We get so many manuscripts sent to Eckhartz Press, that we literally don’t have enough time in the day/week/year to read them all. It’s a rare manuscript that gets and steals my attention from the very beginning. When the manuscript of “Safe Inside” reached my desk, it immediately jumped off the page to me. This beautifully written story is complex and serious, and it’s so vivid, it’s like taking a trip in a time machine to 1940s Chicago. I know I don’t do it justice, so here’s an example of what I mean. In this excerpt, the lead character, a little boy named “Shorty”, takes the reader inside the beautiful Avalon movie palace on Chicago’s south side….
All traces of 79th Street, indeed, of America itself, fell away as they pushed into the outer lobby. Such was the power of this small room to suggest what awaited them. Crammed with extraordinary shapes and oddly painted tiles, it did not contain a familiar sight from one end to the other. It was nothing compared to the extravagance of the vast main lobby they were about to enter, which, in turn, paled in comparison with the staggering auditorium itself. Still, he knew it served an important function of its own, like the decompression chamber he had seen in a newsreel about submarines. Without this little room, you would step unprepared from the street to the main lobby and lose all reason. At least he felt he would.
A few steps ahead of them rose an array of golden doors, each hollowed out to frame its own tall window in a shape that suggested to Shorty a caped palace guard in a pointed hood. They had only to choose one to enter and present their tickets, but this was not a space to be hurried through.
Unsurprised, his mother let him crisscross the room, drawing her to the gallery of coming attractions that hung about the sidewalls. On the right, below the sign “Friday for One Week,” was a large poster for Anchors Aweigh. The grinning faces of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in sailor hats flanked Kathryn Grayson in a high white headdress, pursing her mouth into a pretty, smiling heart. “That looks good,”, he said aloud. He could tell that the people who ran the Avalon expected it to be popular because in the adjoining glass case was not a poster, but a plain white sheet lettered “Added Feature”: Hollywood Caravan, whatever that was. Clearly, it was so short, or so crummy, that nobody bothered to make a poster of it. Shorty was annoyed. Movies (except when they first came out downtown) were meant to be seen in pairs, setting each other off.
The left wall, thankfully, presented the rightful order of things. Under the words “Week After Next”, two posters in starkly contrasting moods confronted each other. Striding toward you from the Pride of the Marines poster were John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, and Dane Clark. Arm in arm and smiling their faces off, they looked like they were at the head of a victory parade because they had just won the war triple handedly. It looked too cheerful to be a war movie, and the lettering bragged that it was an inspiring true story, something that Shorty did not automatically consider a recommendation. No, this one could be skipped without pain. The second poster made him reconsider. It too showed three figures, but what a difference. George Sanders, who could usually be counted on to be in movies where people were up to no good, stood looking grim and troubled. At his feet, looking up with her arms around his legs, was Ella Raines. What was going on here? To make things even more interesting, a big Geraldine Fitzgerald was leaning back and looking like when she was through causing trouble for them, she might start in on you. The very title drew him in: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. For Shorty, “strange” was a spicy seasoning, certain to improve the flavor of whatever was being offered. The lettering heightened his enthusiasm. “The shocking play that stunned Broadway!” If “strange” was good, “shocking” was even better, and “stunned”! He had to see it. He hid his excitement from his mother. They wouldn’t take him to this blindfolded unless he could think up a truly clever plan.
“Okay, Momma, let’s go in.”
As they neared a door, a uniformed arm on the other side drew it open for them, and once again, he felt pitched headlong into a kaleidoscope, beset from top to bottom and on all sides with dense layers of elaborate and richly colored designs that had no counterpart in the rest of his universe. No inch of this immense hall had been left undecorated. Nowhere could Shorty’s eye escape, or penetrate the mysterious plan of the architect. Only in the sheer size and openness of this spectacular lobby was mercy to be found. In a smaller room, he could imagine such visual intensity driving people to cry out or flee.
The gentle splashing of a fountain drew his eyes to a tiled pool on their left. He felt his mother slipping the ticket stubs into his pocket, and they began to move easily across the length of a shimmering marble floor so reflective that its farthest edges seemed to lie under a thin film of water. On a weekend night, their swift progress would have been impossible. Then, they would have stood penned in long lanes, inching ahead only when an usher would emerge from the auditorium, unhook the velvet restraining rope at the front of one of the lanes, and call out “Two together on aisle four in the balcony,” or whatever location had just been vacated. If you were at the head of the lane and the seats sounded good, or you were just tired of waiting, you would follow him through the dark as he shined his flashlight on the floor and led you to the exact spot.
Even though they had just finished supper, his mother would know that he would want popcorn for his “separate popcorn stomach” as she called it. In their current circumstances, however, he wasn’t sure it was right to ask. Shorty kept silent as they passed the silver machine whose eruptions filled the glass case with popcorn enough for the Blue Leopard to dive into and splash around. “Wait right here for me, Shorty.” Parking him at a marble bench, she descended one of the wide, twisting staircases that led to the restrooms.
