S&R Fiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: Just the Beginning by Mark Sumioka

It felt like incarceration.  There was no way out.  The heat filled the room like stench and it hovered there, taunting me.  I lay in bed because there was nothing else to do under the circumstances.  Getting out of bed would mean facing the sweltering conditions, and this was not possible.

The fan oscillated back and forth, barely piercing the hot bedroom.  It creaked each time it redirected – always sounding as though it were about to break – creating slight panic.  All of the stores had sold out of fans and portable air-conditioning units.  It happened every year in San Diego, for the span of a week or two, so that we were all reminded of the unbearable conditions we were so fortunate to avoid most of the time.

It was still morning.  I lay in bed, the stuffiness suffocating, and it felt as though the heat intensified each time I tossed or turned.  My pores were a gateway.  My back and ass were peeled to the sheet like a patch.  What could I do?  Where could I go?  The living room was worse, and to go outside was, for me, like a vampire into daylight.

Maybe if I kept normal hours it wouldn’t have been so hard.  If I had gone to sleep at ten or eleven the prior evening it would have been fine.  I would just be starting my day.  But noon was the middle of the night for a man like me.

I got up finally.  I went to the refrigerator and opened the freezer door.  The frozen air rushed at me.  There was instantaneous relief, followed by disappointment when I shut it.

The ice water went down quickly.  I refilled my cup then looked fearfully out the blinds before going back to my roasting bedroom.  It was all I knew to do.  I was slow in the brain at that hour, and under such severe conditions.

There was the thought of visiting my brother Teddy in Mission Valley.  He had air-conditioning.  But it was a full house, with his daughters and grandkids.  It would be too much for me to handle in this weary state.

By afternoon I had suffered enough.  The sweat beaded atop my face, that thin sticky perspiration all over my body, soaking through to my boxers.  Was this how prisoners of war felt when they deteriorated in a cooped up shack?  Was this how the kidnapped felt when they were locked away in a basement or an attic?

Then I realized.  I was being pathetic.  Nothing was keeping me confined to my apartment.  I wasn’t tied up or chained.  I wasn’t incarcerated.  I had the option to leave.

I rinsed off in the shower and put on a fresh t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.  My stomach felt hollow, but I had no appetite.  My mind searched desperately for a solution, and all that came was – give me air-conditioning!

My truck had an A/C system.  So I drove around town, along the coast, Bird Rock into La Jolla, where drivers ineptly steered their cars and slowed at the slightest sign of hazard.  There was a long line of cars ahead of me, equally spaced, moving at twenty miles per hour, and I could sense the worry and decrepitude in each driver.

The air conditioner whirred at me, and for a moment it reminded me of Las Vegas casinos and posh hotel rooms.  Now the coolness was settling into my body, easing the mind.  There was nothing in the world’s existence except the need to stay in that exact temperament.  It was like a drug, or booze.  It was the most primal urgency.

But then something caught my eye.  On the right there was a movie theater.

“A-ha!”

The sign read:  $7 matinees, first two shows

There was air-conditioning, and plush comfy seats.  There was darkness, and nobody to bother me because they were all strangers.  It was perfect.

I pulled into the lot and parked.  There were six movies to choose from.  I chose the most unimposing, a science fiction journey into space.

“One, please.”

“Good movie,” the ticket seller said.  “Great special effects.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I muttered.

After all, this wasn’t about watching a movie.  This was about sleeping in a comfy chair in a dark air-conditioned room.

I chose a seat in the back row, towards the center.  Normally I sat along the aisle for the sake of my bladder.  Today it wouldn’t be a factor.  I would sleep peacefully.

It seemed my sleep deprivation was more severe than I had expected.  I fell asleep minutes into the movie previews.

I felt a finger lightly press my shoulder.  I was already groggy.

“What?” I said in a daze, my eyes stunned by the brightness of the movie screen.

“You’re missing it,” a woman’s voice whispered, but then assured, “Don’t worry, it’s just the beginning.”

I looked to my left.  She was fortyish, clean pale skin, and a kind smile.  She settled back into her seat, three over from mine.  She was alone too.

