Kodachrome: A Novel by Douglas T. Robinson
Foreword and Chapter 1 - serialized novel.
Sticky dog days of August 1977. Lazy hours filled the day: long waits at the ice cream stand and nights nursing blistered skin with Noxzema cold cream. With the sun scraping over the horizon, the day began followed by a sweet-cereal breakfast. And with a lightning bug show, the day ended, and crickets droned until early morning. With the rattle of loose bicycle chains, the last Schwinns came coasting home across the grass and were laid against front porch stoops. Days before readers when eyes were keen, before the beetus and the Big C, before divorce, gray hair, middle age - days of orange and green, and fuzzy wallpaper, and brown shag carpet with rubber-backed padding. No laws, no mortgage to sweat - the future was just over the hill at the county line. The world was full of what ifs and seldom regrets. One day a broomstick-shouldered soldier on the Indiana front lines, the next a snowsuit-astronaut fighting off an invasion. All of it made sense in the moment. Life, filled with a thousand future paths, doorways to open and enter, was carefree.
1976, hell you all remember the bicentennial year… Science class was first thing Thursday morning, and class always began with a question. Minutes before, they had all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Gil stared blindly and indifferently to the striped cloth pinned to the back wall of the classroom just above the number line. He couldn’t help but wonder why on earth he was pledging anything to an inanimate object. So he mouthed the words and crossed his fingers in protest.
Mrs. Davies, the wife of a retired Air force officer, had lived a little bit of everywhere, following Mr. Davies from one duty station to the next. Air Force-blue, she insisted the class sing patriotic hymns after the Pledge of Allegiance. This morning it was a stirring rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and Gil stood straight and proud. “You’re a grand old FAG, you’re a high-flying FAG…” He punched the words with every breath. While something was clearly “off,” Mrs. Davies couldn’t put her finger on it and sang along, a disturbed look on her face.
“So boys and girls, other than celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday, what do you think was America’s greatest achievement?” asked Mrs. Davies, the sometimes science teacher, full-time reading teacher and tutor. Waiving a piece of chalk like a baton, she walked to the front of the room. Her brown polyester slacks, modest, made a slippery sound as she passed by the rows of desks. Her toenails, painted bright pink, stuck out of her red, white, and blue- striped dress sandals. She was quite the fashion plate for a woman of nearly fifty.
“Mrs. Davies, well, uh, I think Watergate was something we should be proud of.” Laughter cascaded from the back of the room. Those who remembered hours of fuzzy government video and lies got the joke. Someone farted.
“What about our landing on the moon?” Mrs. Davies asked. She dreamed of her planning period and a cup of strong coffee with two sugars.
“July 1969 – Moon landing.” Not bothering to raise his hand, Gil Jarvik blurted out a quick and matter-of-fact response.
“Very good, yes that was an incredible thing - you must remember the entire world watched that on television.” Encouraged, Mrs. Davies walked over to the windows where the Word Book Encyclopedias were shelved on top of a scratched metal heater that clanked when it ran. “But before we landed on the moon, did we ever land on the moon like we did on Mars this last summer?”
“Anyone?” she asked, “does anyone remember reading about…” and she mouthed an S.
“Surveyor!” yelled Dana McKitrick.
Frowning, Mrs. Davies acknowledged his answer.
“That’s very good Dana. Next time, we raise our hands, remember? That goes for you too Gil – all of you,” she reminded them with a wrinkled brow.
Mrs. Davies explained the technical problems of landing a probe on the moon in simple, Weekly Reader language. “You see, before we sent our astronauts up there, the United States wanted to make certain we knew the terrain, the area they would be landing them on. Explorer flew over the moon, fired its rockets, and deployed its parachutes, and…”
“Uh Mrs. Davies,” Gil interrupted, “there is no atmosphere on the moon. Why would they deploy parachutes?”
“Well Gil,” she answered, trying to keep her composure, though a noticeable flush came over her face, and a tuft of gray hair fell from her brow into her eyes, “why don’t you do some reading and tell us all about that?”
