January 25, 2019
Excerpt from Chapter Seven of Chuckerman Makes a Movie
By Francie Arenson Dickman
Winner of CWA’s 2019 Book of the Year Award for Indie Fiction
Based on the Basic Camera Shots poster that hangs in Laurel’s classroom next to the poster on Screenplay Definitions, I should start with a wide lens in order to get a view of the Intracoastal surrounding the pool deck. Maybe an aerial shot’s the way to go. An aerial will give us the Intracoastal with its boats and the 163rd Street Bridge, as well as the pool deck and the building. We’ll see the pool, the shuffleboard courts, and the dance floor. We’ll see the hundreds of yellow lounge chairs covered in the same number of yellow towels. We’ll see the movement of people. We’ll miss the smell of the suntan oil, but we’ll hear the howl of the wind.
The placement of the buildings in relation to each other and the Intracoastal created a wind tunnel so that even when the weather was perfectly pleasant, we felt like we were on the heels of a hurricane. When you understand the wind you understand, too, why all the women wrapped their hair in scarves, brightly colored things, and why, when the aerial view comes in for a landing—I’m sure there’s a technical term for this, I’ll have to ask Laurel—the audience will see a disproportionate number of sunbathers crowded into the wind-blocked corner in which we stuffed ourselves each day, every day, for sunbathing, sitting, and smoking.
Every once in a while, someone would actually move from a chaise—like my Grandma Estelle, who was a big pool deck walker. At least she was while we were visiting, most likely because my father was a big nag about it. “You gotta do it,” he’d remind her. “You gotta get the blood flowing.” Because he was a dentist, close enough to a doctor to satisfy my grandma, she listened. And she walked. In heeled sandals, nylons, and slacks, and with a two-ton purse dangling from her arm, she did her circles around the deck. Usually slowly (more due to her outfit than her age), and with stops to pull Kleenex from her purse to dry her eyes or wonder about an interesting boat waiting to pass under the bridge.
On this day, the morning of the Bagel Bar, she walked for hours, with each of us taking turns accompanying her. I was, on the totem pole of walking accompaniment, her most frequent partner. I wasn’t in it for the exercise but for the childhood stories my grandma would tell while we walked.
As the camera comes to rest on Davy and Grandma Estelle walking and talking, perhaps the narrator will explain that it was Tuesday, the day of the week that Estelle usually went to the Marco Polo, this colossal hotel with a neon sign that lit Collins Avenue for miles. Every week Slip drove Estelle to the Marco Polo, where she met her friend Ruth in the lobby to play duplicate bridge. Every Tuesday evening at dinner, Estelle recounted to my mother, hand by hand, how things had played out.
But on this day when things were playing out so poorly, we walked and walked, and my grandma talked not of the past but about how silly it was to make yourself so reliant on one person.
The day was one of the few genuinely nice ones of our visit, and the deck was loaded, to borrow my grandma’s phrasing. I remember looking around as we walked, scanning the crowds for Slip, particularly when we got toward the shuffleboarders. If he ever hit the deck, the shuffleboard area was his spot. I didn’t see him. My grandma didn’t see him, either. She didn’t say she was looking, but I knew she was.
The audience also will notice her glancing around for him as she says to me, “Marriage, my Davy, is hard no matter how old you are. If you ask me, love matters a little, but luck matters more.”
I will watch my grandma’s feet turn out like a ballerina’s as she talks.
“It’s all one big crap shoot. You never know how things are gonna end up, and there’s no good way to hedge your bets.” She’ll sigh and stare out over the water before adding, “But I imagine it is a bit easier for girls nowadays because they have more choices and independence. They call it Women’s Lib, Davy. And between you and me”—she’ll pause again here to tug my shoulder toward her thin body—“if I knew where they were selling it, I’d go get me some.”
I did not have enough zinc oxide on my shoulders, and I was aware of both the feeling of them burning and the awkwardness one feels when one momentarily, like a flash in the pan, glimpses a person as just that—a person—and not a parent or grandparent. “I don’t know where to find Women’s Lib, either,” I’ll tell her.
I didn’t. But I did know that I had to help my grandma. I saw it as my responsibility. She had, after all, confided in me.
“I guess this is why they tell you to not put all your eggs in one basket,” she’ll say.
“Why?” I’ll ask.
“In case the basket turns out to be missing marbles,” she’ll say, and then chuckle at her joke.
I don’t care how he does it, but at this point, the actor who plays me will have to let the audience know that the wheels in his brain have begun to spin. I remember that day feeling the vibrations of the deck, like barely perceptible earthquakes, each time a car pulled in or out from the top floor of the parking garage below us. Perhaps the vibrations subconsciously gave me the idea.
I have no clue how to translate this osmotic creation of an idea onto the big screen. In the movie, as I saunter barefoot over the cement, perhaps the narrator will explain that below the pool deck was the parking garage. Every apartment came with two parking spaces. My grandparents’ top-floor slots, however, housed only one car—my grandfather’s brand-new Cadillac—which he gladly parked in the middle of both spaces.
Why did Slip have a free space? Simple: my grandmother couldn’t drive.
As the Davy character thinks, his grandma will say something like, “I bet Rachel and Marcy will get to be anything they want.” She’ll bet that Rachel becomes boss of something big, like the whole country. “But Marcy . . .” She’ll shake her head and sigh. “I don’t think she’d make her way through steno.”
Steno, I knew from previous walks, was short for stenography class, where my grandma was sent after she finished high school. The classes, along with ballet, were offered free at the Association House where she met my grandfather. By then he already had a car, and my grandma had legs, long dancer’s legs, which my grandfather would drive home every afternoon. They’d been driving together ever since. Estelle had never had any need to learn to do it herself.
Until this day, when Slip did not come home after breakfast to drive her to bridge before moving on with his afternoon. Today was a first, and I think that with this failure, my Grandma Estelle began to worry in earnest—because when I casually suggested, “Maybe you can learn to drive so you can take yourself to the Marco Polo,” she didn’t dismiss me or laugh at me the way I’d expected, the way that Laurel did when I suggested that she get a New York driver’s license.
On our next swing by the yellow chairs, my grandma and I asked my father to join us on our walk.
“There’s a cool boat I want to show you,” I hollered to him, and my grandma winked at me.
When the three of us reached the far side of the deck, I hung over the side of the cinderblock wall, studied the waves rolling into the bottom of it and the cars parked against it, and told my father my plan.
“It’s a good one,” my father declared. He patted my grandma’s back, and then replaced his own few strands of windblown hair as he explained that lessons would begin the very next morning in the Publix parking lot. “Early,” he told us, “before anyone sets out to do their grocery shopping for the day.”
My grandmother raised her brows in excitement. I slapped her a high-five. Then, while she was busy bantering about what fun the lessons would be, I quietly pointed out to my father that my grandfather’s Cadillac was still not in its space. My father shook his head. He was already aware.
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