Wednesday
May162018

If God: A Hundred Different Movies

Lance Olsen


 

How the silvery afternoon light makes the tiny people in the park below sparkle.

Those children-glitters convoluting through hedges. 

Those—what are they?—men? women? lovers? pals?—scintillating on that bitsy bench. 

Sprites, he thinks to himself, taking another sip of cappuccino.

Sprites, Billie Wilder thinks to himself, taking another sip of cappuccino one hundred and fifty meters above the capital.

 

The flight from Hamburg will have lasted just over ninety minutes—the length, it strikes him, of a perfectly structured movie. 

Billie didn't sense the launch. He doesn't sense the gradual descent. He won't sense the landing. The yellow pencil next to the black leather notebook before him on the table is one hundred percent immobile. 

This is what travel on an airship feels like.

It feels like a decade from now. 

Like all you have to do if you don't want one second of your life to be that second is pay enough. 

 

His notebook carries a calculus of scribbles for an article he is writing, a piece for a local tabloid about the more than twenty-five women who have gone missing on and around Kurfürstenstraße over the last three years.

All of them destitute. 

Most of them hookers. 

Some of the women men.

 

Billie sees the work he is doing as part of a larger unfolding. 

That's why he didn't attend the University of Vienna, despite his parents' urging. His studies would have taught him nothing about how to become Billie Wilder. He moved to Berlin instead and found a job as a stringer for several papers and as a taxi dancer, the guy hired to Foxtrot and Lindy Hop with customers at ballrooms around town. 

Billie's decisions have never been shortsighted.

Billie has always taken the long view. 

 

The tiny park among the tenements beneath him has given way to the brewery has given way to the bridge, which bridge, he doesn't know, and up here the silvery afternoon light is different. You can already smell a green dampness in it, the approaching rain. It crosses Billie's mind he will turn twenty-one in twelve days. 

He takes another sip of cappuccino, luxuriating in the swallow, and deliberates on whether or not he should have ordered a slice of Sachertorte with whipped cream to accompany it.

 

This stage of his life is all about keeping pace with his plans. People who don't care about the later stages of their lives will at some point in their twenties begin to sense themselves losing velocity, settling for less, landing in a field of comfortable mammalian dormancy. 

Billie sees it taking place all around him. 

He can't evoke a more terrifying sensation than augmenting inertia disguised as maturity and contentment. 

Next thing your children are scrabbling all over you as you try to read the newspaper, from time to time in their narcissistic restlessness indifferently snotting on the back of your hand and trampling your balls.

 

Max and Eugenia, bighearted people, his father, his mother: Billie tries to forget them a little more every day. 

They own the cake shop in Sucha's train station surrounded by the rolling hills of northern Austria.They wanted Billie to work with them, take over the family business with his brother, forge a sense of familial continuity, financial security. 

You'll be happy, they said. 

They said: The shop will always take care of you. 

 

Billie cancelled his train ticket and treated himself to this voyage—his first on an airship—to remind himself where he is going and what getting there will feel like. For his twenty-first birthday he will treat himself to Emilie, his favorite transvestite. He reserves Emilie for special occasions: the day he could stop work as a stringer and begin work as a regular for the tabloid, the small but significant raise a few weeks later, each step he has taken away from that cake shop in that ho-hum train station.

 

Inspecting the two men at the table across from his—the aging panda with flabby hands and goldfish eyes unblinking behind gold wire spectacles (he's the one doing most of the talking) and the overly attentive young lemur with woman's hands and nervous eyes rapidly blinking behind heavy tortoiseshell spectacles (he's the one doing most of the listening)—tuning in and out of their conversation, Billie decides it was a good idea not to order the Sachertorte. 

He needs to watch his cash with the little things so someday he can afford the big things.

He needs to follow the blueprint.

The five-year program.

The ten.

 

If you don't want to inherit the shop, his parents argued, at least get an education. Learn an honorable profession. Become a businessman. A lawyer. You'll never want. Everybody will respect you.

Billie chose Berlin because he heard you can become anything you want there around the clock.

If Berlin were a part of speech, he heard, it would be a transitive verb. 

He chose taxi dancer and stringer, confident in five years he will have become something else.

In five years he will have become a screenwriter and director.

Because, as his father always said, if the rich could hire the poor to die for them, the poor would make a very nice living.

 

Awash in clinking silverware, chinkling stemware, animated prattle, shifting chairs, random coughs, and, all at once, a butterfly (Billie catches sight of its iridescent blue wings flattened against the drapes above panda and lemur), his thoughts bend toward how there is something unimaginable about them, the transvestites, about their glamorous bothness and neitherness, their soft faces always just shaved for you, powdered with soap-scented makeup, how their long-fake-nailed fingers around you are at the same time muscular and delicate, this and perpetually not-this. 

 

Without blueprints it is like trying to run on the floor of a lake in lead boots. Nothing happens as you and everything else use you up. 

Without blueprints you wake up one day dating a nice Jewish girl. Next thing you know you've married her. And then you're rocking someone's baby in your lap. It turns out to be yours. You're rocking two of them. You blink and it's three, and your forward momentum is spent. 

