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Wands and Paddles by Sam Allard

Wands and Paddles by Sam Allard

Fiction, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009

WALLY B. – THE EVENING OF WARNER BROTHERS’ HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE’S USA MIDNIGHT RELEASE

Cleveland, 8:44 p.m. – A bespectacled fatso in a trench coat gives me one of those heavy looks, dripping with deep and likely sexual significance. It’s the kind of look you’d only ever reasonably deploy in the most subterranean of bars, when the evening’s clock is annoyingly ticking and you want a dancing woman to know she’s giving you a hard-on just looking at her. Pronto. You do something different with your eyes, like kinda compress the corners or something, like you’re almost studying her and the effects on your body in a detached, supremely scientific way. You might nod your head for a second, but then you probably shake it off and smile and maybe even snort (all so she can see, of course,) as if to say “is this even physically organically fathomable how horny I’m getting just looking at this undulating human female? And then if you’re good, you probably massage the area just above your eyebrow and make a little bit of a production about making eye contact again, like you’re embarrassed that she saw you get so heated in the first place; and then probably you shrug your shoulders and all but scream to the barhop, throwing caution to the proverbial wind, holy mackerel is she ever good-looking.

Point is, there’s major tongue movement visible within this fat guy’s toothy and cavernous maw. And he has his legs spread almost militarily, both arms partly raised in the ceremonially occult preparatory stance of a man getting ready to summon clouds. He’s in the absolute zero-coordinate of the concrete square outside the Valley View Cinemark, just sort of visually drinking in the costumed nuts pouring out of minivans for a movie three hours yonder, and he’s looking at me now, beginning to nod. Only this nod is obviously indicating something other than carnal attraction; my best guess is he’s thinking I’m in on the same little secret he is, which I most certainly am not.

This guy is easily 35, with a blandly unshampooed orange mop. He’s not quite what you would call “Goth,” – his trench coat and black boots evoke the musty, almost damp fade and age of a second or third hand purchase – but he is very clearly troubled, mentally I’m talking here. His glasses seem actual, as opposed to like an accessory for the event, and his fingers are complexly wreathed in what appear to be floral tattoos. He is indisputably rotund. This is a man who you can look at and just sort of intuitively know that he has serious tufts of hair on his shoulders. And he continues to nod at me as my mom and Liza have disappeared, looking for the appropriate line. But then now he’s doing something downright scary. His arm on the right side, (this is his left arm I’m aware, but the way I’m looking at him it’s his right side,) slowly moves from its weird half-raised position and begins to straighten, pointing outwards. So what I’m looking at is this deranged fellow with one arm raised and almost sort of flexing and the other jutting out horizontally from his gelatinous torso. It’s a gesture recognizable to surely only the most advanced and scholarly of referees. Then the arm jutting out begins to rotate, begins to practically crank along an invisible horizon until it’s pointing directly at my heart. And the nodding becomes more pronounced and way more definitively rabid. The man is nodding with nothing short of purpose. (By the way, I have yet to move or make any sort of physical gesture toward him other than a severe squinting of my eyes which I want so badly for him to recognize as sheer befuddlement.) And then, as he’s nodding, he takes the other arm, the flexing one, and labors to bring it down across a belly which I regret can only accurately be described as planetary, and removes something long, black and slender from his front pocket, with which he then makes a stabbing motion at me and nods some more. I close my eyes, at last, in recognition. He wants to fucking duel.

*

July 2009 – the present historical moment: That’s the release of the sixth Harry Potter film. November, 2010: That’s Seven, part one. And then July 2011 is Seven, part two. Which means there’s like a cosmic countdown, some infinitely elaborate web of construction-paper rings, toward the end of this unexpectedly grand and magnificent love affair. And I’m 23 years old, sitting on the unpleasantly ridged, arctic tiling of a movie theater’s pulsing cathedralized lobby, forced to reassess the credentials of my own fanaticism in the slobbering face of a caped and psychopathic horde who somehow seem to think their behavior is even remotely socially tenable, adulthood notwithstanding, because of the goddamned atmosphere. I’m playing gin with my sister Liza on the floor. My mom alternately reads a sentence from her book and eyes potential line-jumpers with venom. With straight-up murderous poison, folks, zapping out of those maternal pupils.

