from The Projectionist Series
DeVore and Frankenberg’s
“Young man, don’t you know you might fall and get hurt?”
—an old woman to Harold Lloyd as he scales the Bolton Building in Safety Last!
The answer lies in the falling
into the centrifugal patterns in Mildred’s eyes (perhaps an exquisite turn-of-the-century fusee duplex with centre and jumping seconds, which dissolves into a whirlpool, or a tower stairwell), until the DeVore salesclerk’s own horn-rimmed glasses get fogged up, and somehow you find yourself climbing up a skyscraper facade, and clutching to the hands of a giant clock, and no sooner have you scaled to the top than the place becomes a wind-up toy, your left foot caught in a noose, as you swing, a comic pendulum high above moving traffic, into the arms
of your loved one. Over at Frankenberg’s, the fall is gradual, almost invisible, but no less circuitous, wound up by chit-chat about dolls and model trains. Stolen glances and unnerving stares volleyed back and forth, framed askance. Therese and Carol roll along with the socially sanctioned script. Words said, but mean something else. Two figures circle, size each other up, customer and shopgirl, or more. A toy train paused in its track. A glove left behind. Hands cross and uncross (on eternal repeat), then handed over to a different hourly face
“Life isn’t like in the movies. Life… is much harder.”
—Alfredo the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso
this endless banging,
looting and roistering of 7,715 lottery winners
can distract the mute, moonfaced orphan from his lifelong mission: to locate the one fish with the enigmatic human smile on its flip side. As in a (too) smart-alecky heist thriller faithfully turning back on its own plot, everyone has his agendum, dumping red herrings, sockpuppets and horseshoe crabs into the poor boy’s path. By the end of the road trip, robbed and unloved, he stumbles into a back alley at the strike of 12 only to drop into a rabbit-hole which goes straight on, dipping suddenly down, so suddenly that he has not a moment to think about stopping himself before finding himself facing the holy grail. There. Swimming in the world’s largest aquarium—twice the size of the Pacific and as deep (or shallow) as your conscience—the blanket sweeps through cerulean blue, a pelagic vessel adrift. As he stands, momentarily frozen, before this scene—a tableau of sharks, puffers, rays and bottom feeders moving with the grace of smug killers—an unknowable sense of sadness or joy (is the same thing) kicks in and the boy… O boy, he breaks down and sobs like he’s never sobbed before. Whale-like tears, such tears. The manta ray, moving yet unmoved itself, flashes the same enigmatic, unerring smile, as it flips then turns into you. Cut away and then the blue bleeds into an intense aquamarine which swiftly drowns the screen before the sky suddenly clears to reveal a fish-bowl view of careers diced and marked in an orderly Manhattan grid. Baby blue, cloudless sky. Yellow cab tops. A parking lot. In another cineplex, a stone’s throw away, a caravanserai of souls brood, daubed with secret and lice and feeding on the salamander remains of the day. A red messenger bag. An emptied sac. Subtitles cast someone else’s shadow as opalescent tiles shimmer, and suggest something wonderful…
Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer, and editor. He has three poetry collections, One to the Dark Tower Comes (2020), Pretend I’m Not Here (2006), and Secret Manta (2001). A co-editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, he was Festival Director of Singapore Writers Festival from 2015 to 2018.