“What?” I said again.

“The movie,” she said gesturing.  “The movie’s started.”

The cold air was wonderful around my neck and shoulders, and my forearms had goose bumps.

“Okay,” I said meagerly, “thanks.”  Then I crossed my arms, tucked my chin into my right shoulder and closed my eyes again.

I woke to giggles, secretive gossip, and brightening lights.  My eyes opened.  The credits had just ended.  There was a cracking sound like someone had plugged a microphone into the wrong socket.  I looked up at the people leaving the theatre.  They had been watching me as they came up the aisle, nudging one another as they moved along.

Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I blinked hard.  Then I sighed relief.  It was the most satisfaction I had felt since before the heat wave.  I was in a daze, and complacent.  Maybe I would stay one more time through the movie.  Another two hours or so might be just what I needed.

“You missed a good one,” the woman’s voice said.

I looked over, surprised, though showing her no emotion.

“You’re still here.”

“I know.”

“Why are you still here?”

“I don’t know,” she said pondering.  “I was about to leave, but then I thought I should wake you.”  She seemed pleased.  “I didn’t though.  I let you wake up on your own.”

I scrambled for something to say.  She had my heart thumping.  There was something charming in her demeanor.  She had a quiet air about her, and she was patient with her words.

“You…like to watch it all the way through the credits?”

She nodded, “Because you never know if they’re going to show more at the end.”

There was an awkward pause.

“So I missed a good one?”

“It really was a good story.  Most of the time sci-fi movies are all special effects and bad acting.  My father worked for Boeing for a long time.  He’s the one who recommended it to me.”  She laughed then locked eyes with me.  It took a few moments before she added, “I liked it enough that I’d watch it again.”

“I used to do that a lot when I was growing up,” I said thinking back.  “I know you’re talking about coming back and watching it again a different day, but we did the double features a lot as kids.”  I gave a slugging gesture.  “Knocked them out all in the same day, over and over, stuffing our faces till we were sick in the stomach from all the candy and soda pop.”

She smiled and breathed through her nose.  “I went to a few double features.”

“You from San Diego?”

“No.  North.  San Francisco.”

“I love the Bay Area.  I’d live up there in a heartbeat if it weren’t so damn expensive.”

“Well, you don’t have to live in the city.”

When she said this it was as though we’d known each other a long time, and she was encouraging me, with that light persuasion we often seek in friends and family.

“That’s true,” I said to fill the space.  I watched her anxiously.  What would she say next?  Would she say more?  Was she interested enough to say more?

“So…” she began, her lips parting, and then her smile.  Her eyes wandered, from me to the ground to the blank screen and back to me.  “I guess that’s that.”

My heart sank.

“You really think I need to watch that movie again?”

“You never saw it the first time.  Sleeping through a movie doesn’t equal seeing a movie.”

I wanted to laugh but was instead strangely quiet.  I was in no man’s land.  It was an amazing feeling.

Then she said, “So, was it a good nap?”

“Oh, fantastic,” I blurted.

She covered her face laughing.

We watched one another.  My mouth became terribly dry.

“I need to drink some water.”

“There’s a drinking fountain,” she said pointing to nothing in particular.

We both stood at the same time.  I didn’t know if she would go the opposite way or follow me, so I just started walking.  Then I heard her behind me and felt that squishy elation the same as when I was a teenager.

We went to the lobby.  I drank from the fountain and wiped the residual droplets off my chin, then turned and extended my hand.

“I’m Hank.”

“Gale,” she said and took my hand.  Her skin was soft and her handshake firm.

“Are you hungry, Gale?” I said taking my hand away and putting it at my side.  I kept it against my pant leg so that she wouldn’t see the tremors.  “I haven’t had breakfast yet.”

“It’s almost four-thirty,” she said incredulously.  “Are you on a diet, or are you just into starvation?”

I chuckled, “Neither.”  I looked around.  It was so very cool in the lobby that I didn’t want to leave.

“Hmm…” Gale said like an afterthought.

I pointed to the grandiose windows toward the exit.

“It’s the heat.  It zaps my appetite.  And I’m not getting any sleep.  There’s no air-conditioning at my place.”