There’s a crazed, frenetic, untamed sort of electricity by 10 p.m. and the staff, almost in an act of like surrender, has decided to let one screen (of the evening’s total seven) out of the lobby’s mob and into their seats. I’m overjoyed. If nothing else the relocation will free me of the burden of hiding from the wand-slinging lunatic. I’d done what I considered a big favor for him outside, putting on a little show searching my pockets, and then giving a sort of “aww shucks” shrug when I couldn’t find it, my wand, the realization of which sent the guy into a tantrum. He positively howled at the evening sky right there in public for like a decent, violently uncomfortable, while before staring full-bore into my face once again, panting. At which point I muttered an impromptu “rain check” and dashed into the Cinemark wondering why in God’s sweet merciful name this probably substantially handicapped dude was being permitted to gallivant around the premises un-fucking-supervised.

But so now we are being herded Lord knows where, clumped and sort of moaning and yet blindly expectant in what must look like a slaughterhouse-bound contingent of mildly anesthetized cattle, sans the solemnity. No one is budging even an inch w/r/t place in line, and there’s a ballistic capacity just absolutely poised to explode the moment the now-partially-visible theater doors open. Which they do abruptly, and the crowd doesn’t burst so much as precipitously thin out into the ponderous and copiously seated auditorium. We are like marathon runners, breaking pace with a dumbly jogging flock. The front runners literally sprint and disperse and shout among themselves and immediately begin coordinating intricate plans via cellular phones. Rails are injudiciously hopped. The weirdly non-uniform steps are ascended and descended at totally unsanctioned speeds with consequent tripping and tears. The time has come for intense battle-type tactics. Seats must now be saved.

I manage to snag a primo aisle (A- on the y-axis, A+ on the x; I mean, smack dab in the middle has rarely enjoyed so literal an employment) and Liza and mom are only a few steps behind. We’re lucky. We only have one unaccounted for. My little brother Joel is at rehearsal for Sweeney Todd or something and can’t be here until practically showtime. But we’ve got our saved seat between Liza and me and we’re holding hands across it for good measure (understandably a sacrifice, image-wise). People around us are actively redefining sentry. A woman in the aisle below us has sprayed ungodly amounts of Febreeze all fucking over the two seats to her left and is telling potential occupants that she’s so so so sorry but her baby just pooped all over them, the seats, and that her husband is in the bathroom just this minute with their besmirched four-year-old, so yes, they’re taken, but you probably wouldn’t want them anyway, she says. Liza and I are flabbergasted, just dumbfounded at the extreme lengths, but also I think maybe a little jealous of the genius. Three rows up, an entire row has been surreptitiously commandeered by two CIA-type men in half-Windsors and sunglasses. They are sitting at both ends of the aisle and are merely raising their veined and muscular hands to anyone even deigning to ask permission – “don’t fuck with me.” Everywhere, hungry-looking men are pacing, prowling with gladiatorial aspirations that may realistically come to pass. Women are undressing at warp speeds to scatter their various apparel across rows, and are jabbering on cell phones to either avoid having to verbally defend a seat (I guess preferring a hand flick or something) or making it look like the people they’re talking to are on their way, will be here any minute now.