“Well I have,” he said, “and there is definitely no atmosphere on the moon. We may have fired retro rockets, but I assure you Mrs. Davies, we did not use parachutes.” She’s teaching us about science? Upright and studious with hands crossed, Gil sat unmoving in his chair - statuesque. Strong sun poured through the window and darkened his glasses to almost black. Mrs. Davies frowned and pursed her lips. God, he looks like a cockroach sitting there…
Tolerating Gil, for teachers and staff at Main Elementary, was a full-time challenge. In the lounge, his name always seemed to come up between cups of instant coffee and cigarettes and wishful talk of snow days and next year’s contract.
Mr. Rogue, math teacher and American psycho, leaned forward in his chair with a shitty grin. “That little prick,” he whispered, “will either end up on the front page of the national news or in prison.” Politburo-like nods and cheeky grins followed.
“Two years ago, when they were learning their multiplication tables, he asked me if I could prove 9 x 4 = 36. I told him they just do. Later that same week, when I tested them on it, he marked down 9 x 4 = apparently 36.” Rogue’s jelly-bean-blue eyes opened wide in an intimidating stare he normally saved for his students, and he scratched his beard.
Horace, or Gil as he was known now, but sometimes Fox Marsden and once even Tommy, was a pudgy, thick-around-the-middle boy who carried his padding like a middle-aged man. Glasses, with auto-tint, corrected some minor near sightedness. Gil was the smartest person Dana had ever met – the smartest kid ever in the Mayville School District. Teachers had urged his parents, more than once at regular PTO conference meetings, to skip him a few grades. Glenda Jarvik ignored their advice. And his father just returned to reading the newspaper.
Horace Jarvik lived not one mile across the empty lot from Dana on a hilltop in a house that leaned to one side. A mile in Mayville was damn near the other side of the planet - the city was about sixteen miles square, if that. Block after block, people were tediously similar – poor, not-so-poor, and neurotic, middleclass wannabes.
Gil spent his school days daydreaming, drawing comic strips, and plotting the fall of his fellow man in a spiral red notebook whose cover was faded nearly white in patches. His favorite hobby, other than drawing super heroes and their adversaries in various stages of dismemberment, was crafting himself into a skin irritant at school.
Dana McKitrick, sometimes known as Danny Boy by his best and only friend Gil, lived on the better side of the tracks. Old farts called it that anyway. There was no better side. School boundaries were drawn in haphazard fashion. In and around neighborhoods with no iota of logic, lines meandered. Having somehow gotten ahold of a district map, Gil honed in on a carve-out for a fire hydrant.
“This fire hydrant is impoverished!” he joked. His belly roll jiggled as he laughed.
On the corner of Central and Main stood the monument where the Danny and Gil often met to talk – it was their sanctuary. A little faded, the hydrant was painted in red, white, and blue to honor the bicentennial. Dana had watched a hippy girl home from college, home on summer break, paint it over the course of a couple of days last year.
“Greetings from the wrong side Danny Boy!”
“Buenos penis to you from the Dark Side of the Force!”
Dana, like Gil, was husky and sported blond bangs – a shoe-shine-boy haircut. Like radium watch dials, the radioactivity glowed. Tough-skin pants with padded knees in brown and Hunter Green were their school clothes. At home, it was jeans, cut-off shorts, terrycloth, and ill-fitting t-shirts.
“I come from old fat, and you’re from new fat – uppity white trash!”
“Up yours Polack, you shit bird!” replied Dana.
No one meant anything with the insults - they were conversation filler. The occasional so does your mom, borrowed from non-existent colored people made life more interesting in the middle of corn country.
“I got the basement cleaned up – as much as I could – my dad’s crap is still in one corner. I am worried there won’t be enough light down there.”
