holding hands, which we had never done all summer, we leapt to our feet and ran upstairs to the left top theatre. It was all I could do not to scream. 

The two theaters upstairs were smaller. They lacked the grandeur of the one on the main floor below, and in fact, had been carved out of it. They felt even darker than the main room. But at the moment we were grateful for this, as we were for our familiarity with the space. We hid in the front rows, uncertain what else to do. If we went further up toward the back, there would be no escape. 

The theater was so still that we could hear the hiss of the elevator doors opening and then closing. We heard the stranger walking around. The floor was carpeted, so it wasn’t because of that. It was because he, or she, was whistling. It wasn’t very good. We could not pick out the tune. But that didn’t matter. It was coming closer. 
“Maybe it’s a night custodian we didn’t know about,” I said, because in such moments, this is the kind of thing you grasp for.

“Oh, my god, Vic, there is no night custodian,” Estella said. She was almost angry. We heard the door to the theater open. The stranger was thirty feet away from us. It was now or never. We bolted toward the emergency exit. Opened the door. There was a small iron landing and then a series of steps zigzagging down to the ground. We flung ourselves down them. Even so, it seemed too slow. In that moment, if there had been no stairs, we would have flown. 

We found ourselves in the dark parking lot behind the buildings. A sense of exhilaration was starting to build because we had escaped and because we were alive. We hugged each other. 

“Oh my god, Vic!” Estella said. 

“I know, Stelle, I know!”

"SHIT!" ~ Headlights pic ala Adrian Nier

That was when, in the dark of night, in the still and silent parking lot, a car’s headlights beamed on and illuminated us. Just as suddenly, they turned off. 
“Shit,” I said. 
Estella grabbed my arm so hard that I could feel her fingernails cut through my skin. “No,” she said. “Wait.”

Wait? I thought. Wait? Every molecule of my being said run, said flee, said vanish. But I remained with my friend because she had said this. Said, ‘Wait’.

The car light flashed again and then the driver’s side car door opened. At the same moment, the door that we had just come out of three flights up opened too. 

“Zandi?” a voice from above said. “I’ve lost them.”

“Never mind, Tim,” the voice from the car said drily. “I think you flushed them out.”

“And you really thought that I wouldn’t figure this out?” Zandi said. It was after three AM and we were sitting in an all night diner just down the street. The question was addressed to Estella, as all of Zandi’s questions had been. I felt bad for Stelle, but not bad enough that I was going to risk answering them. 

Estella looked down into her hot chocolate and said nothing. 

“How did you?” I asked finally. I was curious and my unimportance in the sibling drama made me bold. 

She turned and stared at me. “Just because you’re leaving us doesn’t mean you get off scot free. You’re a bad influence, that’s what you are.”

“But I—” I stopped. 

“You two have been smirking at each other like you were up to something all week. How could I not know?” She looked at us for a moment, uncertain but then said, “The truth is, it was one of those film students who tipped us off . . . Maybe you shouldn’t have been hatching your  evil plans in the café.”

Estella gave me a sidelong glance. “I told you they were listening,” she muttered.

Tim, our phantom whistler and also Zandi’s boyfriend, looked at us so solemnly that I would have laughed, but for what he said next. “How would it look for Zandi if you’d been caught in there? What if something had happened to you? Not only would she lose her job, but she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself.”
I thought about it. I was unused to looking at anything from a grownup perspective, and frankly, nothing had prepared me to. I looked at Tim, who was stolid and unassuming, who tended bar but never drank—who loved Zandi. The romance of film students vanished in an instant. I thought I could fall in love with Tim myself. 

(c) 2011 ~ Author Seana Graham
another AT THE BIJOU Debut!
Theatre photo credits: 
Stunning California theatre ~ BWChicago
Mezzanine scene ~ Vincent Desjardins


Well man oh man, theatre oh theatre, I can sure whistle at author SEANA GRAHAM'S pulling this performance off in AT THE BIJOU'S curtain call to FAB*FEB*FILM*FEST. I first came across the great Graham on a shadowy night where crime and noir were being flung at DO SOME DAMAGE. She scared me . . . yeah, she was that good shakin' down a crime scene . . . so I asked this California gal in, off those cold streets, for some warm razzle and dazzle about how she comes out of her successful indie bookstore and sees headlights (sometimes) . . . Instead, Seana couldn't suppress the rush of inspiration that scaring up this story did to her:

ABSOLUTELY*KATE:  "Wow," of course, Lady Seana, doesn't begin to convey the cool lights in my eyes to go along with my grinnnnnn right now, comin' across "Last Night at the La Playa". You certainly get into subject matter and character development when you start wading into what a challenge or a spark does to your mindflow. It's certainly a cool thing to watch, as your words 'played upon my viewing pleasure'. Will you share me what song and dance I may spin the more eternal about your tantalizing talents when I turn on the spotlights and kleigs your way?

SEANA GRAHAM:  Thanks, Absolutely Kate. Getting your comments back is half the fun of this whole thing. Makes me glad that I spent the afternoon tweaking this story instead of the more rational decision of cleaning my house or some other practical thing. 
Rather than a bio, I'd love to tell how this story came about ~ From the moment this story challenge was issued, I started thinking about our own fabulous Del Mar theatre, which provides whatever verisimilitude exists in this story. Thanks to friends who have worked in the indie theaters over the years, I had a tiny glimpse behind the scenes from time to time. Although I'd disclaim any true accuracy on the details, writing this story made me realize what a true treasure we have in our own coastal university town, as well remember my fondness for all those "low rung, low pay" friends who have worked in such positions over the years. Cheers!

THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED about Seana await your click,
as well as how she spins a crime tale from a fairy tale at her
STORY DUMP. "How I Came To My Inheritance" was a hit of John Kenyon's recent THINGS I'D RATHER BE DOING authors' challenge.

 thanks a classy dame
who goes way past verisimilitude
when she whistles up a tale!

                during the ~


grandstanding with
featuring Robert J Randisi
in spotlights and interview

~ Absolutely*Kate
and our swanky staff of renown


Paul D Brazill said...

That's a lovely bit of writing. Smashing.

seana graham said...

Thank you, Paul, and of course our host, Absolutely*Kate. What a fun challenge it was!

Harry said...

That read like a true story Seana and one that fits perfectly in the Fab Feb Film Fest At The Bijou. Cheers!

seana graham said...

Thank you, Harry. And the illustration (for which I can take no credit) doesn't hurt, does it?

Kevin Michaels said...

Excellent! Really well done!

seana graham said...

Kevin, thank you so much for your enthusiasm! I really appreciate your giving this a read.

Alan said...

Seana ,What a delightful story.i did not realize how truly talented you are and this story of maturational terror and longing held me riveted.Well done .Best Alan

seana graham said...

Alan, thank you so much for going that extra mile and digging this out. I happen to be going back to this side of the writing life a bit more at the moment, so I appreciate the vote of confidence.

Although at first I read that as "multinational" terror and thought you might be talking about something completely different...

Thanks again.