Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 3, 2009

Part One

Urb-4Klaatu Barada Nikto! was originally published in the August, 2008, issue of Urbanite magazine, which featured short fiction intended, I suppose, as beach reading material. With a similar purpose in mind, I’m posting it on the blog this first week of August, 2009, but in three installments. Each part runs just a bit over 1,000 words, so it’s an easy read. Part 2 will post this Wednesday and part three posts on Friday.

I watched as dried sweat made white lines on the colored men’s skin, which was not just brown but had purple and blue in it, even some green, especially in the shadow parts. Their muscles bulged from the stuff they moved: lumber, vegetables, crates of oysters. New sweat washed away old and changed the line patterns on their chests and backs like a crazy Picasso couldn’t make up his mind. The men did a song I couldn’t make out, but the tune kept perfect time with how they moved on the gangplank. When they went from the bright sunlight into the shadows they got to be invisible, but their song kept on, lower, and mixed in with the clang noises from the shipyard, the bells and horns and whistles off the ships. Wave sounds came up from the pier pilings and brought the oily water smell to my nose, a sharp chemical odor, soft at the edges. A white bay steamer waited for sunset to sail. Rows of skipjacks with furled sails the color of old ivory, cleaned of oysters, fish, crabs, corn, and melons from across Chesapeake Bay, rocked in the tide.

Later, at Wilson’s Light Street newsstand, under the restaurant awning next to Cross Street Market, I asked him about shadows in movies. Big mistake. I expected he’d preach about movies that had important messages for U.S. citizens, but instead he went off on his own subject.

“Indulge me on this, Andy,” he said. “Popcorn has two flavors. Ever notice that? On top popcorn tastes one way, but on the bottom of the bag it’s different.”

I knew that, but it never came in my brain to mention it. I decided to play him some. “Why is that, I wonder?”

“Gravity,” he said. “Because it’s heavier, butter sinks to the bottom.” Wilson smiled. “Go ’head, tell me I’m wrong.”

I just nodded. Sometimes Wilson tried to shame me with his words, the strangest talk of any person I knew, white or colored. Right then a girl strutted up the sidewalk across the street. Wilson saw her and hollered, “Hey, Shirley!”

She stopped, looked over. “Yeah, Fool, what you want?”

“How you doin’, babe?”

“I’m all right.”

“Good! Good!” Wilson gave her his one-hundred-watt smile. “Doin’ all kinds of shit myself just to avoid other shit.” He paused dramatic, then, “Where you goin’ at?”

“Store.” Then Shirley got prissy fast, hands on her hips. “Why?”

“You got a dollar?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“On your way back, Sweetness, bring me a pair of socks.”

Shirley looked at Wilson like he was crazy — slowly shook her head — smiled and went on. Wilson started to sing, mostly to himself:

Blow it, preach it, Say a taste tonight.

Make it talk tonight.

Blow that shit, man — Work it on out.

Then he turned my way. “Don’t mind me, Andy — I lost what little sense I had three girlfriends ago.” He pointed at Shirley, halfway down the block. “Pay attention,” he said. “See what I did there?”

Was that supposed to be funny?”

“Gals like it when you tweak ’em.” Wilson put his arm around my neck like he was my buddy. “The other thing you should know is this: The Beacon has the best popcorn of any theater in Baltimore.” Wilson laughed big again. “Look and learn kid,” he said. “Look and learn.”

Wilson was this colored kind of guy who looked like Satchmo but not fat. I figured he was 13 or 14. Maybe 16. Hard to say with colored people because they looked younger than they really were. And for a long time I couldn’t tell them apart, either, but later I figured that was dumb. Colored people are as different as you and me. If you can’t see that you don’t have eyes. But all that off to one side, Wilson drove me nuts with his wise-ass ways — expert on everything, crazy stuff. Like he claimed white people couldn’t dance, said they just “vacillate” to the music. Is that even a real word? When I called him on it, Wilson backed off and said he’d agree that white people were born with the same rhythm as colored people, but they were scared of it. Scared of it? Right there I did him like he did me and just changed subjects.

“Well,” I said, “Bob Hope is great on the radio.”

“Hope does the same material every week,” Wilson said, “only the names change.”

“Jack Benny’s good.”

“Who’s he think he’s kidding with all those stupid hair jokes?”

“Burns and Allen?”

“They still on?”

“You like anything, Wilson?”

“Only radio joker with half a brain is Fred Allen,” he said. “Allen’s smart and funny.”

“I don’t get that guy.”

Wilson smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t, Andy.”

Now what did he mean by that tone of voice — some kind of disrespect? I just let it go. Anyways, my secret job was to learn all I could about the newspaper business. I watched how Wilson kidded people and made change and such. He didn’t seem to mind that I hung around, but he didn’t volunteer information, either. The wind shifted and rain started. We moved his stacks of papers to the other end of the awning to keep dry. He took a News Post and opened it to the movie listings. After five minutes of no talk Wilson finally said, “Andy, you seen Panic in the Streets with Richard Widmark and Jack Palance?”

“Yeah,” I said, and right there I thought I had him. “Palance plays the bad guy, see — name of Blackie. This doctor chases him ’cause —

” Wilson looked surprised. “A doctor chased him?”

“Thought you seen it.” “Didn’t say I saw the damn thing, wanted to know if you did.”

“Yep, caught it at the Echo on Fort Avenue. See, Widmark plays this health doctor and he’s gotta find Palance ’cause Palance has the plague and . . .”

“Shut up!” Wilson hollered. “Shut yo’ fat white mouth!” He laughed. “Don’t ruin it for me, Andy — Christ!”

“I didn’t tell the plague details. That’s the real story.”

Wilson just put his finger on his lips.

“You gotta see Palance,” I said. “Face like Frankenstein. There oughta be a law against that much ugly in public.”

Wilson sort of smiled. “Sounds good” was all he said.

I had won! For once I shut Wilson down cold.

Part 2 of Klaatu Barada Nikto! will post this Wednesday.


Blind John at the Movies

November 10, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

poster3

The 20th Century Fox remake of the classic 1951 science fiction movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, opens December 12, 2008. When I was growing up in the early 1950s, the original film was a must-see for boys my age (12 at the time)—and now, nearly 60 years later, I expect the new version will have the same power for kids of this generation. My love for the movie inspired a scene in an unpublished novel. In my tale the protagonist and first-person narrator, on the recommendation of a fellow newsboy, takes a blind schoolmate to “see” the movie. Here is an edited version of that scene:

Wilson said I had to see it, so when Blind John asked me to go, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was a bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also,” he said, “Billy Gray is your twin brother, right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the movie a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and—” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and the alien’s robot, Gort, disintegrates their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later—Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and she believes it. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice—she lets him seduce her with it.”

“Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy—a widow—she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu—Mr. Carpenter—he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. And then, all of a sudden, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face, popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Why’d you do that?”

“I ain’t deaf! I know from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the space ship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says never mind and dies. Later Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. The movie had real good shadows but didn’t make sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But at the end Blind John was on the edge of his seat and had a tight grip on my arm, one fist at his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.”

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

As a huge fan of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, I can only hope that the remake at least comes close to measuring up thrill-wise, but realistically I know that Hollywood doesn’t have much of a positive record in that department (think Psycho, etc.). We shall see. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.