Gil’s concerns were well-founded: his basement, smelling of mold and fabric softener, had one light that swung on a pull chain. Danny had a movie light - two lights in fact, on a horizontal bar that could plug into an outlet. Both worried there wouldn’t be enough light. Their movie would be a take-off, of sorts, of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, shot in part in Gil’s basement. It wasn’t their first project. Gil’s great uncle had died, about a year ago, and left him a Bell and Howell movie camera- the old wind-up kind, along with a projector, two bulbs - one of which didn’t work, and a horsehair brush for sweeping dust off the lenses. It worked great; they had shot several rolls of film – mostly stop-motion animation, Benny Hill-type comedy routines, etc. The drawback was that it shot in one speed – 16 frames per second, and of course single frame. The work-around, in theory, was to slow the movement down to compensate for the slower frame rate. Danny’s camera was a Super 8 Focal brand, and it shot at 18 frames per second with auto zoom. It also had its own drawback: double exposures were impossible given the idiot-proof, Super 8 film cartridge. Back-winding was an option, but the film was prone to jam, and taping the drive disc wasn’t good for the motor. Arguing back and forth on the subject, they readied the basement set for the lab scene. That was the plan until they met Roger.
Roger Lee, whose parents owned and ran the Chop Suey House out of a concrete block building painted white near the downtown, was the only Oriental boy in Mayville. He did have a little sister, but she wasn’t yet school age and spent most of her time at the restaurant with his parents. Roger came up with the idea of recording dialogue, for use at a later date, on cassette tape. He had a Westinghouse cassette recorder with a detachable microphone whose cord was unusually long and well-suited for mounting on a boom; a short fishing pole served to hold the mic. Roger had carved out a round, yellow Avon bathroom sponge and placed the microphone inside it. It didn’t seem to muffle the sound any, and, well, it looked more professional.
Roger had come to Gil and Danny Boy by way of a conversation at the untouchables’ lunch table. A debate erupted over whether the stop-motion animation on Land of the Lost had been shot on video or film. It was a ridiculous argument from the start - anyone, with a good eye and a little knowledge of film, could see the animation was shot on film then later married with bad Chroma key video in post-production. Rick Cottrell, school genius and all around kiss-ass, was convinced otherwise. And Roger joined in the debate – uninvited, but Cottrell needed to be schooled in the basics of stop-motion animation.
“Rick, no way that animation was shot on video – it was shot on 16mm movie film – cheap 16mm at that!” Roger proclaimed with a sweep of his arm. “Look carefully, you can see the difference in quality…”
Their mouths agape, Gil and Danny looked at each other. They had no idea – yes, Roger was a nerd and untouchable, but all three of them had something in common other than their mutual six-year sentence at Main Elementary. As it did in the rare instance he didn’t score an A on a math exam, Rick’s face turned beet-red, and the veins in his neck popped. He stormed away from the table. “You left your lunch bag!” yelled Roger. “Fuck it,” Rick, with his back to the basketball hoop, replied. The last they saw of Rick was his ass, white tube socks, and beige corduroy floods.
“I still want to use Super 8 - Roger said it’s easier to fake at 18 frames per second, you know slow the action down, than at 16 frames.” A gift from his grandparents, Danny’s camera had never been used for anything other than test shots and one Christmas morning documentary. He was certain auto zoom would be perfect for Dr. Jekyll’s close-up transformation into Mr. Hyde.
“Ok,” Gil said, some resignation in his voice, “we’ll try both – we can do the laboratory scene on Super 8, and I’ll shoot the daybreak scene on my camera out at the tub. We’ll see which one turns out better.”
“Ok genius, but how are we going to deal with the two different types of film running through the projector?”
Gil’s eyes rose. “I guess, uh, I don’t know – we’ll figure something out. Ask you buddy Roger – I’m sure he’s got an answer for you,” Gil fired back, his tone sarcastic and snotty.
“Look man, “Danny Boy said, pointing his finger at Gil’s chest, “what do you got against Roger Lee? Jesus Christ, he’s a bigger loser than we are! He just wants to do the sound, and I mean, what are the chances we’ll even end of using it?”
Gil paused. “Look Danny Boy, I always wanted this to be our thing. I got nothing against Roger Lee– and you’re right, he makes both of us look like jocks being a midget and what not.” Gil laughed.
“Gil, look – he has no friends – you ever see him hanging out with anybody. You and I shouldn’t give a shit, but you know we do cause he’s like us. He’s not one of them.”