You feel yourself falling asleep and you know you will remain that way for the next twenty-five years.

A quarter century.

Half your life.

When you wake up again, you'll be dead.

 

When you wake up again, you'll think: If I were twice as smart I'd be an idiot. Your children are grown, gone, don't particularly like you, never have. That's the great lesson. It's what children do until they themselves have children and fall asleep for twenty-five years and wake up dead, regretting their disinterest even as they come to understand their own children are already grown, gone, don't—

 

But Emilie's hair is long and ash blond and she smells like cigarette smoke and alcohol and extravagant violet perfume.

Billie can't get enough of the thrilling confusion every time he raises her dark green mesh flapper dress with the black beaded deco design and jagged hem and lampshade fringe and asks her to keep on her stockings and dark green high heels.

That dissonant shock is like watching the first few seconds of a hundred different movies back to back to back.

 

He was born Samuel but his mother nicknamed him Billie. He doesn't know why. Billie is convinced one day he will travel to the United States. He will drop the ie at the end of his name and add an American and compose a screenplay about the magnificent confusion he revels in with Emilie. 

It will be a romantic comedy called Some Like It Hot

Perhaps it will be set in Chicago. Perhaps it will be peopled with gangsters. 

Everybody likes Americans.

Everybody likes gangsters. 

Billie has promised himself he won't start until he has learned his craft. Right now he is trying to figure out how people really talk—no, not how they really talk, but how they really should talk when they begin talking in feature-length movies, which will be any day now, everyone knows it. 

More than anything Billie wants to engineer impeccably clipped lines like: I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.

Nobody sounds like that in real life—but they should, if real life were as interesting as it should be.

 

If God had lived on earth, Billie's father used to adage at dinner after balancing his books at the end of the month, people would break His windows.

 

The morning Billie left home his mother hugged him so hard something in his upper back made a cracking sound. His father slipped him some cash in a sealed envelope, shook his hand,and whispered: Don't forget, son—no matter what, you have to believe in yourself, despite the evidence.

 

A week later Billie was trolling Kurfürstenstraße for a hooker. Everyone said the ones there were cheap, friendly, clean, and ingenious. Billie had been walking half an hour in dim light across the street from a neo-renaissance villa people in the neighborhood pretended was the private home of a banker but knew was in fact used as a secret gambling club frequented by aristocrats, intellectuals, and rich lawyers. 

His plan was to sweep together enough courage to approach one of the teens that were actually teens rather than one of the thirty-year-olds pretending to be teens. 

Then the thing was Emilie's ash blond hair reaching all the way to her collarbone and her long black fake fingernails and her black lipstick and black eyeliner and white makeup and dark green flapper dress and matching high heels.

Emilie met Billie's eyes as he passed. 

She wet her lips with her tongue.

Next thing it was an hour later.

 

In reality it will take Billie another twenty years and more than fifty screenplays before he is ready to begin Some Like It Hot

He will be fifty-three when the film premiers.

Right now, though, is for figuring out what he believes about moviemaking. 

For starters, he believes if after one of his pictures people sit down and talk about it for five minutes before they reenter their lives he will have succeeded. 

He believes Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene are jerks for overdoing it with the fancy shots that distract the audience from the plot and characters.

Shoot a couple scenes out of focus and win a foreign film award.

Big fucking deal, believes Billie Wilder.

 

Standing in dim light across the street from the villa, Billie explained to Emilie he had no idea what he was doing.

Don't worry, honey, Emilie said. Just leave everything to me.

They agreed on a price and Emilie took Billie's hand and led him back to her room in a tenement two blocks away: a fifth-story jail cell, unpainted, saturated with the odor of chlorine and clammy mushrooms. On the floor in one corner lay a thin narrow mattress, next to it a tin washbowl, water pitcher, and blotchy washcloth the color of people's teeth who smoke too much. 

There was no electricity, only an oil lamp on the floor that made the room shiver.

Two of the windows were nailed up with boards.

For a while they sat on the bed and kissed. 

Emilie reached down and started massaging Billie through his trousers. She unbuttoned him, eased him out, and took him into her warm moist mouth. 

Billie remained convinced she was the most desirable woman he had ever met until he whispered for her to keep on her stockings and high heels and raised her green mesh flapper to her waist. 

That's when he began watching the first few seconds of a hundred different movies back to back to back. He saw an older version of himself boarding a train for Paris, a ship for New York, a plane for Hollywood. He saw his first wife and their little daughter accompanying him. He saw his second wife before she was his second wife stepping onto the film set and the set reshaping itself around her. He saw the same hands that helped his mother knead dough in Sucha, touched his daughter's soft cheek with amazement every morning, and brought his last trembling glass of water to his own ninety-five-year-old lips, reach out one evening in April, 1961, to accept a gold-plated statuette for best picture on a brilliant stage teeming with applause, listening to the disorders wonder makes inside your head, thinking: It's true—the more flesh you have, the more the worms will have to eat.