“How long do you think it’ll last, Bobby?” Alice asked him, glancing at their parents. They were all four standing in line at the old Palace Theater with other children and adults—it was Saturday Family Matinee, and the picture was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Although it was a summer day and the sunlight bright, there was a touch of fall in the air.|
Bobby didn’t look up at Alice, but he shrugged and stared at the back of the head of the little girl in front of him. She turned around to look at him. She smiled and Bobby glanced away. The line shuffled forward and they were nearly at the box office. When they got there Bobby and Alice waited with their mother while their dad purchased the tickets. It had been loud outside, but in the lobby the noise level was considerably higher. Bobby saw Dad was frowning, almost flinching, as he followed his family to the candy counter where people—most of them small—surrounded it three-deep.
“Do you kids want popcorn?” Mom asked. “Or a candy bar? It’s all right, isn’t it, Howard?” She was dressed in a brown skirt and a light sweater of a sort of yellow color. Bobby thought she looked very young compared with most of the rest of the mothers in the lobby.
“Popcorn’s okay, but never mind about the candy bars,” Dad said. “They charge an arm and a leg for them and they’re bad for the kids’ teeth.” He said it with something edgy in his voice and his wife darted a sharp look at him. He handed Bobby and Alice a dollar each and looked around the lobby. “I don’t know how much of this I can take,” he said. He ran a hand through his thinning hair. A little group of children in the center of the worn maroon carpet was running around four adults, shrieking and slapping at each other. The adults paid no attention.
Out of the corner of his eye Bobby saw Mom’s eyes narrow. She said softly, but perhaps not as softly as she thought, “You promised, Howard. You told the counselor you’d do more with your family. That’s the deal.”
“That’s the deal,” Dad said grimly. He pulled his cloth belt a notch tighter on his light blue summer-weight pants. “It’s not going to work,” Alice whispered in Bobby’s ear.
Bobby felt himself shrinking down inside himself. He reached up and handed the chubby teen-aged counter clerk his dollar and took a medium-sized container of popcorn soaked in margarine from her. He and Alice turned to go through the propped-open aisle doors. “Why doesn’t Dad like us any more?” he asked his sister as quietly as he could.
She shrugged. “Mom says it’s a middle-life crisis,” Alice said. “Daddy has a girlfriend.”
Bobby started to think about that. A girlfriend? Like the little girl who had smiled at him?
“Pick the seats you want,” Mom said.
Alice found seats about two thirds of the way down the cavern of the old Palace which was already nearly filled with chattering and hollering kids. Bobby turned to see if his parents were following — he saw them outlined for a moment against the bright arch of the aisle doorway, for the sun streamed through the glass panes of the theater entrance and lent a regal radiance to the threadbare lobby behind them.
Alice found four seats together somehow, and she sidled into the row, holding her popcorn up in the air. The house lights were still up, and Bobby realized for the first time that day that he and his sister were dressed in exactly the same way—they had on blue jeans, decorated T-shirts, and dirty sneaks. Her long brown hair, fine as cobwebs, spun out over her shoulders. Bobby knew she liked to think of herself as one of the guys, but she wasn’t. She was a real girl, and the boys in her sixth grade class had begun to treat her that way. Bobby sat down next to her in one of the greasy plush fold-down seats. Mom sat next to him on his right side, and Dad had the aisle seat.
Alice nudged him, nodded at their father, and whispered, “He’s all set for a quick getaway. Want to bet on how long he’ll stay?”
Bobby shook his head. “Hey, Bobby!” A slightly older boy two rows down yelled and threw a piece of popcorn at him, but he grinned at Alice.
“Cut it out, Jimmy,” Bobby said, but the kernel never even reached him.
“Yeah, Jimmy,” Alice said and giggled.
“Be good, you two,” Mom said. Dad ignored them.
Bobby liked his Dad. They’d used to do things together, father and son things just the two of them, family things all together—pitch and catch, batting practice for peewee league, picnics and zoo outings, even the circus once a year or a neighborhood carnival.
Then things had started to change. Dad had begun to “go away”—that was the only way he could think of it, going away. He was still there, but part of him went away and couldn’t come back.
The lights began to dim and the noise in the theater increased in proportion. The “No Smoking” announcement came onto the screen, then the ads for the candy counter in the lobby, then the Coming Attractions. In the resonant darkness Bobby saw his father lift his wrist and try to look at his watch, then notice the glowing clock on the wall near the exit and look at that. It was 2:15 in the afternoon.
“It hasn’t even started yet, Howard,” his mother said.
“I noticed,” Dad said.
“Sshh!” Alice went, bending around them, but only Bobby heard her. He’d had to ask his sister what “divorce” meant after he heard his mother saying it loudly in the bedroom one night when they thought he was asleep. “You know,” Alice had told him, “like the parents of those screwed-up Benton kids.” The Bentons lived down the block, and he had played with them until Mr. Benton went away and Mrs. Benton started to try to sell the house. The two boys just wanted to fight after that, not play. Bobby had stopped going over, and then they had moved away.
