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First time I saw the movie? Gosh, I must have been thirteen. It was right before the video store closed, I remember that, and Peg’s mom drove us to rent a film, since we’d seen the ones she owned over and over until we were saying the lines right along with the characters. Peg’s mom even said she’d let us get one rated R as long it wasn’t too bad, and the possibilities were such we didn’t know where to start. It seemed like we’d walked into an archive where every movie was stored.
Peg came up with the idea. She told me to go up to a wall of movies, close my eyes, and pick one. I squeezed my eyes tight and dragged my hand all along the DVD cases and finally I dug my fingers into the space between two and dragged a movie out. It was called City, just that, City, and had the face of a girl on the cover, with red hair falling around her shoulders and huge brown eyes staring at the camera, daring them to take the pictures. All around her were the small faces of good-looking men. Few of them looked at the camera but they all acknowledged it in some way, whether it was holding up a hand or walking towards it or pointing an umbrella at it. There was one man looking right out, staring me in the eye, as handsome as you can imagine with slick black hair and gray eyes. He was sort of smiling, teasing. He might have been the reason we rented the movie.
But he’s not important. The guy next to him, with blonde curls who was walking the opposite direction, away from the camera. He was the important one. He was Frank.
We watched the movie in Peg’s living room, perched on her couch drinking apple juice and munching buttered popcorn. Now usually we talk during movies, or faze out, or leave to pee or get more snacks, but this time we watched it all the way through and when the credits rolled we just looked at each other like the people of the Academy must do when they find a Oscar winner.
The thing about City is it doesn’t make any sense. It’s about a girl called Magdalen who lives on a penthouse the size of a village with more towers sticking out of it. There’s all these people who fall in love with her because she’s the only one who can leave the penthouse and go down to the real city below and when Magdalen finally leaves, she can only take one person with her. The men and women do crazy things to impress Magdalen; they walk on stilts, they climb the towers, they make wings out of computer parts, they paint her a portrait that dances, they light themselves on fire yet survive unscathed. But Magdalen is only impressed by this little boy who sings her a tuneless, off-key song about the city below so she decides to take him with her. She leads the little boy to the edge of the balcony, takes out a silver gun that shines in the moonlight and she shoots him in the head and pushes his body off the balcony. The boy’s parents run at Magdalen but she just calmly steps off the roof and disappears into the fog.
We watched the movie at least once a week and every time we’d notice something that we missed. One of Magdalen’s suitors, or an expression on someone’s face, or an advertisement on a tower, that we thought brought us closer and closer to the meaning. While we were watching this movie again and again the video store closed, so we never paid our fines or returned it. The only fight Peg and I ever had was over who would get to take the movie home, and finally we just made a copy on her computer. It’s illegal but we couldn’t find any more copies of the film. We googled its name, the actor, the writer, the director, even the best grip, and came up with nothing. Seriously, the movie was rarer than first edition copies of Oliver Twist because at least those exist somewhere, right. This movie didn’t. This movie was made in 1978, it was rated PG-13 for language, violence, and thematic elements, and it’s described on the back simply as, ‘a quirky award-winning film directed by Ken Franklin about the motivations of love, the secrets of sorrow, and the truth of wishes.’ It’s like it was written for the wrong movie because in less it won the Darwin Award for Most Nonexistent Film, it’s won squat.
If you hung with us in high school or eighth grade you saw that movie, and not just once but seven times. You know how most movies you get bored with after a while? Well, not City. Everyone wanted to see it and everyone had their own theories. Sukie reckoned the penthouse was heaven, and Magdalen and the nameless boy were angels, while Brenda thought they were in Hell. Clyde thought they were prisoners on an alien planet, and this was the Martian form of punishment and parole. Roger insisted that they were a futuristic Amish community; Clare thought they were a government experiment, and Chloe was sure the film was a fable of how the human race was created. Me, I think they’re a warning, because if we build our buildings too high we might never be able to get down. But I saw that movie more than anyone and I stared at the DVD case and, after all, I found it in the first place. So it was my right to notice what the greatest discovery of all was.
