by: Jim Snowden
A chance encounter, an unconscionable racial bias, and a search for a craftsman to bring to life demonic creatures, all part of a series about the making of the fictitious 1969 Grade Z film-epic entitled Dope Dealers From Outer Space. A story that causes one to wonder who the real monsters in the world are…1
Emmitt didn’t like the noise his Dodge Lancer was making as he pulled it up to the curb. The vehicle made a teeth chattering rattle whenever Emmitt took it above fifty miles per hour or below twenty. Being stranded anywhere was miserable as hell, but being stranded in the lilywhite Redlands was the closest thing Emmitt could imagine to being stranded in Tupelo, Mississippi. He’d have rather met someone in L.A. to talk about building miniatures for his student project, but Molly swore that her Dad’s guy Marshall was the best.
Emmitt rechecked his map to make sure he was in the right place: 2217 East Tiger Tail Road. The name on the rusty, leaning mailbox read “Marshall.” The house up the driveway behind it was run down, with peeling paint and a gutter that sagged from the roofline. This was the house of the best? Emmitt pondered as he thought about leaving. He then reminded himself of the two hour drive he had back home, which would be considerably more miserable if he came home with nothing — not to mention how mad Molly would become for making this appointment for him only to have him burn it. So Emmitt stepped out of his car, absorbed the dirty look from the white lady driving down the road past him, went to the front door, and knocked.
The man who opened the door was tall, lean, and, apart from the most Spockian eyebrows Emmitt had seen on a human being, hairless. Even though this man was taller than Emmitt and potentially imposing, he seemed like he was trying to disappear inside his blue cotton-poly shirt and jeans, which looked at least two sizes too big for him. He peered at Emmitt from behind round bifocals. “If you’re Emmitt, come in.”
“Oh, good. Then come in.”
Emmitt stepped into the house. The front room was as immaculate as the house’s exterior was decrepit, making Emmitt wonder if the man who had answered the door ever went outside. The room was so clean it was uncontaminated by furniture, except for one folding chair. In the middle of the room was a pile of boxes, arranged in a cube, all marked “VIV.” Emmitt said, “You’re Marshall, right?”
The man stiffened, as if an unseen person had shuffled his feet on the carpet and zapped him. “Pardon? Oh, yes. I’m Marshall. Hello. Molly said you wanted to look at my creatures.”
“Come this way. My workshop’s in the back.”
Marshall started to lead Emmitt down a hallway. Emmitt asked, “Who’s Viv?”
“Is she on a trip?”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
Marshall pushed open a swinging door and they entered a kitchen that was cleaner than a hospital’s autoclave. He paused to take a cup off his coffee cup tree, “Coffee? I made some coffee.”
“Sure. Cream if you got it.”
Marshall put the cup down on the counter and poured out a cup from a carafe. “So you’re with Molly.”
“Yes.” Emmitt said, not sure how Marshall would feel about it.
“That’s something. It’s something to be with somebody.”
Marshall poured out the cream and handed Emmitt the cup. “You met Molly at school?”
“I met Viv at school as well. I don’t know what made her interested in me. I guess she isn’t anymore. That I can understand. How did you and Molly meet?”
“A friend of mine on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign set us up.”
“And you’ve met Peggy and Howard?”
“I’ve met Molly’s mom, but not her dad. Molly said that should wait.”
“I don’t see how waiting will make that any easier.”
“Me either, but that’s what she said. She and her mom don’t think her father’s ready yet.”
“Howard’s never going to be ready.”
“Maybe, but if you see him, don’t tell him, okay? They know him. I don’t, so I’m letting them reveal me in their own time.”
“I never tell anyone anything.”
“But you know him, right? Is he as bad as Molly says?”
“I don’t know. How bad does she say he is?”
“If Lester Maddox were a movie director.”
“I know who he is. I guess so, except I can’t imagine anyone electing Howard to be anything.”
Emmitt laughed at that. Marshall tried to join in but didn’t make it past a muffled chortle.
“It’s funny, you know,” Emmitt said. “When Molly and I started seeing each other, I was worried about my parents.”
“And what do they think of her?”
“They say they liked her fine. I think they’re wondering whether we’re going to last.”
“Do they like her fine?”
“That’s what they say to me.”
“People don’t always say what they’re really thinking, though, do they?”
“No. They don’t.”
“I mean, everyone’s feelings are more complicated than they admit. And at the same time most people are worried about everybody else’s feelings about them, right?”
“I suppose so.”
“Yeah. Knowing that isn’t helping me very much, though. Anyway, let’s take a look at some models.”
