*Illustration by Andrew Leipzig
Ronald dressed in the dark and recalled the events of the day. In the morning, he’d run into a former classmate who spoke with furious excitement about his kids, his house, his job in the business district. Though it occurred just hours before, the meeting felt as if it were years ago.
The city was calm at night. The commuters were gone, the air warm and still. Ronald’s gait was easy, his walk to work relaxed. He thought of the quizzical, pitied look his old classmate gave him when he said he was the night auditor at the Newfoundland Hotel and simultaneously remembered the man repeatedly checking his watch though barely a minute passed. “Rats rush,” he whispered. A feeling of victory swept over him.
Ronald emerged from his thoughts as he rounded past the movie theater on the corner of East 3rd and Avenue A. The dilapidated building once staged plays but was now owned by a new wave of bohemians, for whom movies was the obsession. Every few weeks, an amateur title appeared on the marquis and for a small donation the offering could be viewed nearly twenty-four hours a day.
The title caught his eye. The Human. It was conspicuously low on the marquis over the door and Ronald wondered how long it had been showing. The M sagged, and in the streetlight glare the word Human assumed the posture of a swooping hawk.
At work, the title periodically crept into Ronald’s mind and by morning he decided he must see it. He went before his anticipation waned. An older gentleman admitted him in silence. Ronald gave the man five dollars and sat in the middle of the darkened theater. He was alone. He placed his tote bag on the seat beside him and made himself comfortable. He heard the clamor of projection equipment and a great burst of white light hit the screen.
The movie opened with a nomad wandering the desert. As the scene advanced, he grew more determined, battling the elements—the sun, the wind, the sand and the nighttime cold. At last, emaciated and weak, he screamed, “We are not what God intended!” and collapsed, the camera capturing his vacant gaze before panning towards space.
The man was back on the screen, in a hospital setting, asleep. Beings with large translucent heads hovered around his bedside. The thin, lanky creatures wore white robes. They spoke telepathically in a common voice that sounded like many voices talking in unison. “But it is our duty to save him,” the echo intoned.
Soon the man was recovered and living in a comfortable room behind one-way glass. His keepers monitored him. The echo sounded again. “Shall we keep him imprisoned forever? Have the children study him? Is he not our ancestor? Does he not deserve our humanity?” Their eyes met and measured against one another.
As they paraded away, the camera focused on their feet and a haunting whisper emanated from the floor. “No good can come from this.”
From this point, the movie progressed in a foreseeable trajectory. The nomad began a romance with a translucent-headed nurse. There was, at times, great humor as he became initiated into the foreign society. There was also a dark edge. Children were born to the unlikely couple and problems arose from their inability to perform to the standards of their advanced peers.
Ronald drifted off during this part of the movie and revisited his own past. He saw himself at night, sitting on the back deck of his house in the suburbs, days before his marriage ended. Elise was inside, weeping, but what did she want him to say? He didn’t understand her. He wasn’t sure he loved her.
A flash of light and a scream grabbed Ronald’s attention. A translucent-headed woman was raped and killed. Visions of fire and chaos passed along the screen. Untold generations had procreated and the new humans were at war with the old humans.
Savagery and destructive prowess, no longer present in the advanced humans, won out. The translucent-headed people were slaughtered.
In the movie’s final scene, present-day men with bloodstained clothes are shown carousing around a burning structure, a celebration of their victory. An echo a thousand voices strong rises up from the fire into a massive plume of smoke. “How can our story be told when those who become us are doomed to destroy us?”
The credits rolled and Ronald rose from his seat. He was sleepy. At his apartment he lied down. A short time later, he was awoken by a knock at the door. A fear crept up inside him and he shivered at the thought that a translucent-headed being was on the other side, but shook the ridiculous notion, descended the stairs and opened the door. He saw no one but a voice paralyzed him. “Hello, sir, my name is Clayton Rickenbacker. I’m the projectionist.”
Ronald looked down. Before him was a tiny man with greased-back hair in a full tuxedo. “You forgot your bag,” he continued, holding the tote in front of him. “May I come in?”
