Anthony J. Mohr – The Angry Red Planet

   An amoeba was killing my father. “Literally eating his tissue,” the doctor said. Green slime covered his forearm. He lay in a hospital bed, motionless, unable to speak, his face a web of agony.

Hardly anyone was watching the movie. The place was almost empty. The last time he died in front of me, the massive La Reina Theater in California’s San Fernando Valley had been full. My father had played the villain then, a typical Gerald Mohr role, and since the film was a Western, the hero had shot him, and there were cheers when Dad bit the dust.

Now, seven years later, when I was twelve, he was the good guy, home from the first manned mission to Mars, and no one in the little audience seemed to care.

* * *
Earlier that day—Saturday, December 5, 1959, at breakfast to be precise—Dad finished his eggs and started in on his burned bacon and toast. I was spending one of my every other weekends with my father and his second wife Mai at their rented house in Hollywood. She finished her coffee. Her two sons, Tommy and Timmy—I’m not making this up; those were their names—fidgeted and ate their buttered toast. I used my fork to push a sausage around my plate. Outside, the sky was gray.

My father already had combed his thick, black hair with its traces of gray, combed it just so, as always. He wore one of his jumpsuits, perfect clothing for a thin person who stood six foot two. He was the only one of us five who didn’t look like they’d just woken up.

Dad said to us, “And tonight, we’re all going to see,” he dropped his voice an octave, “The Angry Red Planet.”

He looked at Tommy and Timmy. “You’ll like the monsters.” His voice deepened with the word “monsters.”

His stepsons perked up.

“Like the giant rat-bat.” He pronounced the trochee name of the beast in quick staccato, and his smile turned wicked.

Tommy squealed. His disheveled hair made him look like the eight-year-old he was. Timmy asked if rat-bats could fly. He may have been six, but his hair was combed neatly, and he acted calmer, more composed than his older brother.

Mai had yet to put on any makeup or comb her light brown hair. She said, “I hope this movie makes us some money. We could use it.”

Her words shot the smile out of Dad’s mouth and returned his face to what I’d become used to over the past year: tight mouth, creased forehead, sad eyes. The grim look of an actor slipping, struggling for roles that had come easily once, but not now.

His expression didn’t change until Timmy asked what other monsters lived on Mars.

Dad said, “Wait until you see the giant amoeba.”

“What’s that?”

“A big slimy cell,” Dad said. “It slithers up and gets ya’.”

Timmy flinched and then laughed. Dad finished his breakfast and lit a cigarette.

Rat-bats and amoebas were not what made me happy that morning. A year earlier I’d sat beside my father in a theater and watched him star in Terror in the Haunted House while we shared a bag of popcorn. I looked at his forty-foot face on the screen, then at his real face next to me, then back to him on the screen. I felt special. How many kids could do that? Not many, even in LA. That film had been a campy flop, but I didn’t care. Dad and I had been together, and—a bonus for me—he had played the hero for a change. Now we’d share another movie, with him starring as the good guy. I spread a dollop of jelly onto my toast and ate it slowly to keep the taste.

* * *
The evening was cool and moist. Earlier, it had drizzled. “I can’t wait for the rat-bat,” Tommy said from the backseat of Dad’s car. Timmy didn’t say anything. I wondered out loud if there really was life on Mars. Mai said she didn’t know. Dad said he hoped we got up there before the Russians did. Two months earlier, the Soviet Union had launched the first rocket to the moon, and last month, they had taken the first pictures of the far side of the moon.

Dad drove us into a section of Hollywood where the local chamber of commerce hadn’t bothered to put up Christmas decorations. The pedestrians on the wet sidewalk looked as drab as the one- and two-story buildings that lined the street. Many of the billboards above them read, “This space for rent.” The theater (a single screen, as most were then) was so nondescript we almost missed it. On the marquee was the movie’s title, in the type of black letters an owner could put up and take down fast. The box office was a freestanding kiosk in the middle of the entrance, with a bored-looking man inside and no customers nearby except for us. He didn’t recognize Dad when he took his money, a sure sign that he hadn’t cared to see the movie. The lobby felt musty and smelled of popcorn. One of the lights was out. Near the candy counter, torn sections of dull, red carpet peeled off the floor.