The whole thing’s just a mind-boggling circus of a display. People’s seat-saving methodologies, usually just like a matter of courtesy, have drifted into the hostile and rhetorical arena of legality. (A Cinemark guy came up to the CIA operatives and actually used the word pursuant.) My mom has loaded her purse with a book club’s or like gay ice cream social’s supply of Diet Coke and is distributing cans to women her age nearby, maybe to ease the turbulence. This is notably the first open exhibition of camaraderie I’ve witnessed this evening. By 11:05, Liza and I have memorized not only the answers and punch lines, but also the order of the cycle of trivia questions and facts they began putting on the screen at 11:00, and are gleaning really low-level entertainment from making tangential commentary on upcoming questions before they pop up. At around 11:15, the teenagers behind us start to do a similar thing, only it’s super bothersome because they’re clearly getting really high-level entertainment out of something much less intellectually impressive, given the duration, i.e. just pouncing on the answers.

People are maniacally crazed and giddy. That’s clear. No one’s making any mistake about this being a gigantic deal, what’s happening, what’s about to happen. Butts are rhythmically bouncing on their cushioned seats. Pounds of nails and cuticles are being chewed and then straight-up eaten to quell the butterflies. Outbreaks of random applause accompany any and all sightings of the blue Cinemark shirts. Pizza is being sold at ludicrous sums. And I’m aflutter with nerves for Joel, who’s been communicating with me by text for the past half hour. It looks like he’ll be here at 11:30 give or take maybe two minutes. It’s not about the seat, really, at all, that I’m nervous; I think it deals with something much larger and harder to describe and probably involving things like age and growing up. Joel’s three and a half years younger than I am, and for some reason, even though I feel like this midnight showing is sort of important for me, I feel it’s probably exponentially more so for him. And important’s a hefty lexical log to just throw into the old yuletide fire, but serious substantive shit is definitely at stake at these midnight premieres. Memory (specifically nostalgia) and childhood and adventure and stuff. Maybe because even at like 19, Joel represents the youth I’ve lately been feeling a loss of. I don’t know.

There’s always this grim associate sadness I feel whenever a new Harry Potter movie comes out that never even obliquely occurred to me with any of the books. It was nothing but enthusiasm and total gladness when I read The Deathly Hallows. But when The Order of the Phoenix hit theaters, I was laying waste to Kleenex boxes for the better part of a week. It’s sort of, but not entirely like the revelatory punch from which I doubled over on my twentieth birthday, when I had no choice but to officially acknowledge that I could no longer ever be considered a child prodigy at anything. That people would now be calling me ‘sir’ with no irony attached.

Part of these routine depressions maybe have arisen from the Grand Injustice school, of which, rest assured, I am only an occasional binge subscriber: that these three teenagers, (Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson now) who seem to be entirely normal people, and furthermore absolute sweethearts, are just doing nothing but reposing atop mountainous fortunes, and staring in the face lives of just about anything they could imaginably care to do. And sometimes I oddly just feel this fierce desire to be their friend. I mean come on, how cool would it be to just hang out and, I don’t know, play tennis with Rupert, or like have coffee and just casually talk about what you’re reading with Emma Watson? That’d be a pretty special afternoon.

Anyway, Joel shows up with time enough to refill both the popcorn and the Mr. Pibb and sits next to me, all smiles. He’s got that indestructible grin that maybe just comes as part of the package with physical girth – his arms are the size of cuts of meat you rarely see off hooks – and he starts grabbing me and shaking me like he means business when the previews get going. And I’m inexplicably overjoyed that he’s here, that we’re all here together. And but then it’s only after the previews, after the roaring, raging herd has silenced and all of us are shrouded in this, gosh, this gorgeous sanctity and an utter, bottomless darkness; when that mythic WB somehow slowly and suddenly appears, presiding only for a moment over our gaping and trembling facades, lunarly, collared in those burly, ferocious clouds and then dematerializing like some thingless mirage; only then do I see that my little brother is crying.

*

He denies it circa 4:30 a.m., during the bristling conclusion of our basement ping-pong game, which is incidentally making both of us sweat and producing this gross omnipresent digestive odor of which we are both very bashfully aware, but have implicitly elected to regard with a stiff nonrecognition. Joel’s sort of a self-consciously sentimental cookie, as 19-year-olds go, and strangely isn’t denying the crying out of some masculine hormonal imperative; he says he just honestly doesn’t think he did.