“Who is them?” Gil asked.
“Them is the fucking morons in this town! They’re like robots, walking around doing the same thing every day. If I thought I’d be stuck here, live out the rest of my life in this shithole, I don’t know I just… I just can’t imagine getting married here, having kids here, working here, and ending up buried here up on top of the hill not far from you.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t either. There is really no place for me. You know man – I’m an odd duck. It’s been that as long as I can remember. I mean, I just remember knowing things that I shouldn’t know, being able to understand things that most adults don’t get, being able to use the right words in the right situations, and being able to see through the holes in people’s thinking. Can you imagine what that was like for me? You remember the thrashings on the way home from school. You remember me telling you about how my dad wanted me to conform and made fun of the way I talked and my writing. My mom tried, well tries to take my side, but she can’t always – it’s his house and that’s her husband. He works all day, brings home the bread – takes care of us. Me and mom try and keep quiet and not bother him on the weekends during football, or basketball, or whatever. Do you know what it’s like to be called a sissy by your own father, well DO YOU?”
Tears dropped on his cheeks, and Gil’s eyes went red. Wiping them on the sleeve of his shirt, he faked a half-ass, crooked smile.
“Gil, I got no idea what any of that is like. I don’t think either one of your parents like me – especially your dad, and you know, I got no idea why. I have been coming over to your house for as long as I can remember. I never screw with anything – I’m quiet. I just hang out with you in your room, watch movies, talk, and draw. I don’t hate your mom and dad. I mean really, I just want them to like me, but when you don’t got a clue why they hate you, how can you make them not hate you?”
“Dude, they don’t hate you. You know what it is? My old man thinks anyone I’m friends with is going to somehow turn me bad. And my mom goes along with him, cause yeah, he’s the big man of the house. So it’s not you – it’s anybody I’m friends with! You’re just the one he sees more than most, well the only one he sees – what am I thinking? He’s worried all this movie and comic book crap will turn me into a fag.”
“How do you know that?” Danny Boy asked.
“He’s told me! He’s told me that over and over again. He was in the Marines during the 50’s – spent a lot of time in San Diego so he says. He’s always told me about the weirdos in California and how they’re queer as hell. He warned me that if I get mixed up in that world, I’ll end up just another broke fag in Hollywood. So yeah, that’s the deal with my dad. Maybe he doesn’t really give a shit about anyone. Well I’m sure, deep down, he cares about me, but let’s face it – I am not the son he wanted or thought he would have.”
“Gil, I don’t have it that bad at home, “explained Danny Boy as his fingers traced a circle on the fire hydrant, “my dad’s disabled, but he’s good to me and my mom, a nice guy. He spends a lot of time to himself reading and watching television. When you’re stuck in a wheelchair, there ain’t much you can do. And my mom babies him – she has to. He can’t walk, he can kinda use his arms – you’ve been over for dinner with us, you’ve seen how hard it is for him to even get food to his mouth. I kind of remember when he came home and visiting him at the V.A. hospital, and how that was really the first time, like that, I got to know him. And all that seems more like a dream now. I remember watching them taking the last Americans out of Saigon, the helicopters taking the soldiers and the Vietnamese from the rooftop of that building…”
“The American Embassy, “Gil confirmed. His eyes moved away from Danny; it was hard to see his friend like this.
“Yea, the embassy there… I saw my dad cry – was the first time I could remember. I couldn’t ask him what he was crying about, whether it was over guys he knew who had been killed, the fact the war was finally over, or the fact everything he fought for ended up like that. I remember Vietnamese kids crying, papers blowing around, the guns and soldiers. My sister remembers him before that, but we never see her since she married Sammy and moved to Tampa - postcards and long distance calls a couple times a month, but yeah – she knew him, I really don’t know him. He’s not a bad guy – he gets a disability check - just not sure what kind of life he actually has sitting in his chair.”
