Whether a precocious elementary-schooler or a senior waiting to leave for college, all of us kids in Plainfield found ourselves counting down the days until Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema rolled back into town. There were no advertisements for it posted anywhere — especially not the public notice boards at the library or the town hall. Nor were particular return dates announced after the last screening. Nor did the mobile cinema have a set schedule by which to calibrate our internal clocks. We would always learn of its return from a rumor. Somebody would mention hearing of a showing two towns over, meaning our turn would come tomorrow night; or else someone would have heard on good authority from a friend of a friend that Plainfield would be the next town on the circuit, making next weekend the one we’d all been waiting for. And sure enough, one of those rumors would be true. We’d gather in the fields at the edge of town, and there would be Mr. Mescalune himself, dressed in his tattered top hat and patchwork tuxedo, standing outside the modified trailer that contained the rarest movie house in the world.
We would enter through the back of the trailer — if we were one of the lucky few to be admitted. Inside, the trailer contained a few rows of metal folding chairs welded to the floor, with a narrow aisle stretching down the middle. The chairs faced a stark white wall, onto which a projector dangling from the ceiling would beam whatever film Mr. Mescalune had to show us.
They were always worth seeing. Every one. Because you could see nothing like them anywhere else. Maybe we were biased, since Plainfield didn’t have a movie theater of its own. Or a roller rink. Or an arcade. Or anywhere else for kids to go for entertainment. Our parents weren’t big on such things. All the same, long after some of us had left Plainfield for greener pastures and had seen the kinds of movies everybody else had enjoyed, we had to admit that nothing was ever as exciting as the films of Mr. Mescalune.
We never knew exactly what to expect going in for a screening. Sometimes his films were no more than ten minutes long; others ran for over three hours. We could never recognize the actors and actresses onscreen — partially because we never had the chance to learn about and grow enamored of movie stars through magazines and gossip rags, since anything not a textbook would be confiscated at school. Mostly, though, it was because Mr. Mescalune’s films used no professional actors. Maybe he picked them for their looks, or for the sounds of their voices; maybe his casting selections had no logic whatsoever. It didn’t matter. The actors always showed real emotion in his films, no matter how large or small the role. You could tell they were giving it everything they had. You’d be forgiven for thinking they weren’t faking.
You could be sure of only one thing when you sat down to watch one of Mr. Mescalune’s films: somebody was going to die.
Their death wouldn’t always be gory. Sure, there were the bloody ones: the machete to the skull; the thousand strategic cuts of the razor; the gunshot at close range. Sometimes they went cleanly — garroted by a masked figure, for instance, or left twitching in a chair after drinking a glass of something toxic. Whatever the method, no matter how creative, the filmed death would be more realistic than you could imagine. And so too would be the performance leading up to it — the tears, the pleas, the screams.
That, we thought, was the chief virtue of Mr. Mescalune’s films. How real they were. How true they were. Having endured the blandness and falsehood of the whitewashed novels and television shows our parents forced on us, it felt as if we were seeing the world as it was meant to be seen for the first time in our lives. It was like being born, or reborn. We were all grateful to Mr. Mescalune for it. We greeted the end of each film with a standing ovation, and Mr. Mescalune, ever modest, would doff his grungy hat and give us a low bow.
We never told our parents about Mr. Mescalune. Not only because it would entail revealing that we had sneaked out of our rooms at night, and violated our curfews. We predicted that they’d claim he was the Devil, like they had with our trading card games and fantasy anthologies, and prohibit us from ever visiting him again.
He never charged us money for admission to his screenings. All he asked is that we enter his lottery. To each kid he admitted into the trailer, he provided a paper raffle ticket with a handwritten number on it. Once the film ended and our applause subsided, he’d reach into his hat and fish around inside until his gloved hand emerged holding a slip of paper. He’d read the number in his quiet, soothing voice, and check whether any of our tickets matched it. If none did, he would simply smile, shake hands with anybody who stayed behind to thank him for the show, and let us out into the moonlit fields, where the lingering crowd of the curious unadmitted anxiously questioned us about what we had seen.
For several years, we did not know what would happen if one held a matching ticket.
Then there came the night when Chris P— won the drawing.
