The Ciné

Barry Gifford

On a cloudy October Saturday in 1953, when Roy was seven years old, his father took him to see a movie at the Ciné theater on Bukivona Avenue in Chicago, where they lived. Roy's father drove them in his powder-blue Cadillac, bumping over cobblestones and streetcar tracks, until he parked the car half a block from the theater.

Roy was wearing a brown-and-white-checked wool sweater, khaki trousers, and saddle shoes. His father wore a double-breasted blue suit with a white silk tie. They held hands as they walked towards the Ciné. The air was becoming colder every day now, Roy noticed, and he was eager to get inside the theater, to be away from the wind. The Ciné sign had a red background over which the letters curved vertically in yellow neon. They snaked into one another like reticulate pythons threaded through branches of a thick-trunked Cambodian bo tree. The marquee advertised the movie they were going to see, King of the Khyber Rifles, starring Tyrone Power as King, a half-caste British officer commanding Indian cavalry riding against Afghan and other insurgents. "Tyrone Cupcake," Roy's father called him, but Roy did not know why.

Roy and his father entered the Ciné lobby and headed for the concession stand, where Roy's father bought Roy buttered popcorn, a Holloway All-Day sucker, and a Dad's root beer. Inside the cinema, they chose seats fairly close to the screen on the right-hand side. The audience was composed mostly of kids, many of whom ran up and down the aisles even during the show, shouting and laughing, falling and spilling popcorn and drinks.

The movie began soon after Roy and his father were in their seats, and as Tyrone Power was reviewing his mounted troops, Roy's father whispered to his son, "The Afghans were making money off the opium trade even back then."

"What's opium, Dad," asked Roy.

"Hop made from poppies. The Afghans grow and sell them to dope dealers in other countries. Opium makes people very sick."

"Do people eat it?"

"They can, but mostly they smoke it and dream."

"Do they have bad dreams?"

"Probably bad and good. Users get ga-ga on the pipe. Once somebody's hooked on O, he's finished as a man."

"What about women? Do they smoke it, too?"

"Sure, son. Only Orientals, though, that I know of. Sailors in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Zamboanga, get on the stem and never make it back to civilization."

"Where's Zamboanga?"

"On Mindanao, in the Phillipine Islands."

"Is that a long way from India and Afghanistan?"

"Every place out there is a long way from everywhere else."

"Can't the Khyber Rifles stop the Afghans?"

"Tyrone Cupcake'll kick 'em in the pants if they don't."

Roy and his father watched Tyrone Power wrangle his minions for about twenty minutes before Roy's father whispered in Roy's ear again.

"Son, I've got to take care of something. I'll be back in a little while. Before the movie's over. Here's a dollar," he said, sticking a bill into Roy's hand, "just in case you want more popcorn."

"Dad," said Roy, "don't you want to see what happens?"

"You'll tell me later. Enjoy the movie, son. Wait for me here."

Before Roy could say anything else, his father was gone.

The movie ended, and Roy's father had not returned. Roy remained in his seat while the lights were on. He had eaten the popcorn and drunk his root beer, but he had not yet unwrapped the Holloway All-Day sucker. People left the theater and other people came in and took their seats. The movie began again.

Roy had to pee badly, but he did not want to leave his seat in case his father came back while he was in the men's room. Roy held it until he could not any longer and then allowed a ribbon of urine to trickle down his left pantsleg into his sock and onto the floor. The chair on his left, where his father had been sitting, was empty, and an old lady seated on his right did not seem to notice that Roy had urinated. The odor was covered up by the smell of popcorn, candy, and cigarettes.

Roy sat in his wet trousers, and soaked left sock and shoe, watching again as Captain King exhorted his Khyber Rifles to perform heroically. This time after the film was finished, Roy got up and walked out with the rest of the audience. He stood under the theater marquee and waited for his father. It felt good to Roy to be out of the close, smoky cinema now. The sky was dark, just past dusk, and the people filing into the Ciné were mostly couples on Saturday night dates.

Roy was getting hungry. He took out the Holloway All-Day, unwrapped it, and took a lick. A uniformed policeman came and stood near him. Roy was not tempted to say anything about his situation to the beat cop because he remembered his father saying to him more than once, "The police are not your friends." The police officer looked once at Roy, smiled at him, then moved away.

Roy's mother was in Cincinnati, visiting her sister, Roy's Aunt Theresa. Roy decided to walk to where his father had parked, to see if his powder-blue Cadillac was still there. Maybe his father had gone wherever he had gone on foot, or taken a taxi. A black-and-gold-trimmed Studebaker Hawk was parked where Roy's father's car had been.

Roy returned to the Ciné. The policeman who had smiled at him was standing again in front of the theater. Roy passed by without looking at the cop, licking his Holloway All-Day. His left pantsleg felt crusty but almost dry, and his sock still felt soggy. The cold wind made Roy shiver, and he rubbed his arms. A car horn honked. Roy turned and saw the powder-blue Caddy stopped in the street. His father was waving at him out the driver's side window.

Roy walked to and around the front of the car, opened the passenger side door, and climbed in, pulling the heavy metal door closed. Roy looked out the window at the cop standing in front of the Ciné: one of his hands rested on the butt of his holstered pistol and the other fingered the grooves on the handle of his billy club as his eyes swept the street.

"Sorry I'm late, son," Roy's father said. "Took me a little longer than I thought it would. Happens sometimes. How was the movie? Did Ty Cupcake take care of business?"