When Mom had said that word, “divorce,” Bobby had felt a cold spot in his chest even though he didn’t know what the word meant. He thought he might have heard it before, but he couldn’t remember where or when.
“Quiet,” Dad had said. “The kids’ll wake up.”
“I don’t care if they do,” Mom said in a loud whisper. “They’ll have to know someday.” Bobby heard the bed springs squeak as she turned over or got up.
“Why?” Dad asked. “Why can’t you just live with it for their sake?”
She had laughed hoarsely—more like a croak or a gasp. “I can’t believe you said that,” she said. “Shall I get a boyfriend too? Should we live separate lives?” She must have thought that sounded funny because she laughed again. “Like in the movies. Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf maybe.” Bobby didn’t know who Virginia Woolf was.
Alice leaned closer to Bobby and said in his ear, “I bet he’s gone by half-past two.” Out of the corner of his eye Bobby couldn’t see whether she was smirking or not, just the white oval of her face hung like a moon in the space near his shoulder.
At last the movie began to a huge uproar in the audience, but then the noise level evened out except for peaks and valleys caused by the action, or the lack of it, on the screen. The cartoon characters and the human beings kept Bobby’s attention pretty well, but he was aware, too, of his parents beside him. He could almost feel physically the itchiness of his father who never went to movies anymore, who would rather have been at home reading or working on his computer, or even mowing the lawn—anything to be alone.
Dad did better than Alice had expected — it was ten minutes to three before he said, “Men’s room.”
As he began to rise Mom put out her hand and held his arm. “Howard...,” she said. “Remember.”
“Down in front!” somebody yelled. Dad said nothing. Impatiently, he jerked his arm away and lurched up the aisle.
Bobby and Alice turned to watch him go, and they saw him disappear through the archway into the lobby—to judge from the level of brightness that shone through the swinging doors as Dad went through, the afternoon was beginning to cloud up.
“You lose,” Bobby said. “Pay me.”
“We didn’t bet,” Alice sniffed. “Want to bet he won’t come back?” Then, in a very soft voice, “I bet he’s going to see his mistress.”
“What’s a...,” Bobby started to ask.
“That’s enough,” Mom said. “Daddy’s had a hard week. Things haven’t been going well at the office.” Bobby reached over and took her hand—it was all tensed up, even though she reached over and patted him with her other hand.
Bobby wanted to ask her what was wrong with Dad, why did they fight with each other in bed at night, but then he thought that if he did that Mom would know that he lay awake listening to them instead of sleeping. When their voices would at last fall silent he would strain in the darkness of his own room listening for some sign that they were still there. Alice had explained that when people get divorced one of them goes away. “At least one of them,” she had said.
Roger Rabbit was doing something strange on the screen which seemed slightly out of focus. There was considerably less noise in the theatre. Bobby craned his head around and peered into the gloom. It seemed to him that there were a few empty seats in front of him.
“Can I have a candy bar?” Alice asked.
Mom said nothing. She reached into the change-purse part of her wallet and gave Alice some coins. “That should do it,” she said. “Unless Bobby wants some.”
“No thanks,” he said.
“Be right back.” Alice got up and flitted up the murmurous aisle. The aisle doors blinked open and shut against the gray light and she was gone. Other kids must have had the same idea, because the theatre seemed to be about half empty. Bobby stared into the outer gloom. He tried to lose himself in the picture again, but the feeling of emptiness in him cast a veil over the flickering images of the screen.
“Where can she have gone?” Mom asked turning in her seat. Bobby saw by the clock that it was nearly half-past three. The dancing colors of the movie threw shades of light and shadow onto the high ceiling painted blue with clouds and ragged with peeling paint. The vault was nearly silent now. Between a very few heads Bobby watched the animate fantasies of Hollywood engaged in their incredible adventures. “I’ll have to go see. You stay here and wait.”
Before he could move his mother let go his hand and got up. “Mom!” he said, but she was gone into the tunnel of the aisle, the single syllable “Wait” suspended like an echo in the tacky darkness. Bobby couldn’t even see when she swung through the doors into the lobby, though he thought he heard them swing open and shut.
So Bobby waited. He could see no one around him, for the theater appeared to have sunken into the blackness of an abyss, except for the luminous screen and the face of the clock near the exit, but now the hands of the clock were indiscernible—Bobby couldn’t tell whether the fault were with the clock, the murkiness of the theater, or his eyes. Nor could he sense the presence of anyone else. He sat, rigid, in his seat, staring at the screen. His hands were curled around the armrests. He could feel under the fingers of his left hand, on the underside of the rest, a wad of ancient gum.
At last the movie was over. Bobby sat and watched the credits roll. And then, when they were done, the projector flickered and shut down. Bobby sat in the silence of the Palace and waited for the lights to go on and for everyone to come back.