Ronald accepted the bag and motioned him in. His initial reaction was gratitude. But nowhere was his address listed. He became suspicious. “How did you know where I lived?”
“Oh, I followed you,” the little man said as he ascended the staircase. “Did you like the movie?”
“Yes, I suppose…followed me?” Ronald moved towards the man, already seated at the kitchen table.
“Yes, followed you,” the projectionist said. “What was your favorite part?”
Ronald balked, saying nothing.
“I helped write the script. In the original draft,” the projectionist started, tapping the table as if typing, “the character’s name was Adam Keller. Adam for the biblical Adam and Keller after Helen Keller. It’s clever, but within the bounds of the movie, it was better with the advanced beings referring to him as the human, or Who-man. It just works.” The projectionist pounded the table and pointed towards the ceiling. “Especially when they discover he is a distant ancestor. Isn’t it funny how even in New York City you can feel so isolated, so foreign, as if no one could possibly understand how you feel? It’s one of the movie’s main themes.” Clayton Rickenbacker interrupted himself. “It’s early. If you wouldn’t mind terribly, I would like some tea.”
Ronald blinked. He’d been stunned by the little man’s audacity but regained his senses. “I think you should leave,” he said sternly.
The projectionist straightened. “I think we should discuss the movie.”
“Get out of my apartment!” Ronald barked.
Clayton eyed Ronald sidelong, head to toe and back. He raised his eyebrows. “Of course. You’re tired. Why don’t you lie down and have yourself a nap. Let the film digest. I’ll wait here.”
Ronald exploded. “Get out!” He lunged at Clayton but the little man eluded his grasp and made it safely out the door.
Ronald turned to see the projectionist poke his head inside. “I have to get back to the theater. Get some sleep. We’ll talk later.” Ronald flew down the staircase and locked the door. From the window he watched as the projectionist hastily made his way up the block with short, choppy steps, until he disappeared into a crowd of people.
The episode angered Ronald but did wonders for his slumber. He had many dreams and though he wouldn’t remember them, they were of Elise and filled with tender moments. In his waking mind, he chose to believe he didn’t love her, but his subconscious mind knew the truth—Ronald had been madly in love with Elise. He was simply frightened by the raw power of his emotion. He didn’t have the means to express it and it rattled in his belly liked a caged, wild animal. When Elise left, the chaos departed and he convinced himself it was for the better. But in his sleep, he relived their affair as if time had discontinued its march.
He saw himself the night his mother died. Elise’s hand touched his face and he sobbed like a child into her bosom. This was the last of his dreams, after which, he awoke.
Eeriness enveloped Ronald. He was overtaken by the thought of being the last man alive. As absurd as the idea was, he went to the window. It was nightfall but people were on the street and Ronald was relieved. Then he saw Clayton Rickenbacker, the diminutive projectionist, sitting on the stoop of his walk-up and he wanted to scream.
Ronald left for work poised, deciding to ignore Clayton. After all, he would garner no sympathy attacking such a small person in public. He took a deep breath and exited the apartment.
“Oh, thank God!” Clayton exclaimed. “I’m ready to burst!”
Ronald didn’t acknowledge the man, who was to his right and a tad behind him.
“I hope you slept well,” continued Clayton, undaunted. “I was glad to see you get angry earlier. It’ll make the movie easier to discuss. You’ve helped prove one of its points and I bet you didn’t even realize it!” Clayton pumped his fist into the air. “You’re an evolved man, obviously intelligent and civil. Yet, when all else failed, you tried to grab me, maybe even hurt me. Don’t you see?!” He clapped his hands together. “All humans have a spectrum of traits. They can be loving, caring and benevolent, but still revert to base emotions and other primal instincts. The advanced beings evolved beyond those things, but they would have been better off killing the Who-man. Instead, they saved him, and he infected and ultimately destroyed their entire civilization by breeding his inferior brand of human into them. That’s the paradox! That’s why the movie is so important! It was spine tingling to see the scenario play out in real life! Your friends at the Newfoundland couldn’t believe it!”