“Listen, “Gil interrupted. He could tell his friend was spiraling down into himself on dark thoughts Gil also had, “your mom’s a fine-looking piece – just saying.” Danny Boy cracked a smile and pretended to throw nothing at his friend. “We’ll meet over at my house tomorrow. I got some ideas written down in the notebook. I am still trying to find some of my dad’s old chemistry set stuff – his beaker, test tubes – I think he told me he even had a small alcohol lamp.”
“A Bunsen Burner you mean?” In the rare event Gil came up short on his words, Danny Boy didn’t fail to jump in and correct him.
“Bingo – anyway, once I get that crap out, we can start setting up your lights - get Roger over to check out the sound, etc. Ok so about ten at your house?”
“That’ll work,” Danny Boy agreed, knowing that his mom would be at work at the store, his dad would have long been up, eaten breakfast, and would be watching a gameshow.
The boys rode home in opposite directions: Gil to the leaning house not a mile away on top of the hill, and Danny Boy to the cinder-block ranch south on Main from the fireplug with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and no basement.
“Hi Dana, “Florence McKitrick said, as Dana slammed the screen door shut.
With a cheeky smile and large boobs, Florence was a short woman measuring about 5’2”. She had done some easy time as a den mother when Dana was in 2nd grade. Scouts sat around in a circle on wooden barrels cobbled into stools while Flo read through the oaths and upcoming den activities. At the close of the meeting, she passed out baked goods - usually cookies or brownies - along with sickly-sweet punch. And the end was what Dana dreaded most: Flo, large up top, didn’t notice her tits had a tendency to flop out from her low-plunging neck lines. One of the scouts cracked a joke about how her cleavage started an inch below her chin.
“Dude, I love your mom’s slit!”
Florence, fond of floral prints and Kodachrome-red lipstick, wore both every day – to work or just kicking back around home. With taking care of her husband Jerry, there wasn’t much lounging. With a cheeky, upturned mouth, one you could never mistake if for a full-blown smile, she did her routine. Working as a bakery clerk at the A&P grocery store had been about her only distraction – at least since Jerry came home from Vietnam. Once she got him cleaned and shaven in the morning, he could manage his on his own. She made him a sack lunch around 6am that stayed fresh until around 11:30. He wasn’t entirely helpless, but she worried a stray cigarette could lead to disaster – a fire maybe – there’s no way he could get out of that house. Dana got home around 2:30 from school most days but then was off to play.
“Where’s dad?” Dana asked, fumbling toward the bottom of the cookie jar.
“Oh I just put him down for a nap – he was feeling tired. So what did you do today?”
“Oh, I was hanging out with Gil – the usual. We’re getting ready to do a short film – going to use his basement for one of the sets.”
“So that’s why you asked me to bring home that bakery apron from the store.”
Sweet lady Flo was tough like wang leather.
“Are you going to use your camera your grandparents got you?”
“Well right now, yeah – that’s the plan. Gil has an old Regular 8 that in some ways would be perfect, but this power zoom I got, uh, I think it would work better.”
“And what is this?” she said with a wry smile, washing down the countertops with a musty dishrag.
“It’s kind of a take-off on Jekyll and Hyde – you remember, the mad scientist who makes a potion. Once he drinks it, he turns from this nice scientist into a monster, Mr. Hyde.”
With a pang of shame that made no sense at all, Dana hesitated a moment telling his mother about their project. He had a sense, though without good reason, she would find little adventures and projects like this ridiculous. She’d never given him any reason to think that way, but he did. Perception was reality. Mental thrashings at school condition you to expect it – even at home.
“So will me and your dad get to see it?” Flo bent down and gave Dana a kiss on the forehead. Her breasts spilled out over her open-neck top.
“Only if you promise not to make comments during it!” Danny Boy replied, his mouth full of cookie.
* * *
Across the field on top of the hill, the storm door slammed.
“Horace, it’s about time you got home – I was beginning to worry about you – dinner’s in the pan on the stove. I made meatloaf and gravy.”
“Ugh,” Gil mumbled under his breath. Of all the dishes Glenda Jarvik prepared, meatloaf and gravy was his least favorite.
In a low whisper, “You know that it’s one of your dad’s favorites. So don’t complain – it upsets him. When both he and I were growing up, there were some nights when there wasn’t anything but bread and butter to eat.”