Emmitt picked up his coffee cup and followed Marshall to a back room that Emmitt wanted to get down on his knees and pray to. On the wall, on a big chalkboard, was a long series of mathematical equations leading to god knew what. On shelves were models, dozens of them. Model ships, model planes, a model Starship Enterprise, model skeletons, sasquatches, zombies, even a Cthulhu, all in super-spectacular detail with no hint of a brushstroke.
“Were all these from kits?”
“The models. Are they all from kits?”
“Just the Enterprise. I had the hardest time finding accurate blueprints for a scale model. Everything else is original. I mold the polystyrene in my garage.”
On a pegboard above the workbench hung every conceivable professional grade tool for miniature work. Emmitt had used some of them himself in classes, but not well. Marshall sat on the chair in front of his workbench, then decided to stand, then sat again. “I can do anything from full scale to 1/2500th. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, the short I’m doing is a zombie movie.”
“Like Night of the Living Dead?”
“Yes. Except there’ll be more of a racial element to it, a group of people fleeing the undead Klan and White Nationalist types, you know.”
“Yes. I’ve read about them.”
“Anyway, most of the zombies will just be people in makeup, but I want the leader of the zombies to be a kind of humanoid demon creature, so I’m thinking stop motion…”
“…like Ray Harryhausen.”
“Right. Just like him.”
“I love The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”
“And the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts. That’s what got me into this. His skeletons.”
“Well, I’m thinking of doing the same thing. You know, have a live actor in all white make the moves in front of the actors, then use your stop motion creature to match his actions.”
“Tricky. It’ll need articulated limbs that match a human, yet look convincingly demonic. Interesting. How much money can you devote to this?”
“How much do you need?”
“Is this a 16mm film or 8mm?”
“I’d say for the level of detail you’ll need, $500 would cover it.”
Emmitt saw his life flashing before his eyes. The budget he’d been given was $100. “Is there another way I could compensate you? I could help out around here…”
“I work best alone,” Marshall said. “I don’t like having people around when I’m creating.”
“I see. I don’t suppose you have a student rate?”
“I don’t, no.”
“How about if I paint your house?” Emmitt had never painted a house before, But how hard could it be?
“Why? I never look at that part.”
Emmitt supposed that this was one of the aspects of the business Professor Stark would be pleased to find out he’d learned. Surely, if Emmitt described to Professor Stark how awkward this moment felt, Stark would give him an A for that alone, right?
“Would you like some ice cream?” Marshall asked.
It was something to do anyway. “Sure. What kind do you have?”
“Mint chocolate chip.”
It wasn’t Emmitt’s favorite but he could eat it to be sociable, inasmuch as Marshall was sociable. He led Emmitt back into the kitchen. Taking a seat at a square table with a spongy, gillyflower print tablecloth, Emmitt waited while Marshall served. When Marshall was in mid-second scoop, the doorbell rang. Marshall cursed under his breath, finished his scoop, and handed Emmitt the bowl on his way to the front door.
While Emmitt tucked in, someone down the hall shook the walls with his booming voice, “Marshall, my man. I’ve got some fresh ideas.” Emmitt tried to ignore this, but the owner of the voice was getting closer, shouting out, “I know you said you have a firm grasp on what I want, but I just couldn’t help sketching out some new variations on the Dope Dealers’ robot bloodhound.”
With a wide swing, the kitchen door opened and Marshall and his friend walked in. As the door swung to and fro behind the two men, Emmitt dropped his spoon into the bowl. Something that wasn’t supposed to happen yet, something that Molly said couldn’t happen without further preparation, was happening right there, right now, on Marshall’s beige linoleum — because Marshall’s friend was Howard Zez, Molly’s stepfather. And though Emmitt wasn’t sure if Howard knew he was Molly’s boyfriend, the deepening, disgusted scowl on Howard’s face as he gazed upon Emmitt suggested that he’d be happier looking at a giant cockroach.
“Who is this?” Howard asked.
“He’s Molly’s friend. Emmitt,” Marshall said. “Emmitt, this is Howard.”
“That’s Mr. Zeleznick to you.”
“Okay. So you’re Molly’s father.”
What followed was a silence during which, to Emmitt’s surprise, no one left the room. Should I remark on how potent cheap music is? There’s none playing. Fate mocks me again. Why don’t I say something that could sound like a goodbye? “Well, glad to know you, sir.”
Howard was shaking like a volcano about to blow, but the only sound that puffed out of him was, “Okay.”
Was any scene in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner this awkward? Emmitt wondered. He didn’t think so. His older brother, Garrett, dated a white girl for a while, and he survived meeting her dad just fine. In fact, her dad was falling all over himself trying to be okay, talking about how many black soldiers he served with in France and how they were such great soldiers and he was proud and the whole thing sounded so funny. Emmitt would kill for a scene like that right now.