Ronald stopped in his tracks. “You went to my job?” he asked through a clenched jaw.
“Well of course,” Clayton said matter-of-factly. “I saw your paycheck stub on the kitchen table. Birds of a feather stick together. I figured you enjoyed the movie so much that your friends at the Newfoundland…”
Ronald corralled Clayton by the collar, hunching so they were nose to nose. “You listen to me projectionist,” he uttered with disdain, “I don’t care about your stupid movie and I’ll call the police if you continue to harass me!” Ronald released Clayton and the projectionist scampered away but Ronald was not altogether happy. He felt guilty for the level of his meanness. And he liked the movie. At least Clayton Rickenbacker was no longer following him, though he wasn’t gone for long.
As Ronald passed the theater, he saw the projectionist’s face in the darkened window above the marquis and hastened his pace. “I’m sorry Ronald,” Clayton called out meekly. “You’re the only one who’s come since opening night. I’m the projectionist. I want people to see the movie.” And with that, Ronald was out of earshot.
He was happy to be at work. There was stability in numbers. An order. The numbers added up or they didn’t. Mathematics, Ronald thought, was the science of sanity.
His night just started when a series of visitors stopped by the office. The first was Sabu, the night clerk. He was expected because he dropped the receipts, but seldom said more than “Hello sir” or “Good evening.” On this night, he questioned Ronald. “Mr. Ronald. You tell me. This Human is good movie?”
Ronald felt his temperature rising. Surely Sabu wasn’t at work when Clayton visited. That meant the rumor mill had been grinding all day. Ronald replied calmly, “It’s okay, Sabu. Who told you I said it was good?”
“Nobody, Mr. Ronald. Sign in lobby says you give it four stars.”
Ronald raced to the lobby and ripped the handmade sign down. In a sweep of the hotel, he found three others—one in the men’s bathroom, another in the elevator and a third taped to the window of the snack machine. In his office, he shredded the signs, hoping that was the last of it.
An hour later, Gustavo, the doorman, rapped at his door. “Sorry to bother you but I spoke to your friend, Clay,” Gustavo began, his hand arched as if he were petting a big dog, a reference to the projectionist’s height, “and he says you can vouch for his movie, uh, The Human. Is it good for the kids?”
Ronald closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “Is he here now?”
“No, he left. He has a lot of work to do at the theater.”
Ronald took a deep breath. “Gustavo, the movie is okay. Good for the kids? Probably not. Who knows?” Ronald faced Gustavo. “Gustavo, this man you met,” he said, mirroring Gustavo’s hand gesture, “is not my friend. I want you to call the cops if he comes back.”
Gustavo nodded. “Sure Ronald. Just figured I’d ask. The regular theaters are so expensive.”
At Gustavo’s departure, Ronald’s head fell into his hands and there was another knock. “Hi Ronald, my name is Melinda.”
Ronald needed no introduction to Melinda Vasquez. She joined the midnight maid staff three months prior and he was secretly smitten with her. He suddenly felt sick.
“I hope you’re not busy” Melinda began sing-song, twisting a lock of long dark hair, “but I talked to Clayton. He’s very nice and spoke highly of you. I love movies, especially independent films. He said I should ask you about The Human.”
Ronald was debilitated by Melinda’s presence. How old was she? Twenty-three, twenty-four? “It’s decent. I’m not much of a movie buff, but I enjoyed it.”
“Clayton says the story is a revelation.”
Ronald stared at the floor. “It’s about an evolved race of humans. Somehow a human from our time ends up in their time and breeds with them. Eventually this destroys…” Ronald stopped himself. “I don’t want to ruin the ending for you.”
Melinda smiled. “It doesn’t matter. I can only go in the afternoon anyway and none of my friends will be around. I just love independent movies and Clayton was so passionate about it.”
“I’ll go with you. I would see it again.” The words shot from Ronald’s mouth like bullets fired from a machine gun. He felt his face turning flush.
“Would you?” Melinda gushed. “That’s so sweet. If you could meet me at three, I’d love to see it. Thank you Ronald. I didn’t want to go alone.”
