FRANK: THE UNVEILED ANIMAL

I’d been inventing a new kind of filmmaking called The Unveiled Animal (how it’s germane to Derek and Mired’s bizarre, sadistic tale will soon be clear, as will my plan for revenge against my brother). It revolved around the notion that the cinema needed to evolve past actors, scripts, contrived scenes, fraudulent emotion. Movies needed to shun closure and happy endings.

There needed to be a convergence between mainstream filmmaking and documentaries. And with the blazing popularity of reality TV that developed in the late 1990s and early millennium, it seemed I might really be on to something. The public wasn’t craving actors anymore, but people in real situations, real people who weren’t pretending to feel sadness and anger and letdown but were learning to navigate the tangles and ignominies of everyday life.

Filmmaking, after all, is supposed to replicate voyeurism, and therefore the next logical step in its pubescent advancement would be to stop simulating life and actually capture it in the wild, in its raw environment, no soundstages or computer-generations.

Film should record people in the midst of their naked days; it should embezzle the dread of human stagnancy and relay warnings to viewers, quiet cautionary tales denouncing complacency.

Derek and I had moved to San Francisco directly after high school. He worked at an auto parts store, and I was a film student at the Academy of Art and also had a part-time job as a production intern at an ad agency, long before Flo’s narrow mind fired me. They let me use their digital film editing facility anytime I wanted, which was every evening I could feasibly get there, manicuring all the scenes I’d shot that week into some sort of freely cohesive narrative.

I spent literally all of my free time filming strangers, honing my eye as a director and cinematographer. I lurked in doorways, behind bus stops, sometimes trailed behind people or shadowed their movements from across the street – whatever I had to do to secure their particular scene(s). I was in training, preparing myself, because any day now I’d film the moment that would launch my career: the topnotch entertainment that would make the masses stampede to the box office.

And I’d been waiting. Patiently, for the first two years I was in my program at the Academy. Then I waited impatiently, intolerantly for the next two years, increasing my time out in the wild, sometimes wandering the streets all night hoping to stumble across the topnotch, a scene with enough danger to buoy a film. I tried to concoct compelling storylines with the material I recorded – I did the best I could with what I had – but at the end of the day, I needed that one eye-popping, sizzling image.

Each passing day grew harder to swallow, like a nest of gristle spackled in the back of my throat. Harder and harder to breathe with it wedged there. Each day tested my commitment to being an auteur.

Finally, the muse gifted me some of the topnotch.

I was in Golden Gate Park, near Hippie Hill, about ten p.m.

It was freezing. Fog thick and wind rushing through the park from Ocean Beach. I was in the bushes filming a guy who’d grown angry with the drum he played and was now thrashing it to splinters. While he obliterated his instrument, a young woman, probably nineteen or twenty, walked through my camera’s frame. She had dark skin, probably of Middle Eastern descent. She carried a book.

Golden Gate Park wasn’t the most dangerous part of San Francisco by any stretch, but it was an unspoken rule that women didn’t walk through it at night, by themselves. Why take the chance? I’d heard women say over the years. There are a lot of homeless men in the park. Why risk it?

So what was this young woman doing? Where was she going?

I had to know. I let her get about thirty feet ahead of me, and I crawled out of the bushes. The guy who’d smashed his drum was now scooping its pieces up and putting them in his pocket, apologizing. His contrition, his explanation to the drum for why he’d dismembered it would have made a decent scene had this woman not come along.

I crept behind her, zooming in on her back as she bobbed in my camera’s frame.

She wasn’t walking very fast. The word strolling came to mind, and as we continued through the park, I thought of calling her section of my next film, The Sad Stroll: a meditation on urban loneliness.

And then she sat down on a bench. She opened her book.

I quickly dropped the camera to my side and walked past her, knowing somewhere ahead I’d find a place to skulk off the path and sneak up behind her so I could keep filming.

There was no light anywhere around her, which meant there was no way she could see the pages of her book. But she sat there, cross-legged, turning pages like she could make out the words.

I crawled through the bushes, stopping about fifteen feet from her. I pressed record and centered her body in the frame; it was an angle that captured her mostly from behind, a bit off to one side so I could see better, but that didn’t matter. Head on, a profile shot, or the angle I had now, they all displayed the same thing: her vulnerability. She flipped the pages of her book faster, no way anyone could have read them, even if there was enough light.

