[Sometimes I write a story in one hour based on an intriguing image. I call them Postcard Stories.]
You should never live long enough to see them making a movie of your life, Samuel decided.
Not only would they hire some snotty twenty-something to play you (Samuel’s doppleganger was primping in his trailer), but they’d reproduce all the times and places of your life so well that you’d find it hard to believe they weren’t faked in the first place.
You should never live long enough to see your life simulated, performed, played.
They’d gotten it right — too right, down to the narrow ruts of carriage wheels and the broken fence slats. The tree out front of his childhood home, denuded of its leaves appropriately for the winter scene, still had the knot-face gazing up the road; it looked ready for another try at a treehouse. Moldy columns held up the porch where his grandmother used to sit out and peel potatoes while watching folks walk by. His best friend Walter’s house stood further up the road to town, the shutters open on the newly-attached kitchen. Houses of the townies stretched away in the distance.
They got it all, Samuel wasn’t sure how. Standing there on Georgia mud trucked in for realism, arms folded, squinting at the plywood structures in the distance, he felt the same way he had when he’d lived in the real place: Mallow’s Corners was a hellhole, and there was something as twisted as the trees making it feel that way, something with far deeper roots.
Samuel wondered if they’d trucked that in, too, or if he was just imagining it.
A cart with a large camera gimboled on an armature was rolling back and forth down a pair of rails, testing the light for the best shot. They were going to pan all the way down from his house to Walter’s and then to the town square. That’s when stationary cameras would take over, ready to film his declaration to leave this crummy little town and become President of the United States. Which is exactly what he’d done, though it took him thirty years.
The kid who was him had practiced the lines for Samuel, asking him to help with the accent and inflections. Samuel wasn’t sure he even remembered what he’d said, much less how he’d said it. According to Wardrobe, he’d been wearing a pair of gray woolen trousers, an ordinary shirt, suspenders, and a cap; Samuel didn’t know about that, either. It was what the actor would wear when reliving a moment that Samuel would just as soon forget.
Jesus, he thought. With film, we can haunt ourselves forever.
Someone blew a whistle and clapped a slate board, and the production people retreated from the camera’s vision. Samuel, wanting to be alone, leaned against the corner of the fake St. Luke’s Church and watched as his self, his younger and better-looking self, shook his fist at the sky and proclaimed his grand destiny.
Maybe the words were right, but the motion sure wasn’t. Samuel didn’t remember much of it, but he recalled it had been quieter, almost deadpan. They weren’t inspirational words or ambitious words but factual ones, like a man simply stating what he’d have for dinner. Samuel, as fate would ensure, would be having the United States.
They couldn’t get that right, of course. It wasn’t dramatic enough, for one thing. For another, there was no reason to undermine the grand myth of his calling from God.
Samuel, arms folded, glanced over at the house that was supposed to be his. He glanced back at the scene, already on its third take because the boy wasn’t doing something right — standing on the right marks or emoting right for the camera, maybe. He wondered about that house, how well they’d reproduced it, whether all the rooms were there.
And so, with no one watching, he walked casually down the fake street of his largely fake childhood. He tried the door to his house and, finding it open, went inside.
They had gotten it right, or most of it, anyway. There was the narrow stair, the swinging door to the kitchen, the threadbare rugs of what would have been a parlor if his parents had money. There was the old radio, the Philco from which all those episodes of Dragnet played. There was Pappy’s chair, complete with the cigar burns.
Samuel took the banister in his hand and gave it a good shake. It felt solid, real enough to use. He ascended, then, to the bedrooms on the second floor.
They’d gotten that, too: the oval framed portraits in the beige hallway, the clawfoot tub in the bathroom with the chip under the faucet, the dark and heavy curtains in his parents’ bedroom. His room, his All-American bedroom with the twin bed and the generic sports pennant (“GO TEAM!”) handing above it, was perfect, too.
He wondered if there wasn’t perhaps another kind of memory, a cumulative kind that took over subconsciously when you tried your hardest to remember everything. That was the memory that was more than the sum of your neurons. It was the extra spark of life that the universe supplied once you’d done your part.
Could the attic — no. It couldn’t.
Samuel stood beneath the hatch to the attic at the end of the hallway. The string hung down with the wooden ball at the end, and he had to try it. The ladder swung down with the same creak, the same electric feeling up his arm as it always had.
They’d be wondering now where he was. They’d be checking the catering wagon and the bathrooms, and some junior executive would be worrying that his career would end with losing a former President of the United States on the backlot of the studio.
If he was going, he’d have to go now.
He climbed the ladder, smaller than he remembered from his childhood. He swept his hand in the darkness and found the string to the light just where it always was, and when he pulled, it lit as it always did with a dim orange glow like a sunset.
They had Grammy’s hat boxes and the Christmas tinsel and the old trunks from Belgium. They had the dressmaker’s dummy and the bundle of old newspapers, too.
And the cot. Somehow, they’d known about the cot and put it there, too.
Samuel had never told anyone about the cot. He’d never mentioned that beneath the dormer window, there’d been a narrow metal bed with a worn mattress. He reached for it now and pressed his fingers into the canvas. The springs creaked as they always had when the boarder had slept there.
He’d never mentioned the boarder, either. No one in his family ever had, not then and not now. Samuel had always figured his parents had been embarrassed at the necessity of renting out a room to such a man, filthy and poor as he was. In the years since, he’d wondered if the man had even been a relative recovering from hard times.
Whoever he was, he stayed in the attic as far as Samuel knew. He never came down for dinner or came home from a walk, and the best Samuel could tell, he just lay grunting in the dark, sometimes laughing.
Samuel ran his hand along the stripes of the mattress, feeling for the impressions of the man’s bony body. There were none, and there weren’t any of his stains, either.
How could they even have known this much, the set decorators? Samuel imagined them wondering what to put in that dormer window, and he imagined one of them having the sudden inspiration to put a cot there…a subconscious suggestion that had to be obeyed.
Just as when he’d climbed up to the attic to talk to the man.
He’d been curious, not just about the man himself but about the logistics of living in an attic like that. Did the man go to the bathroom? What did he eat? Why was he there? And so he climbed that ladder to get his answers.
All he’d gotten…well. He remembered a flare of the lightbulb. He remembered the man rising from his cot and spreading his arms to unfurl rat-eaten rags. He remembered the man coming for him, his feet not touching the ground. He remembered the oily flutter of cloth around him, the stench of rot, the taste of blood and sweat running down the back of his throat. He remembered a whisper, a whisper, but he’d never been able to articulate the words.
But that was all. When he awoke up there, the man was gone. All he’d left behind was a startled boy who felt a strange new power in his limbs and a chill in his brain, a hunger for something he couldn’t quite place. For people? Maybe. For strength? That wasn’t entirely it.
For prey. For power. For an unearthly command.
Samuel didn’t know those words then; he’d stood from the dusty planks of the attic floor sure only that he wanted to do something grand for the world, to save it.
It was only a day later when he’d told Walter what little he’d known, and that was the scene those movie men were making just down the fake road in the fake town while Samuel stood in the real place of epiphany, a place the cameras would never fit.
He dropped to his knees, as close to the spot where he’d fallen as he could recall. He felt his fingers along the wood, sniffed between the boards, and cried for the boy who would never possess him again.