In a flash Melinda was gone. Ronald replayed their meeting in his mind, beset by different sensations. At times, his hands shook involuntarily and at other times, he was overcome with contentment, then plagued with worry. By morning, he was exhausted and too excited to sleep.
Near his apartment, a glint of gold reflected by the morning sun caught Ronald’s eye. He picked a tiny projector pin off of the sidewalk. Of course, he must have inadvertently dislodged it from Clayton’s breast when he grabbed him. Ronald’s father presented him with a gold pen when he graduated college, and he wondered if the pin had some similar importance to Clayton. He considered rushing to the theater but decided to wait until three. Clayton wouldn’t be expecting him. Oh, how happy he’ll be! Ronald was suddenly fond of Clayton, felt lucky to meet him. An image of marrying Melinda entered his mind and he pictured Clayton standing beside him, his best man. Oh, what a story that would be! A smile draped itself over Ronald’s face and remained there as he collapsed in his bed, asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Ronald had many dreams and the ghosts of Elise were replaced by visions of a glorious future with Melinda Vasquez. At last, he saw the face of Clayton Rickenbacker in the darkened window of the theater, and he awoke. It was 3:15!
Ronald sprang from his bed and ran towards the theater, projector pin in his hand. Rain was falling, the early wave of commuters headed home. Melinda would wait, he assured himself, as he darted in and out of the sea of umbrellas.
After an eternity, Ronald reached the theater. With eyes only for Melinda, he was oblivious to the old man in the yellow rain slicker standing atop the step stool in the landing of the entrance and nearly toppled him.
“Whoa Sonny!” bellowed the old man from the day before. The Human was no longer on the marquis. “Oh, it’s you again” the old man commented. “Look,” he said, holding a pile of block lettering, “little guy forgot his title.”
Ronald was frozen.
“Come back tomorrow,” the old man said. “Got a good one comin’—The Battleship. Won a contest in Seattle.”
Ronald’s wits returned. “Where’s Clayton?”
The old man shook his head sadly. “Clayton’s gone. Little fella had some trouble this morning with the police over at the Newfoundland and decided to pack it in. Thinks his movie might do better in Chicago. You just missed him.”
Ronald latched on to the old man’s pantlegs. “Which way?”
The old man looked to and fro. “Not sure. Had a new friend with him. Pretty young thing. Useful too. Helped him carry out the equipment. What was her name? Melissa… er, Linda…”
“Melinda!” Ronald blurted out.
“That’s it,” the old man started, his eyes widening. “Oh, you must be Ronald! If I were you I’d stay away from that little lady.”
Ronald was running full-speed before the old man finished his sentence. He ran four blocks north, three blocks west, four blocks south, and three blocks east. He checked the subway station and scanned the windows of passing buses. Along the way, he asked numerous umbrella-toting pedestrians if they’d seen a little tuxedoed man and good-looking brunette, both possibly carrying projection equipment. Most didn’t answer. Others responded with a terse “no,” never breaking stride.
Ronald took refuge from the pouring rain in the doorway of a boarded up building. He was drenched. The theater was across the street and he looked with disbelief at the empty marquis. For a time, he allowed himself to pretend things had gone differently. He saw himself touting The Human and great crowds flocking to see it. It would become a smash hit and his best friend, Clayton Rickenbacker, would win the Oscar for screenwriting. Years later, he and his wife, Melinda, would lovingly reminisce about the day they saw The Human together. “If only,” Ronald lamented, “if only they knew my heart.”
A chill passed through Ronald and his body tensed. The point of the projector pin pierced deep into the palm of his clenched fist. Hordes of people were now on the street, their umbrellas low in defense of the teeming rain, their faces hidden. As they rushed by him, Ronald saw them as headless bodies, differentiated only by the color of their umbrellas. He wanted to scream, but his mouth never opened. Instead, We are not what God intended! echoed in his head and lasted for the time it takes a raindrop to fall from the clouds, land in the street, join the running waters and disappear through the storm drain into the sewer below.