It dawned on me: she wasn’t really reading, just didn’t have anywhere to go, didn’t have anyone to spend time with. This was truly a meditation on urban loneliness! It took all my willpower to stay in the bushes. I wanted to jump out and tell her I knew exactly what she was going through. I knew how it felt to come home to an empty apartment, my only friend, my ridiculous twin, out drinking every night of the week until sunrise, staggering home and up our stairs and down our hallway and waking me as he spilled into the walls. I wanted to tell her that I knew what it was like to eat macaroni and cheese alone, how hollow it felt to masturbate myself to sleep. I could sit next to her on the bench and say, “You can tell me every single secret,” and she would tell me something no one knew, she’d say something like, “I never read my fortune cookies because I can’t take their pressure,” and I’d say, “I’ve slept with the lights on my entire life,” and we’d have this moment of recognition, a moment not divided by seconds or nanoseconds or minutes, we’d have a moment defined entirely by eye contact, staring and knowing that our individual solitudes were ready to rupture. We’d met another person who needed life to get easier. A person who understood the ruthless clamber of time as we worked our lives away in meaningless jobs. Someone who could empathize with feeling forlorn and weak.

And right when I wanted to hug this woman for the rest of my life, a man walked up to her and said, “You got the time?”

She didn’t say anything, kept pretending to read the book.

He said, “Hey, you know what time it is?”

She said, “I’m not wearing a watch.”

He said, “You got a cigarette?”

She said, “I don’t smoke.”

Then he pulled out a pistol and said, “Maybe you could lend me your credit cards. Would you like to lend me your credit cards?”

I stayed in the bushes, filming.

And I know how that sounds. I know that people are supposed to help one another. Under normal circumstances, I’d have leaped to her rescue. I hope you know that about me. I’m the sort of guy who believes in protecting others. For example: didn’t I knock my brother to the ground when he refused to take Mired to the hospital and then drive her there myself? I’ve proven that I can act heroically when the situation demands it; however, as long as this woman did what the man said, emptied her purse of its valuables and didn’t say anything confrontational, there was really no danger here. He didn’t want to kill her. He was hungry or thirsty or withdrawing from drugs and needed money. That was it. Yes, he had a gun. Yes, he pointed it at her, but it wasn’t like I had a weapon of my own, any means of combating his attack. I couldn’t have done anything to defend her except put myself in harm’s way, too. What would that have accomplished?

By now, he stood directly in front of her so I could see his front perfectly in my frame; he was dressed all in black, wearing a SF Giants beanie. He looked Latino, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

I kept the camera tightly fitted on their interchange.

“I don’t have any credit cards,” she said.

“Where’s your purse?” he asked.

I sat up as stiff as I could, zoomed in all the way.

“I don’t carry a purse.”

He shook the pistol and said, “Empty your pockets, sweet cheeks. Before I get mad.”

I knew she was scared – who wouldn’t be scared with a gun in their face? – but in the long run, this was all going to be worth it. You wait for something your entire life and it falls into your lap and what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to take your dream off the hook and throw it overboard, catch and release? Are you supposed to limp back to your cubicle and edit another batch of training videos, dousing your fluorescent wound with more salt? Why would I abandon this moment, this moment I’d waited so long for, all so some homeless tic could spend a week in county jail and be back on the streets, thieving from people who should know better than to sit in the middle of an urban park by themselves? Why should I forfeit the very thing that could change my life?

She stood up and turned out her pockets, handed him a small wallet.

“Anything else I’d be interested in?” he said.

“My cell phone?”

“A cell phone sounds enchanting. Thank you.”

She took it out of her jacket pocket and handed it to him.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

“Why would I hurt you?”

“Please.”

“A pretty girl shouldn’t sit in the park by herself. It isn’t safe.”

She didn’t say anything.

He took a step toward her, gun still aimed square at her.

I couldn’t zoom in anymore, so I extended the arm that held the camera, getting as close to them as I could without making any noise.

“I only want your money,” he said to her, “but there are men around here who want more than that.”

She fiddled with her closed book.

“I mean, what if I was one of those guys?” he asked and tucked the pistol in the front of his pants. “What then?”

She didn’t say anything.

“It’s your lucky night, sweet cheeks. I’m not one of those guys.”

It was my lucky night, too.

Then he flipped his back to her, walking away, fast.

She sat on the bench for twenty more minutes, peering all around, even over both shoulders, with a look on her face I’d never seen. Fear? Relief that he’d let her live? Some amalgam? Whatever her face’s motivation, it was a wonderful expression, one with enough ambiguous character for a movie poster or the opening shot of a trailer. It was a look of subjective expression, rather than something easily categorized.

I couldn’t believe my gigantic luck.

All my diligence had paid off.

I never took the camera off of her until she finally slunk away. I was freezing, but it was worth it.

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JOSHUA MOHR is the author of the novels Some Things that Meant the World to Me, which was one of O Magazine's Top 10 reads of 2009, Termite Parade, and, most recently, Damascus (Two Dollar Radio). He has an MFA from the University of San Francisco and has published numerous short stories and essays in publications such as 7×7, the Bay Guardian, Zyzzyva, The Rumpus, Other Voices, the Cimarron Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among many others. He lives in San Francisco and teaches fiction writing. Please visit him at www.joshuamohr.net.

2 responses to “An Excerpt from Termite Parade

  1. Brian Eckert says:

    Darkly enticing.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    But…

    But what happened next?

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