But now I’m an investigator: “I was sitting right next to you brodeo. Like directly adjacent. And we’re talking rivulets.”

“7-19.” He puts some mad English and Joel-brand meat sauce on his serve and snags a corner, but my return is the stuff of poetry, down the line. He lunges, but can’t quite get a full paddle on it and the little orange sphere jets behind him, spinning madly. All he can manage is a “Yowza” as he gets it. “So what’s that, 7-20?”

“Joel, dude, there was like lots of snot involved. And yes, 7-20.”

“Horseshit. Absolutely not. Absolutely no snot of any kind involved.”

“I’m telling you man, my left arm was contaminated in a major way. You were spewing that shit.”

“This is ridiculous. Are you saying this was pre-credits or post?”

“Definitively pre. Like when the music was just starting, when the WB logo was up there.”

“I can’t believe I’m even indulging you. 7-20.” Same fucking serve. Catches me off guard.

I whistle softly. “Wicked stuff.”

“8-20.” We nod and breathe, take a moment to sip at our pops. Dr. Pepper for me. Diet for him. “Diet Dr. Pepper. Damn it, that’s good.”

“Nectar of the Gods.”

“8-20 now.” he says with a little drawl.

I get greedy and slam an immensely returnable serve for one of those winners that I always imagine re-watching in cinematic slo-mo, but it just makes me look stupid when it collides with the net. “What the fuck is that smell?” Joel shouts after he’s secured the ball again.

“Look, it’s as much you as it is me.” (In truth, I think Joel bears estimably more of the blame than I do, but I sniff my pits anyway as sort of an apology.)

“No no no, not that. It’s, it’s something else.” He puts his paddle on the table and starts dramatically sniffing the air, holds up a grotesquely licked index finger to get bearings on some invisible wind.

“It smells bad down here and that’s about as detailed as I care to get. If you farted over there, though, chances are—”

“You know what; I think I know what that is. I think what I’m smelling, Wally, is a comeback.”

I laugh. Hard. He’s got this enormously wide and childish radiance just pumping over there, and he pulled the joke off damn well. But I invite him to do something anatomically impossible just the same.

“9 serving 20.”

I’m laughing while he serves, but still slap a decent return at a sharp angle to the right side. And all Joel can do is just sort of scoop it back over the net. He’s out of position now and that pitiful little shitty ball is preparing to land at the absolute epicenter of my walloping wheelhouse, and so I tear the shit out of it to the other side. And then but Joel, out of nowhere, does this lovely and really almost balletic pirouette to spin to the other side and lays fucking out to return it. And because of the angle, his shot just slices across the table way out of my playable scope.

“I’m comatose Joel.”

He gets up with a goofy grin and blows on his paddle like a pistol.

“That was a spectacular display.”

“I’m a spectacular fellow, and companionable to boot.”

“Just a pure fucking artistic display, dude. Magnificent.”

He tosses me the ball with his eyes magisterially closed, and then slowly paces, his breaths oblong and terrifically intense.

“20-10” I say. My lead is beyond comfortable at this point, so my strategy will essentially be a soft-touch game from here on out, waiting for a now performative Joel to commit an error. And it doesn’t take long. My first service bounces on his side and then to the floor, where it skips and ricochets a few times, making that cheap sound thin plastic makes on stone, and then rolls to a stop somewhere I can’t see. He didn’t even try and he’s still not moving. He appears to be doing something in the general ballpark of pondering.

“I actually think maybe I did cry.”

“Okay.” I confer briefly with the walls to show him I’m confused.

“I mean I’m getting a little choked up even now.”

“Huh.” I can’t even begin to guess, really. “Well it is late dude,” is my lame offering.

“No 20-10 I mean, was like the catalyst for the emotion is what I’m saying.”

“The score was a catalyst for you being choked up?”

“No. The year you dipshit.”

“Ahh. You’re suggesting the score was metaphorically imbued! That’s weighty stuff, Joel, though beyond your usual conversational purview, which is why I was taken off guard.”