The sleek black and white bathrooms in the Avalon, and the lounges that surrounded them, were the worst places in the world for someone like his mother, given to chronic lolligagging, to be turned loose. Even a speedy washroom visitor would find interesting distractions there, like the pond with the jumbo goldfishes, the fountains, or the writing room. If you were watching a movie and suddenly realized you needed to write a letter, or send a secret message, you could do it here. A writing desk with pens, ink, envelopes, and special stationery waited for you, though he had never observed anyone using them. The management of the Avalon thought of everything! Luckily, for some reason, his mother never kept him waiting as long here as she did most places. Or if she did, he didn’t notice; there was too much to see, and he would never be done examining it.
So few people were walking around in the lobby that, for once, he could get a really good look at the floor. It didn’t seem like a floor at all, and it was certainly too pretty to be walked on. Tonight it looked to Shorty more like a giant board game, backgammon maybe, if people from another planet had designed it. His eyes rode the patterns to the far edge of the floor and moved upward. A dark border of busily splashed marble as high as his waist, and inset with squares and rectangles of contrasting colors, ran the length of the hall. Here and there, the wall receded and the border became a bench with room enough for him to scoot back and sit among the tall columns that rose from it to support stone walls bursting with carved and painted images that might be flowers, but weren’t exactly. Cut into these walls were rows of the pointy hooded arches. Behind the pillars and under the arches were painted scenes of Arabians lounging about in an oasis or at a bazaar. Shorty could even see a naked lady from the back. She was stretched out relaxing and none of the Arabians were paying any attention to her. Enclosing each of these areas were borders studded with jewels as big as your fist. In between, and up above were jutting balconies and wonderful tall windows screened by stone arches with holes cut into them and so many curves and scrolls and zigzags that it made his head spin. If this was what Arabia was truly like, he would move there in a minute and say goodbye to everything he knew.
His head leaned back against a pillar and his eyes reached the ceiling. A gigantic oriental rug of stone spread out upon an even larger and more complicated stone carpet. This should have been the floor. It was though he were hanging upside down. He blinked his eyes but still felt dizzy.
“Are you ready?”
Through a side door, he followed his mother into the darkness.
He could make out only a few empty seats, no two of them together. The audience was completely silent. One of the pictures was already in progress. He knew it was Christmas in Connecticut because there was snow and no soldiers. People were inside a wonderful home with a fireplace so huge you could stand up in it, and the biggest window he had ever seen . It took up most of the wall and looked like they put about a dozen normal windows together. This was going to be a great house, and he couldn’t wait to see the rest of it. The music, too, let him know that this couldn’t be Back to Bataan. That was RKO, and this was definitely Warner Brothers music. In a Warner Brothers movie, the music didn’t leave any empty spaces. It was louder and ran all over the place helping you figure out what the characters were really up to, and what was going to happen later on.
“Shorty,” his mother whispered and tugged at his sleeve. It was always a big mistake for him to look at the screen before he got to his seat.
When they’d settled in, he looked back up and the softest of sounds escaped his lips. “Ohh….” It was his first glimpse of Barbara Stanwyck. He had seen her photograph, and heard her voice on the radio, but here she was, twenty feet tall, moving about in front of him, wearing a checked aprony sort of dress with white sleeves and collar, her long dark hair bouncing around her shoulders, and looking – well, absolutely perfect. She was so pretty, but friendly, and kind of flirty. She seemed to be keeping a really good joke to herself, but at the same time, you knew she needed your help, and you wanted to give it. Her smile would make a cat purr, and at the moment he was feeling very catlike. There were some people you wanted to get to know the moment you saw them, and she was certainly one.
The help she needed involved flapjacks or “flip flops” as S.Z. Sakall, in a tall chef’s hat, kept calling them. For some reason, which would be made clear when they saw the beginning of the movie, it was very important that she flip a pancake for Sidney Greenstreet; otherwise, he would find out that everybody had been telling him a pack of lies, and terrible things would happen. But she couldn’t do it, not even with S. Z. Sakall helping her practice, and telling her how easy it was. It certainly didn’t look easy, and she was making a terrible mess of the kitchen, flipping them on the stove, on the ceiling, and just about everywhere except the frying pan where they were supposed to go. Finally, Sidney Greenstreet arrived for the flap jack showdown, and Barbara Stanwyck tried all kinds of feeble excuses to get out of it, but nothing would work. Shorty wished he could be with her in the kitchen to try to help her out, but he knew he couldn’t think of anything either. With a hopeless shrug she picked up the frying pan, closed her eyes, and flipped. Shorty couldn’t stand it when people made fools of themselves in public, and he squirmed in his seat looking at the screen though the fingers of his right hand. But then, an amazing thing happened: the pancake came down out of the air and landed exactly where it was supposed to. People in the audience laughed, and some of them clapped. They were as relieved as he was. He felt glad to be part of this mass reaction. It was so good not to be peculiar for a little while, and here in the dark he was just like everybody else. It was a feeling he longed to carry back outside with him, but he knew it would evaporate before he could reach the sidewalk.
Safe Inside is available fo pre-order now at Eckhartz Press. It ships in early September.