“Yes mom, I know. I have heard the endless stories about poverty and starvation, about hard times when the light bill was due and couldn’t be paid, about sitting in the dark – I know mom.”
“Well ok, I know you know and GOOD – this is something you should know – all you kids should know.”
Walking over to the range, Glenda took a small, Horace-size portion from the aluminum pan. The sleeve of her flannel shirt, she wore it every day over a man’s cotton tee shirt, dipped into the gravy.
“Horace, do I hear you home?” muffled, his father’s voice passed through his newspaper and living room wall.
Don Jarvik, ex-Marine, but always a Marine with a flat-top haircut and square jaw, drove a uniform delivery truck for a living. He hadn’t missed a day of work since a bout with a faulty appendix in 1969. During the blizzard earlier that year, he made it to work with his coffee thermos in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. He worked a 40-hour week and overtime when it was offered. At home, he read the newspaper, smoked one Chesterfield cigarette after the other, watched television then went to bed – usually never later than 9pm. When nothing interested him on television, he read and re-read old copies of Popular Mechanics magazine, carefully marking the project pages toward the back with dog ears, though he never did anything with the plans.
“Horace, get me a cup of coffee and bring it here. And I need you to cut the grass tomorrow. Get up early in the morning before it gets hot, but wait for the morning sun to burn the dew off the grass first – won’t stick to the underside of the mower that way,” he said confidently. Horace brought him a china cup full of black coffee, strong with no cream or sugar.
“That’s good boy,” he said taking a sip,” your granddad called that railroad coffee.” Blowing smoke across the rim of the coffee cup, Don took another sip.
“Dad, Dana and Roger Lee are coming over to our house tomorrow.”
“I want you to cut the grass first,” he said in a stern tone, “once you get that done, you can go wherever the hell you want to go – just be back at a reasonable time for supper.” Don lit another cigarette. The butt of his last Chesterfield was smoking, a little, in the ashtray on the end table.
“Do you think I can get a dollar from you?” Horace asked, his voice a little creaky and weak. He never used the term borrow because it would incite the same old, shop-worn speech, the bromide about the difference in borrowing and taking, borrowing and giving, blah blah blah. Both frugal, Don was the tougher sell - trying to get a buck or two off him for anything was like trying to peel the bark of a tree.
“What do you need a buck for?” Don Jarvik pulled his wallet from his work pants pocket and held it close to his chest. “Are you buying another comic book?”
“No dad. Comic books are twenty-five cents anyway. I have almost enough saved up from cutting grass to buy a roll of movie film.”
“Your money could be better spent, you know,” he said, opening up the well-worn flaps of his wallet.
“Dad, I’m a kid – what’s there to spend my money on?” Eyes drifting down to the floor, Horace asked. Having never laid a hand on him – at least not that he could remember, he wasn’t afraid of his father. Don’s manner and tone, the way he could tear someone down with intimidation all the while maintaining a calm, church-proper volume, stuck fear into him. In fact, his father rarely raised his voice.
“Ok, here – take it. Have fun doing whatever you do, but make certain you cut the grass tomorrow before you do anything else.” Leaning back in his chair, Don Jarvik picked up his newspaper, and took a puff from his cigarette.
Cool, damp, and dark, the Jarvik basement was the perfect setting, if the light were a little better, for a mad scientist’s laboratory. As a child, Horace, or Gil as he wanted to be known outside his family, had been deathly afraid of the basement. Ghosts, lizard men, and apes lived in its dark corners. At twelve, nearly thirteen, he still preferred not to go down there alone. Its one light that swung on a chain cast odd, dancing shadows on the dingy gray walls and into its dark corners. There was no way to capture that feeling on film, sadly.
Last week, Gil had set up a folding table – likely from some past holiday dinner – he found lying against the garage wall and cleaned it carefully. His dad’s chemistry set, from the 1950’s, was impressive: beakers, test tubes, large jars of chemicals so old their labels had faded to off-white holding powders of many colors dressed the table.
© 2017 Doug Robinson