All those pretty boys on the cover didn’t show up in the film. Everyone except for Magdalen was pretty plain looking. But the blonde man, the one walking away, he’s there. I get why they don’t show his face on the cover; he’s got a head like a zucchini and features to match. He shows up a lot, looking out windows, doing murals on the concrete, just standing in crowds, but while every other nonexistent soul has their name on the credits as ‘Baker’ or ‘Sidewalk Cleaner,’ or ‘Little Boy,’ the blonde man doesn’t show up at all. He’s the nobody among the nobodies.
We were watching some cheesy werewolf movie Peg downloaded off Netflix when we found out his name. When the werewolf’s girlfriend is smoking out behind the restroom she talks to him, the blonde man I mean. He says his name is Frank, and lets her use his lighter and then just walks off, smooth and suave. The scene doesn’t serve any purpose and Frank’s not in the credits either. But after a while we realized, he was just about everywhere else. We watched a romance where he’s the lady’s ex, a high school movie where he’s the custodian, a horror movie where he drives a taxi, a comedy where he walks by a guy getting locked out of his car, an action movie where he gives directions, an old drama where he sells magazines, a sci-fi thriller where he rides a bicycle past the alien’s hideout and nods his head at the soon-to-be-victim. But never is he important or shows up in more than one scene. All these movies, some of them forty years apart. Different directors and producers and companies, different writers and actors. And he never shows up in the press releases or credits or screenshots. Once we saw a musical in the cinema where Frank walks past the leading man while he sings in front of a café and Peg and I stood up and cheered. We almost got kicked out too.
I noticed, eventually, after watching City for the thirtieth time, that Frank does have dialogue. He walks past the little boy while he’s playing hopscotch and shakes a broom at him. “Go home, Frank,” he says. Frank says. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if everyone Franks talks too, or the person he looks at or looks at him the most, died in the movie. But no, that’s too cool to be true. Only some of them do.
But bad stuff happens to the rest of them. They crash their car, or get their heart broken, or get evicted. They’re the losers, as if that’s Frank saying “You can’t tell anyone I’m here.” And there’s that little kid in City and he’s called Frank too, that little kid with blonde hair and a funny shaped head. But he’s cute, that kid. That’s why we scream when he dies.
But maybe that’s not so weird after all. Maybe this Frank fellow does bit parts in movies and doesn’t want any credit, just likes being mysterious. And I thought, yeah, of course, not creepy at all. Until I read one Chloe’s supernatural romance and the waiter’s named Frank and matches the description. So there’ve been zucchini faced Franks in all sorts of books, books about love and war and school and zombies and evil cars and vampires and witches and death and drugs and the apocalypse. There’s always Frank. He’s everywhere.
But I didn’t meet him till last week. Peg showed up at my house all wide eyed. I’d only just gotten home and was hanging up my apron and she came in all white faced and dinner plate eyed. “He’s real, Kaye,” she said.
“Frank!” she hissed at me. “He sat next to me in the coffee shop.”
I thought she was kidding and laughed. Maybe that was a nasty thing to do but how could he be here of all places. Here when he isn’t even real. I told myself that and I told Peg that as I made her a cup of coffee and sent her on her way. On her way home she stopped at the bank where a man in a ski mask came in with a gun and asked for money. Peg reached for her cell phone to call the cops and she was shot in the shoulder.
So yeah, I believed her then. And I came here, to the coffee shop. Where else could I go? And I saw him there, Frank. Is that your name or just a nickname you’ve taken on? There are so many things I want to ask you. Was it really you in all those movies? What’s the deal with City? What does that movie mean? Why are you always the same age? How did you show up in those books? How do you make the bad things happen? And all this talking, I know too much, don’t I. I’m next and I’m not going to survive. I might die somehow as soon as I stand up from this table. You’re not used to taking a leading role, are you Frank?
Who are you? I guess…well if you’re showing up then I’m in a movie aren’t I? Or a book, I won’t forget those. Funny, I always thought my life would make dull story. Except for you Frank, you were the mystery. Am I afraid? No, no I’ve spent half my life trying to figure you out and what you meant. I’m sure not afraid now that I’ve caught you.