“Well, that would explain your nap.”

There was another awkward pause, and this time I got the sense that she was feeling anxious too.  She smiled and looked down.  But I kept my eyes fixed on her until she met mine again.

We needed to get on with it and stop acting like a couple of foolish kids.  That’s what my brain told me.  But my gut took over and told me to enjoy the hell out of it because it was special.

“You never answered my question,” I said.  “Are you hungry at all?”

“A little.  I am.”

“Well, let’s see…” I trailed off, looking through the big windows, far beyond the theater’s entrance, contemplating our next move.

“We could just stay here and watch the movie again,” she said.

“Are you serious?”

She nodded.  My heart pounded with joy.

I said, “I say we do it.  It’s been decades since I had a ‘movie-style’ lunch.”

“Wait.  Let me just check something.”  She pulled out her smart phone.

In a few moments her eyes were back on mine.

“I can,” she said encouragingly, again with that feeling of persuasion, “I’ll watch it again.”

I left her and went back to the water fountain and took another long draw.  When I came back her phone was nowhere to be seen.  She had put it away.

I liked this woman.

“Okay.  Let’s go back inside.  And I promise to watch the movie this time.”

Gale laughed.  Then she said, “Should we pay for another ticket or just go back into the theatre?”

There was no testing me.  I would be who I was.  I would be truthful.

“Hell no.  I’ll buy you some popcorn and a hot dog and a Coke, and we’ll eat and wait until the guys sweep up the place and then we’ll go back in.”

“That sounds nice.”

I extended an arm to the concession stand.  I felt like a young man again.  I smelled the light whiff of perfume as Gale walked ahead of me.

We ate quietly.  Gale held a napkin with her free hand and wiped her mouth frequently.  We both chewed with our mouths closed.  I kept offering the popcorn, but after the first few handfuls she shook her head and worked on her hot dog.  The Coke was challenging me at every sip.  Still, I kept my burps down.

It was difficult to watch the movie and keep my eyes off her the entire time.  It was difficult to hold in my excitement.

All throughout the movie I wondered if she felt the same as me, and each time I looked over at her there were her eyes meeting mine, assuring me that she did.

When the movie ended, I kept my eyes straight ahead on the big screen, watching the credits roll up white on black.  People were shuffling out of the rows, no longer chatting in whispers, and making their way up the aisles on either side of us.  My fingertips were oily from the buttered popcorn.  I rubbed them against my pant leg in case Gale might want to shake hands.  I was scared to death that at any moment she would get up and rush out of the theater.  But she didn’t.

Finally I looked over at her.  She was smiling at the screen.

“Was it as good the second time around?” I asked.

She turned to me, “I wouldn’t know.  I slept through most of it.”

I chuckled, “Good one.”

“What did you think of it?”

“It was fine.”

She made a face when I said that, like I knew better.

So I continued, “It started out predictably, but then they added layers and it got much better.  The ending was a little demographically pleasing if you ask me.”

“It was,” she said.  “But sometimes…that can be exactly what you need when you go to a movie.”

I’d never thought about it from that angle.  People had a lot of baggage in their lives.  Maybe they wanted a fluffy story that sewed up well.  Maybe that was what they needed to remedy their distressed minds before they exited the theater and got back to the thick of it.

“That’s a good point.  You’re very astute.”

“I have my moments,” she said.

The theater was empty now.  My head was floating.  We could sit in that theater and say nothing and it would be fine.  It was enough she was in the room with me.

After a few minutes Gale said hesitantly, “I guess that’s that.”

“Is it?” I blurted.  The flow of our conversation had ease to it, and I hinged on everything she said.  There was something about her that was striking to me, something in her voice, something in her responses that seemed to mesh with mine.  And whatever anxiety I felt perished each time she spoke.

“I don’t think I can watch it a third time,” she burst laughing.

“No, not that.”

“Then what?”

So I said, “I know we hardly know each other, but how would you feel about going somewhere and having a drink with me?”

There was a long pause.  It seemed she was examining me.

“I think maybe we should save that for next time,” she said.

Even better.