“Do you live in Redlands?” Howard asked.
“That’s where my daughter lives. Is that how you know her?”
“Yes. We’re both at USC.”
“You go to college?”
Oh, yes, massa sir. We does all them things now. Emmitt’s ability to swallow those two sentences before they popped out of his mouth told him that he must really love Molly.
“Do I go to college? Yes, I do, sir.”
“He’s studying film. He actually came to look at some models,” Marshall said, “Which is what we should be doing.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Howard said. “But listen here,” Howard grabbed a chair and sat down next to Emmitt. “Tell me something. You know my step-daughter well, right?”
“Yes. I think it’s fair to say that.”
“She likes your kind of people.”
“I believe she does, yes.”
“And you’re not one of those types who hate all white people, right?”
“I judge them on the content of their character.”
“Right. Right. Content of their character. That’s good.” Howard leaned in close enough that Emmitt could smell the relish from a hot dog he must’ve eaten. “I’ve got to know, because I’m very concerned.”
“Go on,” Emmitt said.
“She isn’t dating someone who isn’t right, is she?”
Emmitt needed time to work his way through the double negative to get Howard’s meaning. When Emmitt arrived there, he decided to pretend he didn’t follow. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean someone. I mean, you know what’s right, don’t you?”
“I like to think so.”
“She isn’t with anyone who she couldn’t bring home to her mother? That’s what I’m asking.”
“Is her mother concerned about something?”
“Well, she’s — I’m just looking out for her. We have a reputation in this town, you know? She’s got to live here. I do too. You understand?”
Howard rolled his eyes. Sweat beaded on his brow. Marshall stood behind him looking for all the world like a man on Jeopardy trying desperately to remember who won the 1963 Cy Young Award.
“Let me put it plainly. Is she doing what Sammy Davis Junior’s doing?”
“Playing at the Frontier Casino?”
“No. Something wrong, dating-wise, like Sammy Davis Junior is doing?”
“No, of course not.”
The tension dropped out of Howard’s shoulders. “Thank god. I really was concerned.”
“You shouldn’t be. I’m close to Molly and would know if she’s into anything seedy. Rest assured that Molly is not married to a Swedish actress, and she certainly isn’t having an affair with Lola Falana.”
Marshall’s hand rose to cover his mouth, and he quivered with the effort to contain his laughter. Howard’s face reddened, “Are you mocking me, boy?”
Boy. Okay. There it was. Howard’s red skin made Emmitt wonder about how much further Molly’s step-dad was willing to go with this. Emmitt would hate for any blood, particularly his own, to stain Marshall’s maniacally clean kitchen, but there was no way he was simply going to back down just because a stupid old white man was pissed off.
“That’s right, mister.” Emmitt said. “I’m mocking you. If you want we can smack each other across the face like In The Heat of the Night, or you can go with Marshall and look at what he made for you and I can go. Up to you.”
Marshall put his hand on Howard’s shoulder, “Let’s go.”
Howard’s eyes remained locked with Emmitt’s as he rose from his chair. He stomped past Emmitt to the work room door. Marshall followed him. Once Howard was safely in, Marshall looked back at Emmitt and mouthed words that looked like “Stay here” before going in and shutting the door behind him.
Emmitt sat quietly, squinting against the increasing brightness of the sun in the kitchen. Every surface in the room reflected it. How did Marshall keep things so clean? Emmitt lived with Molly and two others and their kitchen usually looked like like a disaster.
Emmitt took his empty ice cream dish to the sink and poured water into it. He hoped Marshall had mouthed “Stay here” because if he hadn’t, his sticking around would feel extra awkward and embarrassing. He plucked a jelly glass from the cabinet and poured himself some water. The water coming out of the tap didn’t look too good, and smelled a little strange.
When Emmitt’s glass was empty and he was thinking about maybe leaving, he heard voices and steps in the hallway. Howard and Marshall bypassed the kitchen. The front door opened and shut, and before long, Marshall pushed his way through the swinging door. “Good, I’m glad you waited.”
“I didn’t really have anywhere to go. It’s a long drive home and I’m not looking forward to it.”
“I see. We still have to talk about the creatures you need.”
“I can’t afford you.”
“Sure you can.”
“I triple-charged Howard. I usually double-charge him because I don’t like him, but I do like you, and Molly, and you and Molly, and I want to have hope for somebody, so I made him play your bill too.” Marshall’s lips turned upward slightly, which was probably as close as he could get to an ear-to-ear, Cheshire Cat grin. “So let’s talk mythological or historical antecedents for your demon Ku Klux zombie master.”
Emmitt, refilling his water glass and feeling at ease for the first time all day, said, “Yes. Let’s.”