My seat squeaked as I settled into it, and the cloth was so thin I could feel the metal underneath. We sat halfway back, toward house left. Next to us was nobody. Dad said it was still early. Tommy asked for popcorn, and Dad went out to buy some.

“Now share it,” he said when he returned with the little bag.

Moments before the movie began, a few patrons shambled down the aisle, removed their raincoats, and dropped themselves into seats on the other side of the room. Nobody talked with each other. Maybe fifteen people had joined us by the time the lights dimmed. I took a handful of popcorn when Tommy passed the bag.

The moment Dad appeared on the screen, I clapped—twice I think, before realizing that I was clapping alone. Embarrassed, my head suddenly light, I looked about to see if anyone was glaring at me. This wasn’t a private screening or a premiere, where friends applauded the moment a colleague entered a scene or appeared in the credits. Nobody seemed to have heard me, perhaps because on the other side of the theater, someone was coughing.

The rat-bat made its appearance, all right, complete with fangs, claws, and drool, but rather than terrorizing, the creature looked as if it belonged in a cartoon drawn by an earthling of limited talent. The fact that the exteriors had been filmed through a red-tinted lens didn’t help either; it leeched away all realism.

Next, as my father and his crew rowed an inflatable raft across a lake, the giant blob of an amoeba emerged. Its surface looked like a blend of bubble bath and Jell-O. I would have laughed, except that by then I was engaged in the story. For a kid my age, the plot kept me going. I leaned forward and waited to see how my father would handle this crisis.

The amoeba didn’t stop at the shore. It was amphibious and it moved fast, forcing the group to run for their rocket, but as it gained on them, a wavy line materialized at the top of the screen. For a long moment it hung there, and then it began to jerk back and forth like a worm on a fishhook. Somehow a thread had become attached to the projector lens.

It wouldn’t let go. The theater remained quiet while the thread oscillated and wriggled, faster, slower, then faster again until it became impossible to ignore, no matter what the amoeba was about to do to my father. The thread upstaged man and monster, and, upset that nobody did anything about it, I looked away and focused on the dust that filled the projector beam. A second or two later my father started to fidget, and I sensed his anger building. Finally, Dad summoned an usher. “Go up there,” he whispered, “and tell them to get rid of that thread.” The man hurried off but at least another couple of minutes passed before the thread disappeared. By then, Dad and his crew had made it back to their rocket, but not before the amoeba had caught up to them and, moments after the hatch closed, enveloped the ship and started slowly dissolving the metal.

I offered Dad the popcorn bag. He gestured it away.

When the film ended, the little audience slipped away. Even the catchy instrumental that played under the credits failed to hold them. One by one, they donned their coats and filed out.

The car was quiet as Dad drove us home. We didn’t stop for ice cream. At one point during the ride, Mai let out a sigh. I became nervous. I wanted Dad to say something.

Into the silence, either Tommy or Timmy said, “The rat-bat was neat.”

My father’s reply, “That’s nice,” came out like a growl.

No one spoke after that. The silence unnerved me more than the movie had. I sat as still as possible, trying not to breathe the smoke from my father’s cigarette, and I listened to the steady thunk of the windshield wipers as the car skimmed through puddles in the street. At the time, I was sure my father was seething, ready to explode. Now I’m sure he was sad, ready to cry.

After Tommy and Timmy went to the bedroom they shared, Dad converted a living room couch into the bed where I always slept. Something was wrong with the heating, and a chill from the rain had forced its way into the house.

“Here,” he said, and over my pudgy body he draped a heavy, gray trench coat, the one he had worn while filming Foreign Intrigue (1955), the only television series in which he had starred, the last piece of work before his career had started its decline. “It still has my good lining in it,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant by the word “lining,” but I didn’t ask for a definition. I was just happy his mood had improved. With a few deft moves of his arms, he tucked me in and hugged me goodnight.

Once the light was out, I pulled his trench coat more tightly around me and replayed his movie through my mind, lingering over the amoeba with its single cyclopean eye that spun round and round, this time without a thread to interfere as it glided out of the lake and—I tried to recall if I actually had seen this on the screen—ever so lightly touched my father’s arm.

I wondered how Dad and I would spend our Sunday. And then, still swaddled in his coat, I fell asleep.