Mr. Mescalune reached into his hat like usual, and we scarcely paid attention, accustomed as we were to the slim odds of having the right number. When he announced the winner, half of us didn’t even bother to glance at our tickets. Calm as ever, Mr. Mescalune repeated the number. That was when Chris, sitting in the front row, raised his hand. It was as if lightning had struck us, and melded us to our seats. This was something even more unprecedented than the films we came to see! We started clapping, and Chris stood and nodded to us politely as Mr. Mescalune came over to congratulate him. All of us were eager to learn what Chris’s prize would be, but Mr. Mescalune sent us on our way, keeping only Chris behind. Some of us waited outside the trailer for a long time afterward, but nobody emerged. Given the late hour, we had to head home, lest our families awaken and discover we weren’t where we should have been.
Chris’s absence from school the following day surprised nobody. Who wouldn’t take the day off after staying out so late? When he didn’t appear the day after, we were perplexed. Once an entire week elapsed, we were downright curious. Even so, we didn’t dare tell an adult. What would become of the mobile cinema once they learned of it? For that matter, what would become of us?
We didn’t glimpse Chris again until the next time Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema parked in the outskirts of town. Those of us who gained entry waited eagerly for the projector to warm up and give us what we needed to see. And when it finally flickered to life, dust motes swirling and sparkling in its beam, we beheld none other than Chris P— on the screen before us, sitting shirtless against a concrete wall. We erupted into thunderous applause. Our friend looked more alive on film than he ever had on the streets of Plainfield.
He looked up at the camera and stared forward, as if he were looking into each of our eyes. He knew who we were, after all — he knew we’d be there, watching, enjoying. We could feel that he dedicated this performance to us. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, tentatively, as though he had a monologue to recite, but couldn’t remember any of his lines. After a few attempts, he clenched his jaw, and fixed his gaze someplace beyond the camera. It was like he looked through us at that point. Like we were transparent. Or like we were ghosts. Like something that didn’t exist anymore, because we weren’t real enough to be worth acknowledging.
A shadow fell over the frame from the foreground, climbing up Chris’s face. At first, he stayed expressionless — resigned or stoic or simply refusing to emote. Then a low rumbling burbled over the speakers. Soon it gave way to a loud, unmistakable whir — the sound of a readied chainsaw. The tears began to stream from Chris’s eyes, as if they had a life independent of him. In another minute, the rest of him had caught up, and his body began to shake as he broke into convulsive sobs.
A figure wearing all black, with face obscured beneath a black ski mask, entered the frame. A chainsaw rattled in the figure’s gloved hands. Chris regarded the newcomer, and murmured something inaudible beneath the chainsaw’s whine. The words weren’t important, anyway. He could have narrated a shopping list, and it would have seemed imbued with purpose and meaning and vitality. He had us riveted.
The figure raised the chainsaw over Chris’s head. Our friend closed his eyes, trembling. The blade lowered toward his neck. The figure feinted once, twice. Then, in one powerful downward swing, the chainsaw bit into Chris’s spine. He yelped, but the sound was cut short as the blade did its work. His head flopped forward, then fell to the ground. The figure nudged it out of view, then left the screen.
For a minute and a half, the camera lingered on the headless body. The pool of blood widening beneath it was the sole sign of movement. Then the camera cut to black.
We could feel the realization percolating through us. What we beheld was no ordinary film. A scene that realistic could not have been faked. And gradually it dawned on us that Chris’s screen debut was not the exception, but the rule. Every film we had viewed at Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema documented the final moments of someone’s life. And we understood the price we paid for coming to see it.
We spent a few seconds figuring out how to react. We’d be lying if we said we hadn’t been moved. Somebody began a hesitant clap, and shortly thereafter, everybody else joined. The applause fed on itself, and grew. Some whistled. Others cheered. We were all on our feet within a minute.
And Mr. Mescalune stood beside the movie screen, and bowed, and held out his hat for the lottery drawing.
None of us were picked that night. We all went out into the fields, into the crowd, and relayed what we had learned. We let the news settle over us like fog. We didn’t talk about it, because there was nothing to say. Each of us mulled it over in our own personal silence. When we dispersed, all the stars in the sky glowed more brightly as we walked home.
Not one of us has drawn the winning number since Chris P— all those years ago.
But the night may yet come.
Because, even though we know the great secret of Mescalune’s Mobile Cinema, we have never missed a screening.
And the crowd that gathers at the edge of town for a chance to see one of Mr. Mescalune’s films is larger every time he visits.
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