“It’ just like 9-11. Quit being a fuck.”

Whenever the score was 9 to 11, Joel and I would partake of a completely irreverent and lavishly offensive extended moment of silence, the likes of which were first baffling and then guiltily hilarious to basement guests, who’d just sit there peeing their pants while Joel and I would like keep our heads bowed forever, murmuring fake Latinate incantations, and then doing a synchronized sign of the cross before we resumed play.

“And it was the WB thing, now that I think about it. Wow. Next year.”

“All these theatrical pauses Joel. Not sure what’s going on here.”

“What’s going on here, Wally, is that it’s occurred to me how infinitely blessed I was, how infinitely blessed we were, to have been born within such a pivotal window. We’re like the exactly perfect age for those books and movies. Exactly perfect. You know what I mean? Just like we were pretty much perfectly ripe for the Disney classics. And it’s just crazy now that next year is going to be like it. My 2010 will be just a tragic conclusion.”

“I mean, first of all, they’re not done until 2011, so we have a whole ‘nother year. And besides, you shouldn’t think like that man.”

“No no no.” He waves both hands and then stops and looks at me with this wise and poignant, ultra gentleness. “I mean but twenty-ten represents the capstone of the Harry Potter decade. And don’t worry: it’s gloriously tragic. You know, like an epic sort of necessary conclusion. It’s just so weird is all.”

“And the WB thing?

“Is like a symbol of it I think, or an icon, you know, something which will surely become an artifact of a lost time.” He puts his chin to his chest and chuckles while shaking his head. It’s the same laugh I’ve seen him use after hearing a joke he doesn’t quite understand. “It’s just like the excitement of somehow being able to experience something you instinctively personally adore and connect with again, but for the first time, you know? And now we’ll never see the sixth one for the first time again. And, the fact is – the epic tragedy is – that we’ll only really have two more like virginal first times with respect to those movies.”

“Yeah. Believe it or not, I was feeling pretty out of the fanatical loop earlier. Cuz like all those morons who are way too old, or the kids who were too young to read the books but saw the movies anyway – it’s like they all need to prove they’re fans with the costumes and the histrionics and the makeup shit. And I was like, maybe I’m just not as into it as I thought, even though I know, or at least I think I know, pretty deeply–”

“That it’s way more sincere. What we have is a relationship Wally.”

“It is a relationship, isn’t it? And you can bet your bottom fucking dollar that the grand finale will be less the stuff of an inauspicious breakup and more akin to like, an anciently old couple dying together after many many sexually healthy years.”

“That’s not bad, you know. Analogy-wise.” He downs the rest of his pop. “Just make sure you’re home again for the next one, will ya? I think it’s important to be together, as a family.”

“For sure, dude,” I say, remembering my psychic-spiritual fulfillment the moment Joel walked into the theater. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

We walk upstairs and out onto the front porch where we can just feel that daylight will be arriving soon. The air is somehow more distilled, the silhouetted shapes of houses and trees on the horizon fractionally more distinct. I put my arm up on Joel’s big shoulder and tell him what a damn swell guy he is.

“I think you’re a swell guy too, Wally. I just wish Patrick felt the same way.”

I’m briefly lamenting my usage of the ‘whole nother’ construction moments ago so I miss the joke. “Who? What are you talking about?”

“You know, your friend Patrick? I gave him your number and address because he said it was super important that he see you. He mentioned some sort of like appointment.”

“I’m not with ya on this one, Joel. Apologies.”

“Come on. Patrick! Heavyset fella—”

“I swear to God!” I leap at him, my beaming little brother, and make every effort to do him affectionate physical harm, but I find myself instantly trapped in his mammoth bear hug, from which he refuses to release me until the bleeding beautiful sun comes up and I swear to adopt every manner of household chore of his for the coming week. Joel makes it all but crystalline that escape is impossible. Unless, of course, he says, I can locate my wand.

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