Movies at the Madhouse

I did my early growing up in Minnesota. Faribault was the boogieman-place of my childhood; it housed for many years an asylum, which was where my uncle went to dry out. My memory of the day we went to visit him there was always vivid, but I never knew what to do with it or what I wanted to say about it until I heard the story of Lugosi’s final days and the filming of Plan 9, and watching it with my uncle came flooding back.

Movies at the Madhouse

When no one called drinking a disease
Or gave it its own place to go,
I visited my uncle at Faribault.
I might have been six, or eight.
It was Movie Day in the gymnasium,
Like a hundred films I’d seen in school.
The white pull-down screen rattled back up the first three pulls,
And a giggle washed over the room.
The projector popped and clacked, flicking over cels.
We sat in the heat of closely-packed bodies
And watched Bela Lugosi and badly-costumed aliens
Taking over some California subdivision.

Lugosi was dying when Plan 9 From Outer Space
was being filmed, morphine sitting heavier on
his shoulders than his famous cape. His scenes
were mostly done by a double, a cape of his own
covering the face to the eyes.


I didn’t know my uncle drank until after he died,
So I wasn’t sure what any of us were doing
In a place I knew only from childish threats and jokes.
Holding my uncle’s hand in the dark, I listened to people laughing
At a movie that wasn’t funny, even to a child.

Lugosi died less than six months after the movie was
wrapped. He asked to be buried in his cape. Easy
to imagine he’s making better use of it now than in
his last film, part of every “worst of” collection
ever put together.


My uncle was released not long after our visit.
At that age, I thought it meant he was put back together.
He died young.
I don’t remember a burial, if I was even allowed to go.
Easier still, then, to imagine him right next to me,
Irish-orange hair fringed in screen-glow,
Smiling down at me from his long-boned height,
Squeezing my fingers a little tighter,
Maybe wondering with me what there was to laugh at.

1987

(photo: movie still)

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